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Monday November 28th, 2022 7:21AM

Johnson returns to NASCAR as part-owner, driver at Petty GMS

By Jenna Fryer-AP Auto Racing Writer
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AVONDALE, Ariz. (AP) — Jimmie Johnson's NASCAR retirement and IndyCar experiment lasted all of two seasons.

The seven-time NASCAR champion is returning in 2023 to the series that made him a global motorsports star as the part-owner of Petty GMS. He'll also enter about five Cup races.

Johnson told The Associated Press that his first race will be the season-opening Daytona 500, where he's a two-time winner.

“I've had a watchful eye on the ownership part and what's happening with NASCAR, and the opportunity that I have here, the business structure and the model with NASCAR charters is just so different from than anything else in motorsports,” Johnson told the AP. "I want to be part of it. We certainly watched Michael Jordan join, what the Trackhouse Racing folks have done, and there's all these rumors of people who want to get into the sport.

“I'm honored and thankful that I'm going to be part of it.”

His car number and sponsors — and maybe even the current Petty GMS name — are all a work in progress for Johnson, who turned 47 in September.

On his bucket list are the Coca-Cola 600, a race he's won four times, and he'd love if NASCAR made him eligible for the 2023 All-Star race at North Wilkesboro Speedway in North Carolina.

Johnson also said he still wants to do “The Double” of the Indianapolis 500 and Coke 600 on the same day, but he's on hold as Chip Ganassi shapes the organization Johnson left after two seasons. But, even if an Indy 500 ride materializes, the All-Star race would conflict with Indy 500 qualifying. And, he's now part owner of a Chevrolet team, so that would theoretically prevent him from racing with Ganassi, a Honda team.

Johnson made his Indy 500 debut in May and although he proved decent on the IndyCar ovals — he skipped them his first season — the road and street courses were a struggle and he admitted to being burned out at the end of the full season. He said he'd step back from full-time racing and was eyeing a bucket list of about 10 events, most likely including the 24 Hours of Le Mans as a NASCAR representative.

When he came to that late-September decision to step away, Johnson insisted he had no idea what he wanted to do next.

It took about six weeks for Johnson to get back into NASCAR through conversations initiated by the management firm shared by Johnson and Erik Jones, the Petty GMS driver he just inherited.

Johnson said he had no talks with Hendrick Motorsports about ownership opportunities as the GMS deal came together out of the blue. He told the AP alerted Rick Hendrick and Jeff Gordon of his plans. Johnson drove 20 years for Hendrick and won 83 Cup races in the No. 48 Chevrolet.

“This is a tremendous day for our sport. Jimmie is one of the all-time great champions on the racetrack, and I know he’ll apply the same mentality to his role as a team owner," Hendrick said in a statement. "... Seeing Jimmie in a firesuit with his name on the roof of a Chevrolet at the Daytona 500 is going to be very special for a lot of people. Competing against him will certainly be a change, and a big challenge, but we welcome his return to NASCAR and look forward to the next chapter of a truly remarkable career.”

Johnson's seven championships ties him with Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt, both Hall of Famers. He made his announcement with GMS founder Maury Gallagher on Friday at Phoenix Raceway, where he retired from NASCAR after the 2020 season finale. The Hendrick Motorsports torch was passed that day when Chase Elliott won the Cup title — Johnson finished fifth, best of the non-title contenders — and Johnson began chasing his IndyCar dream. He had not been to a NASCAR race since that 2020 finale.

Now he wants back in and with a bigger piece of the action. He gets it with Petty GMS, an upstart two-car team funded by Gallagher, chairman of Allegiant Air, and fronted by Petty.

Jones in September gave “The King” his 200th win in the famed No. 43 car, and before this deal was struck, the team had already decided to dump Ty Dillon for firebrand Noah Gragson next season.

The speed in which the deal was completed was astonishing to both Gallagher and Johnson, and Gallagher told the AP that Johnson, like Brad Keselowski at RFK Racing, financially purchased his stake in the team and won’t be a figurehead.

“Jimmie is just a tremendous guy and in my older age, I value relationships as much as anything,” Gallagher told the AP. “I’m more of a background guy. I want Jimmie and Richard to be the faces of the organization, help on the economics and the operations is just a big bonus."

GMS has in about a decade has grown from a Truck Series team into a first-year Cup organization that acquired Richard Petty Motorsports and its 85-year-old Hall of Fame namesake. Even though Jones has been competitive and won at Darlington, it didn’t qualify for the playoffs and Gallagher said GMS has been overshadowed by Justin Marks, who in his second season as owner of Trackhouse Racing has driver Ross Chastain in Sunday’s championship race.

WDUN will carry live MRN Radio coverage of the NASCAR Championship Weekend at Phoenix Raceway, beginning with Saturday's NASCAR Xfinity Series season finale at 5:30 pm on 102.9 FM, AM 550 and streaming live on AccessWDUN.  Coverage continues on Sunday with the NASCAR Cup Series season finale at 2 pm on 102.9 FM and streaming live on AccessWDUN.

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