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Daytona 500 win is Jimmie Johnson’s focus after making field

Nate Ryan harkens back to the first NASCAR race that was broadcast in full, and a snowstorm that created a captive audience for Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough's Daytona fight.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Now that he’s secured a spot in Sunday’s Daytona 500, the focus for seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson turns to winning NASCAR’s biggest race after two years away from the series.

Johnson and Travis Pastrana were the fastest among the six non-chartered cars in Wednesday’s qualifying session and they both earned a starting spot in the 500. This will be Johnson’s 20th Daytona 500 start.

Alex Bowman won the pole for the Daytona 500. He’ll be joined on the front row by Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kyle Larson. Johnson qualified 23rd. Pastrana qualified 25th.

MORE: Jimmie Johnson’s return provides thrill to younger drivers

Johnson wasn’t confident his lap would be good enough to secure a spot in the 500 when he was on track.

“When I pulled it into fifth gear ... the RPMs dropped really far,” Johnson said of his qualifying lap. “I didn’t know that was normal. So the entire lap I made a run, I thought something was potentially wrong with the car. RPM was really low. It didn’t feel very fast.

“Once I crossed the finish line, I heard it was a good lap. It was stressful out there. More stressful than I intended it to be.”
Without that behind him, Johnson wants to be more than a participant in the opening points race of NASCAR’s 75th anniversary season.

“I think I really have a shot to win,” Johnson, a two-time Daytona 500 champion, said a few hours before qualifying. “If I survive and get through the two stages, there’s really a shot I have to win this race.”

If so, it would end a 10-year winless drought at Daytona. Three of Johnson’s 83 career victories have come at this track, but he last won here in 2013.

Johnson, 47, spent the past two years in IndyCar and running a few sports car races. The new co-owner of Legacy Motor Club, will run select Cup races this season. But can the owner/driver win in his first race back?

“Sure there is a lot of change with the car, but the race itself is maybe 25% different than it was before,” Johnson said, comparing what the racing is like at Daytona compared to when he last drove in this event in 2020.

“If you go to a street course, road course, oval, different oval, non-plate track, it’s 100% different. The fundamentals of the draft, I think, outweigh the mechanical differences in the vehicle. So working the draft, working the lanes, a big part of that is always going tobe regardless of the car.”

Although Johnson has won as many championships as both Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, that won’t mean that the rest of the field will defer to Johnson in Sunday’s race when he makes moves.

“In the draft, you’re really playing a numbers game and you’re more worried about which lane has energy and momentum in it,” he said. “You kind of lose sight of who you’re around.

“I think come the end of the stages and the end of the race, that dynamic changes. I’ll probably get used up in those situations. I guess I should be aware of that.”

But he sees a way to avoid that.

“I think if you’re showing progress, you don’t give people a choice but to follow you,” he said. “That’s kind of the philosophy I had when I was a regular. I didn’t care who it was, if they were going forward, I was going to jump in behind them and go.”

With Johnson and Pastrana securing spots in the Daytona 500, Zane Smith, Austin Hill, Chandler Smith and Conor Daly will vie for the last two spots in the Daytona 500 for non-chartered cars in Thursday’s qualifying races. Pastrana, driving for 23XI Racing, will be making his first career Cup start.