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Jimmie Johnson’s Cup return provides special thrill to younger drivers

Parker Kligerman celebrates NASCAR's upcoming 75th anniversary season with a historical look at two of the sport's iconic tracks - Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway.

Harrison Burton admits there was a time when he was not a fan of Jimmie Johnson.

“I always hated Jimmie Johnson when I was a little kid because he would win all the races I wanted my dad to win and win the championships that, my dad, I wanted him to win,” Harrison Burton, son of Jeff Burton, told NBC Sports.

“So, I have to beat him to avenge my dad, right?”

Harrison Burton is one of a handful of Cup drivers who have never raced against Johnson in NASCAR’s premier series. That will change this year with the seven-time champion returning to Cup for the first time since 2020 to run select events. Burton says he is looking forward to racing Johnson.

“It’s really cool for a young guy like me to race someone that has won seven championships in our sport,” Burton said. “When you first get into Cup, that’s not even like a thought in your brain that I want to win seven championships one day. You just want to win your first race.”

Johnson has raced against 270 drivers in his Cup career, which began Oct. 7, 2001, at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Once he competes against Harrison Burton and Todd Gilliland this season, Johnson will have driven against 12 sets of fathers and sons in Cup, a list that includes Jarretts (Dale and Jason), Elliotts (Bill and Chase) and Earnhardts (Kerry and Jeffrey).

Johnson also has raced 12 sets of brothers in Cup, including Terry and Bobby Labonte, Kurt and Kyle Busch and Brad and Brian Keselowski.

Johnson’s connection to the history of the sport is even deeper. He’s competed against 12 NASCAR Hall of Famers. Johnson also has raced in Cup against four Indianapolis 500 winners and seven drivers who competed in Formula One.

Gilliland, the son of David Gilliland, can’t wait for the opportunity to race Johnson, which could come in Sunday’s Daytona 500 — provided Johnson secures one of the four spots for non-chartered cars.

“I think racing against Jimmie Johnson, that will probably be one of the coolest things I’m ever going to get to do in racing,” Todd Gilliland told NBC Sports.

“Growing up around the sport, I was watching in the 2000s era and he was the guy. He was literally dominating every single year. I was definitely a fan of him.”

One moment stands out most to Gilliland about Johnson. Gilliland, who was racing in what was then known as the K&N Pro Series West, was walking with his father at Daytona when they came across Johnson.

“‘Man, you’ve been doing good Todd,’” Gilliland recalls Johnson telling him.

“I was like, ‘You know my name’ or something like that. I was just amazed at how nice he was. I’m definitely hoping to get to race against him.”

Among those who have yet to race against Johnson are last year’s Daytona 500 winner Austin Cindric, Chase Briscoe and rookies Ty Gibbs and Noah Gragson, who is a teammate to Johnson at Legacy Motor Club.

Cindric has gotten to know Johnson through the times they’ve raced go-karts. He looks forward to racing the driver he considers the greatest in the NASCAR.

“I think Jimmie Johnson is the greatest of all time because of the format changes, the car changes and the dominance in such a short amount of time, winning all those races,” Cindric told NBC Sports.

Cindric doesn’t just want to share the track with Johnson, though. He wants to race him.

“I want to see how he handles himself in those types of situations,” Cindric said. “It’s going to be new for him, racing the Next Gen car. He spent the last couple of years at a pretty steep learning curve in IndyCar and I have a lot of respect for that. Looking forward to it. Hopefully, we can trade some paint.”

Gragson has the opportunity to race against Johnson as a fellow competitor but also see how Johnson does things as a teammate.

“It’s going to be an incredible opportunity for a young guy like myself … a rookie to be able to lean on a seven-time champion,” Gragson told NBC Sports. “Incredible person, friend, mentor that Jimmie has become to myself.

“He’s probably going to be pretty over me by the time we get to the Daytona 500 because I just keep wearing him out with questions and trying to pick his brain.”