What’s next for Jimmie Johnson in his return to NASCAR? Questions, answers and analysis
AVONDALE, Arizona – Jimmie Johnson entered into NASCAR team ownership Friday, but it wasn’t the first opportunity he had to have a stake in a Cup Series organization.
If he had chosen the path earlier, the seven-time Cup Series champion believes he could have been working alongside Jeff Gordon in Hendrick Motorsports management.
During the early rounds in one of his contract renewals with Rick Hendrick, Johnson said the team owner floated the idea of a “lifetime” deal similar to Gordon, who transitioned into Hendrick Motorsports’ chief operating officer role after becoming a minority partner of the team during his career.
“Rick was like, ‘Look, I’m willing to be creative if you want to be,’ and I just didn’t know what I wanted,” Johnson told NBC Sports after his news conference Friday at Phoenix Raceway to announce his new role at Petty GMS Racing. “Man, the old system just didn’t seem to make sense, and I chose to not take ownership in the team. And then when the charters came along, I was like maybe I should have.
“You look at where the charter value is now, and you’re like, ‘Damn it!’ But you would have had to have the crystal ball.”
Since being introduced in 2016, the prices have mushroomed for buying into the charter system that established guaranteed value for 36 Cup teams in a de-facto franchise system. Four years ago, they reportedly were selling for $3-5 million apiece. Now with NASCAR on the cusp of a new TV rights deal in 2025, and with the charter contract due for a renewal next year that could mean a restructuring with more team revenue, the going rate for a charter now is estimated to be $20-30 million.
Johnson said it’s changed his perspective on NASCAR team equity.
“Mine and many others out there,” he said. “There is a footrace of interested buyers that want to get in the sport and be a part of it.”
But his change of heart about becoming a team owner is more than just transactional.
Over the past two IndyCar seasons with Chip Ganassi Racing, Johnson developed an unexpected appreciation and passion for the business side of racing. His business team helped broker many of the sponsorship deals that put him in IndyCar (with backing from Carvana) while team owner Chip Ganassi pulled back the curtain on how to fund and operate a race team.
“In the last two and two and a half years, I’ve had a different role, and my office has a different role,” Johnson said. “I’m surprised how much I really do enjoy the business side of it. So I think this is part of an evolution for me. I think the opportunity has changed as well.
“Certainly it makes more sense with the charter system and who knows where this new negotiation goes and revenue share. But a lot of things are trending in the right direction. The new car for a team like Petty GMS, it has helped the bottom line, and that’s obviously the target goal for NASCAR. I still think there’s a lot of work to be done to really hit the target that NASCAR set and (team owners) would like to see.
“But it’s moving in that direction, and then you have it shored up by a charter system that’s valuable. Logically, it just makes more sense in conjunction with my kind of ownership that I’ve had the last couple of years. Because it wasn’t on my radar before.”
As Johnson embarks on an unexpected chapter in his storied career, here are some pressing questions (and analysis) of the seven-time Cup Series champion’s return to NASCAR next season:
Q: After choosing which races he’ll run, what will be Johnson’s first order of business at Petty GMS?
A: Because “that benefits the team in many ways,”, the first hurdle will be integrating his sponsor portfolio into NASCAR.
The next step for Johnson will be trying to figure out where he fits into Petty GMS’ organizational hierarchy. Though the team fields two cars, it’s a relatively lean management setup with team president Mike Beam, competition director Joey Cohen and crew chiefs Dave Elenz and Chad Norris making the major competitive decisions. Beam said Johnson he will be able to have an immediate and major impact on the direction of Petty GMS, which was formed 11 months ago and earned its first victory with Erik Jones at the Southern 500.
Johnson also figures to be a mentor to 20something teammates Jones and Noah Gragson, but he also will have none of their experience with the Next Gen car.
While he might be seeking their advice on track, Johnson said he probably can offer Petty GMS and its drivers the most guidance with public image and sponsors.
“There’s a lot of stuff on the business side that I should be of help,” Johnson said. “One area I feel very comfortable and confident with is operations and competition. The team has done an amazing job. Mike Beam and Joey Cohen have won with a brand new team in Year 1. A lot of exciting things are taking place there that I’m just going to sit back and watch those guys do their thing.”
But he also is thinking about the future as a talent scout to recruit prospects into the pipeline of a team that also races a truck and has ambitions about expanding into other series.
“It’s a hat I’ve never worn before,” Johnson said. “I’ve got to start watching support series races with a different eye now. I really haven’t thought of that yet.”
Q: How often will Johnson be attending races solely as a team owner?
A: Beyond the selected races he will drive, Johnson won’t be at the track weekly. After a full-time IndyCar season in which he often felt pulled in too many directions, he is trying to carve out more time at home with his wife and two daughters.
He also lives about an hour from the team’s shop in Statesville, North Carolina, and plans to be commuting regularly.
“I think there’s a work-life balance I’m trying to achieve,” he said. “I feel initially I’ll be more effective at home, and there’s probably more I can do during the week than standing around at the racetrack. So it will all define itself and we’ll see.
“I’m not a guy to sit still. I have to say I probably don’t know what I’ve gotten myself into, and I mean that in a very positive manner. I know this is home and the industry I’ve grown up in, and I know all my knowledge and resources and contacts apply to this industry. So I’m in the right place for that. But I just don’t know how much time it’s going to require. I think that’s really the big unknown.”
Q: Will the team’s name change to incorporate its new co-owner?
A: Though Maury Gallagher remains the team’s majority owner and seven-time champion Richard Petty its chairman, there likely will be a rebranding to reflect the addition of Johnson. Because the whirlwind deal was completed in under two months, there wasn’t time to settle on a new moniker – but Johnson’s Petty GMS debut in the 2023 Daytona 500 would seem a perfect time for an unveiling.
“If you have any good ideas, we have a lot of names to sort out,” Johnson said with a laugh. “We’ll figure out a solution. I don’t’ know what that is, but certainly being a stakeholder in the team, that’s a consideration and something we’re working on. Again, it just all happened so fast, we don’t know where it’s headed yet.”
Q: Will Johnson eventually become the team’s majority owner?
A: Gallagher and Petty both indicated they expect to hand the reins over to Johnson in the future.
“From my standpoint, it’s a big, big step, not just for one year, but I’m looking farther down the road,” Petty said. “If Jimmie comes in, does his deal, I’m 85 years old, so I’m not going to be here for another 15 or 20 years, and then Jimmie can kind of take over. “
Johnson demurred when asked if that was his plan. “Long term, I just don’t know what that looks like,’ he said. “We’re literally weeks into this taking place, and I know that I have so much to learn on the ownership side.”
Q: Will the team switch to Hendrick Motorsports engines and an alliance with Johnson’s former team?
A: Petty GMS receives its engines from Richard Childress Racing, but the deal is up for next season. Hendrick is the other Chevrolet engine supplier in Cup, and Johnson said he wants to explore options with his former Cup team (that he drove for from 2002-20).
“It seems very logical to look at that,” he said. “Where it goes, I don’t know. The team has an existing relationship with RCR, and there’s a lot to consider there, but if I can help, that’s part of my involvement with this team, whether a technical alliance, strengthening a relationship with a manufacturer, helping bring new personnel into the shop because I’m there. That’s all part of why Maury was so interested.
“It’s certainly an option we’ll pursue. Sitting here in November I have no clue how that will shake out. I hope to bring the conversation to the table with the relationships I have if it’s bettering our position within GM. The role I’m entering, I feel I’ll need to tap into every resource I have to help this team grow and elevate to the next level.”
Q: How well did Johnson know Petty GMS owner Maury Gallagher?
A: Prior to the recent negotiations, Johnson hadn’t met his new business partner in person, but he took note of the success that GMS Racing had while winning championships in the truck and ARCA series.
“I watched how his drivers would get out of his trucks and talk so highly of Maury,” Johnson said. “I always had this respect for him though I hadn’t had the chance to shake his hand or get to know him. He’s always left such an impression with others on doing things the right way and being committed to the program. Really being run like a family race team. All of that is true as I continue to learn about him and spend time with him and understand his vision of where he wants to be in a short period of time.”
Johnson alluded there have been other opportunities to get involved with NASCAR team ownership since he left full-time driving two years ago but said only Gallagher offered “without a doubt, the opportunity of a lifetime.
“I fit into this team very well,” Johnson said. “My strengths and what I can offer really does fit well into Petty GMS and strengthens us all. So I just think it’s certainly having a gut feeling about the people you’re about to go into business with, and Maury is a standup guy, and I quickly understood that and knew it was the place to be.”
Q: Which NASCAR Cup Series races will he enter?
A: Though Johnson said he has a list of races beyond Daytona that “I’m super interested in and would love to do,” Johnson said his driving schedule also will be driven by sponsor requests and team needs.
“It would be really nice if I could test a car and then go to that race because so much has changed, how can we collect for data and information for our group to help (Jones and Gragson),” he said.
Q: Will Carvana be sponsoring his Cup cars as it did in IndyCar?
A: Johnson told NBC Sports that he would be meeting Friday night with officials from Carvana, which is based down the road from Phoenix Raceway in Tempe, Arizona.
After announcing two months ago that Carvana verbally had agreed to support his racing in 2023, Johnson said nothing officially had been signed. “I’m certainly optimistic and hopeful,” he said. “They did give the green light before the IndyCar season was over if I wanted to go back to full-time IndyCar racing. I had that opportunity and that choice, so I am very optimistic that partnership will continue forward. They’re aware and know something’s cooking (with NASCAR).”
Q: Did Johnson worry about being unable to find his way back to NASCAR?
A: Drivers often talk about being “out of sight, out of mind” when they leave full-time rides, and the same feelings applied for a first-ballot NASCAR Hall of Famer.
“There is a feeling of that,” Johnson said. “I think it’s pretty common for the driver that’s walked away to think, ‘Why isn’t my phone ringing? Why aren’t people calling and inviting me?’ ”
Johnson, who hadn’t been back to a NASCAR race weekend in nearly two years until Phoenix, said his wife, Chandra, encouraged him to be proactive about staying in touch.
“I was like, ‘Stop being right, I don’t want to hear this,’ ” Johnson said with a laugh. “But it is a two-way street, so I have stayed in contact with folks at NASCAR, Hendrick Motorsports and on and on, and I have had a relationship that’s felt good. But I have been very busy, so it’s been easy to be away, and I was wondering how it would feel walking back in the garage for the first time or climbing back in a car. I went through some of that today, and I know there are more layers to come.”
The initial greetings were very warm as Johnson received some “big bear hugs” from many former No. 48 team members.
“Seeing the old faces and everyone has been great,” he said.