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Jimmie Johnson runs first laps in Next Gen car at Phoenix test

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.

Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson ran his first laps in a Next Gen car Tuesday in a test at Phoenix Raceway and said the vehicle is “dramatically different” than what he was used to in the Cup Series.

“You cannot drive these cars as sideways as the generation of cars that I drove due to the (tire) sidewall and also just the aero properties of the car,” Johnson told reporters after he finished his one-day session.

Johnson was allowed to test under NASCAR’s Select Driver Orientation Testing Rules. It limits a team to three sets of tires and how much data can be collected. The test is allowed to take part at a track that driver will not be entered.

This rule allowed former F1 champion Kimi Raikkonen to test a Cup car last year before competing for Trackhouse Racing at Watkins Glen in his first series start.

Johnson tested in the car in its 2022 configuration. Six other cars tested Tuesday at Phoenix in 2023 configurations. Among the objectives of the NASCAR test for those six cars was to improve the racing primarily at short tracks and road courses. Johnson was not permitted to run with those cars.

Tuesday marked Johnson’s first time in a Cup car still leaving the series after the 2020 season to compete in IndyCar.

“(I was) trying to work through it and find speed today,” Johnson said of his goal for the test. “The sim helped. I understood some big no-nos to do with where I put my hands, when I go to the throttle. … Ultimately, I wanted to get up against the limit today and get a feel for things.”

The co-owner of Legacy M.C. said he felt good in the session.

“I think the fifth or sixth time by was my fastest time in the car,” Johnson said. “To be able to be on pace and be with the group that quick, it was nice just to have that to fall back on, and really, instinctively, drive the car instead of worrying about every little detail, and where I put the car and how I used the pedals and the wheel like I’d been doing in IndyCar the past two years.”

Even with a session in a simulator last week, Johnson was thankful for some track time in the new car.

“Seat time is everything,” he told reporters. “Drivers, teams, you try to do what you can in the sim, but being at the track is where you learn everything.

“To run a limited scheduled with (the No. 84 team) that is running a limited schedule, we need to keep our expectations realistic about the job ahead of us. It’s a very competitive sport. A lot of great teams and drivers.

“I assume, as I continue to get more seat time in these cars, I’ll understand where to find speed and continue to make myself more competitive.”

Tuesday also marked Johnson’s first day working with crew chief Todd Gordon at the track. The team announced this week that Gordon, a former Cup champion crew chief, would work with Johnson this season.

“Todd is a true professional,” Johnson said. “Clearly his stats speak for themself. Trying to find somebody to really help fit in with me and also help the organization. Todd’s a perfect candidate for that, so we’re very excited to have him on board.”

Johnson will seek to earn one of four open spots in the next month’s Daytona 500. He said he plans to run a “handful” of Cup races this season but likely won’t have that schedule set until the “coming weeks.”

Johnson remains hopeful he’ll be one of the drivers for the Garage 56 program that will take a specially prepared Cup car to the 24 Hours of Le Mans in June.

Johnson did say that “the door is probably shut” on any IndyCar racing, meaning he wouldn’t have the chance to compete in the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 on the same day this year.