Jimmie Johnson will return to Daytona International Speedway in 2021, but he won’t be piloting a NASCAR vehicle.
Jimmie Johnson’s NASCAR departure hasn’t even begun, but fans are already clamoring for a return.
The seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion, 45, retired from full-time racing after the 2020 season. He spent his whole career in the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, winning 83 Cup races (tied for fifth-most all-time). No storybook ending awaited Johnson, who missed out on the Cup Series playoffs and finished 18th in the final standings, but he nonetheless qualified for February’s Busch Clash, the unofficial opener to the NASCAR season at Daytona International Speedway. The 2021 Busch Clash will be run on Tuesday, February 9, five days before the Daytona 500.
However, Johnson more or less eliminated any hope that he would come back to NASCAR earlier this week.
Johnson has returned to Daytona this week as he prepares to partake in the Rolex 24 endurance race (also known as the 24 Hours at Daytona). He has also begun an IndyCar endeavor with Chip Ganassi Racing, which also fields a pair of entries in the Cup Series. But questions about his NASCAR availability inevitably rose, especially with the Clash moving to the Daytona’s road course for the first time. The road course will also host the Rolex 24 and the second event on NASCAR’s national series calendars (replacing Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California).
But Johnson, who has previously left the door open to making cameo appearances in NASCAR, dashed the hopes of any fan hoping to see him return. Not only did he say that no teams have inquired about his Clash availability, but Johnson would turn any offers down to focus on his fledgling IndyCar career.
“I feel like just in pure transparency that I need to not drive a stock car for a while to really reprogram my senses and my brain to drive downforce,” Johnson said. “Itâ€™s just a totally different way to get through a center of the corner.”
“The season is going to be here before I know it. Of course, thereâ€™s going to be a big spotlight on me and how Iâ€™m going to perform in the car, with the testing being so little. I got a lot I need to do so I can be on pace.”
The Busch Clash has been run annually since 1979 as an exhibition race prior to the renowned 500-mile event. All playoff drivers from the 2020 season are eligible to partake, as are 2020 race winners, stage winners, and pole sitters from on-track qualifying and from Daytona 500s past. Previous Clash winners are also invited if they have raced full-time the year before (a caveat that is also enforced with the Daytona pole sitter entry). Johnson is eligible through multiple victories in the 500 (2006, 2013), the Clash (2005, 2019), and a stage win at the late spring Martinsville race.
Though Johnson’s traditional No. 48 seat has been filled by former teammate Alex Bowman, it was possible he could briefly take over a car one of his other teams had available. Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 5 Chevrolet is available with newcomer Kyle Larson ineligible for the Clash (having partaken in only four races before being dealt a suspension for uttering a racist slur during a virtual race), as his Ganassi’s No. 42 Chevrolet. That car, driven by Larson at the start of 2020, was taken over by temporarily unretired former Matt Kenseth for the rest of the year. Xfinity and Truck Series veteran Ross Chastain will take over the car starting with the 500. Obviously, none of these ideas would be attractive to Johnson as inches closer to his IndyCar debut.
Here's what the 2021 Busch Clash field will potentially look like. Per Pockrass, field consists of on-track pole sitters, playoff drivers, race winners, and stage winners from 2020, as well as previous Daytona 500 pole sitters and winners of the Daytona 500 and Clash #NASCAR pic.twitter.com/MsbmjhsHjv
— Geoff Magliocchetti (@GeoffJMags) November 17, 2020
Kenseth and another recent retiree, Clint Bowyer, are also eligible but neither has shown interest in competing. Bowyer, former driver of the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford, would be more likely to call the exhibition for Fox Sports, as he is set to join Mike Joy and Jeff Gordon in the network’s racing booth next season. Ty Dillon is also eligible, but has been left without a ride after his No. 13 Germain Racing Chevrolet team shut down.
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags