The door seems open for Jimmie Johnson to return to the Indy 500 or other cars and series in 2024 — even after aligning with Toyota in NASCAR.
But his work schedule at Legacy Motor Club might be too busy for the seven-time Cup Series champion to venture outside stock cars.
After retiring from full-time NASCAR after the 2020 season, Johnson has raced in IndyCar (part time in 2021, full time last year including his Indy 500 debut) and IMSA (the Rolex 24 at Daytona and other endurance races in ‘210-22).
But this year, the Garage 56 Camaro in the 24 Hours of Le Mans will mark his only extracurricular activity beyond a few Cup starts with Legacy Motor Club, the NASCAR team he now co-owns.
Johnson has yet to firm up his 2024 schedule (“we certainly keep an open ear to other opportunities”), but during the Tuesday unveiling of LMC’s new deal with Toyota Racing Development starting next year, he indicated multiple times that management of Legacy Motor Club is his first priority.
“I honestly don’t know at this stage,” Johnson said when asked by NBC Sports if he might return to IMSA or IndyCar next season. “I know my schedule for this year, which will include the Garage 56 program. Obviously, I’m very excited to go and have my first attempt at Le Mans with my friends from Chevrolet and Hendrick Motorsports and NASCAR.
“From a time commitment standpoint and being a proud co-owner of this team and being a part of this organization, my focus really is on what needs to happen for this team. I’m happy to hold a steering wheel, and we’ll certainly look at any and all opportunities to try. My focus really needs to be how it helps this team, so I think I’ll have to use that filter as I look at opportunities in the future and take it from there.”
Johnson and team owner Chip Ganassi have indicated he could have raced again for Honda in the Indy 500 this year despite his current ties in Cup to Chevrolet (a relationship that began when Johnson, 47, joined the General Motors racing fold as a teenager).
After the new deal with LMC and Toyota, sources close to the situation have told NBC Sports that Johnson would be allowed to race other series next year if he chooses.
TRD’s general policy has been to allow drivers to race in other series where Toyota isn’t a rival competitor. That would permit Johnson crossing over to IndyCar (Johnson drove a Dallara-Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing the past two years, and Chevrolet is the other engine manufacturer) and IMSA (Toyota races a Lexus in the GT divisions, but there would be no conflicts in the prototype categories).
Of course, Toyota’s first priority would be for Johnson to climb behind the wheel of a Camry in the Cup Series for the first time in 2024.
“We’re partnered with Jimmie as an owner first and foremost,” TRD president David Wilson said during the news conference Tuesday. “As a boots on the ground guy. Jimmie and (co-owner) Maury (Gallagher) are at this every day. It’s Jimmie’s day job to put the pieces in place to build that foundation. Everything on top of that is icing on the cake.
“If Jimmie decides that he’d like to run a race here or there in a Toyota Camry, I think we can make that happen, and we’d like nothing more.”
Johnson has made two Cup starts this season (the Daytona 500 and Circuit of the Americas) and will make at least two more with the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway and the inaugural Chicago Street Race.
With his starts tied in part to bringing sponsorship to LMC, it seems likely he would make at least a few Cup starts next year with Toyota – when he can break away from his day job of overseeing the commercial side of the team.
Those commitments curtail the likelihood of side projects for Johnson, who is known for his intense preparation. Trying to balance a Rolex 24 or Indy 500 start while getting a new manufacturer off the ground with LMC would be extremely difficult.
“My focus is heavily skewed to front office, marketing, branding and partner relations,” Johnson said. “It’s occupied a ton of time. Our competition department, I have check in points, and they’re a phone call away. That group is rock solid.
“It’s been more front office than competition, and that’s funny, because as a driver, I didn’t pay much attention to the front office. But the last few years in my journey, leaving Hendrick and going to IndyCar, I was able to see the other side and how exhilarating and rewarding it is. Maury, I love drafting him and learning from him in this process. It’s a great journey. I’m a competitor at heart, and I’ll put in the time and do what it takes to win.”
Johnson and his business team brokered the Carvana sponsorship that secured his IndyCar ride — one of many examples in his growth as a businessman off the track. Chip Ganassi encouraged Johnson to pursue team management and ownership after being impressed by Johnson’s diligence.
Wilson, who said he has enjoyed getting to known Johnson on a personal level after being a garage acquaintance, echoed that viewpoint Tuesday in recalling his reaction to the announcement of Johnson becoming a team owner last November at Phoenix Raceway.
“I was honestly skeptical,” Wilson said. “Ehhh, Jimmie’s going to put his name on it? Good for him. What has impressed me to no end is the level at which Jimmie is committed to this organization and to Maury. He is working his butt off, and it’s really impressive. It’s given us the confidence that he and Maury are going to continue to build and get better and are the right partners for Toyota.”