MOORESVILLE, N.C. — Competing in different forms of racing is the common bond that connects seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson with reigning series champ Kyle Larson.
When Johnson announced he would leave Hendrick Motorsports and conclude one of the greatest careers in NASCAR Cup Series history, Alex Bowman took over the No. 48 Chevrolet.
But Larson was the driver who filled the void created by Johnson’s retirement.
Instead of putting Larson into the No. 88 previously handled by Bowman, Hendrick revived the No. 5 Chevrolet with Larson paired with Cliff Daniels, who was Johnson’s crew chief during his final NASCAR season.
Larson rewarded the team owner with the best season by a Cup Series driver since Johnson won 10 races and the championship in 2007. Larson also won 10 races en route to the title.
So, who better to assess Larson’s incredible season than Johnson?
“It’s just an amazing chemistry between those two and what they added to the mix. Hendrick, and Chevrolet in general, has been building up to get back on top of the pile,” Johnson said. “Cliff Daniels is a phenomenal crew chief and such a great leader. A natural born leader. Bringing him on board to finish up that year of Cup with me, I could see his progression and leadership growing.
“Kyle has been in this sport long enough and can win in anything and everything he is driving.
“Life is all about timing. I think the timing for where Hendrick Motorsports is. Where the Chevrolets are. Cliff’s journey. Kyle’s journey. The team’s journey,” Johnson said. “You’ve had this timing that has been amazing to witness, win 10 races and a championship, hats off to all, they have done an amazing job.”
The secret to Larson’s success may have been that he kept his skills sharp by competing in different forms of racing in 2020 and ’21. From sprint cars to midgets to late models, Larson raced anything, anywhere at any time.
“It really is amazing and I give so much credit to the drivers that have maintained that desire and have fought for the right to move around in different series,” Johnson explained. “Kyle Larson has been very fresh in moving around and trying different vehicles. I’ve tried a few Xfinity races here and there, but honestly, I stayed in my Cup lane and focused on my Cup career.
“I’ve not only got to learn a new car, new tracks and a new technology, but dust off that skill set of starting over and reinventing yourself and forgetting habits from a certain style of vehicle and taking on new ones. It’s been an interesting journey for me,” Johnson said. “Deep down inside, I wish I had tried to stay active in many other cars to keep this skill set sharp.”
Johnson is preparing for his second season as an NTT IndyCar Series driver, wheeling a Honda-powered Indy car for Chip Ganassi Racing.
“It is incredible to drive these cars,” Johnson said. “They are so fast. They stop and turn and accelerate like nothing I have ever driven before. That part has been a ton of fun. The learning curve has been much steeper than I anticipated and thought as well, but at the end of the season I showed myself and everyone that was watching the big improvement that I made and comfort I was developing in these cars, learning a variety of new tracks and surfaces.
“All in all, a really fun and successful first year in the IndyCar Series.”
Because of his legendary NASCAR career and the way he has enthusiastically embraced IndyCar, Johnson is often asked to compare the two series.
“They are different, and they both have a really special place in motorsports,” Johnson explained. “Indy car racing and racing on street circuits and the access that fans have, the journey I was able to take Carvana on this year as a sponsor, it’s a little different lane they operate in.
“NASCAR also has its sweet spot as well. It’s hard to pick and hard to say one is better than the other,” he continued. “They are both different and very strong in their own ways. I’ve been very fortunate to experience both and experience both at a high level with arguably the best teams in both industries, so it’s been a really neat experience for me and my family.
“I think 2021 was an interesting year in many ways. The new car was delayed a year in NASCAR. Then, you had so many single-day events on the NASCAR series,” Johnson noted. “It’s hard to predict when a good time is to step away and when it makes sense.
“But it is what it is. I had the most amazing experience joining the IndyCar Series and making the change that I did. But it was nice to see all the change in NASCAR. There have been some nice changes made and I’m excited for everyone in the sport.”
On December 15, Johnson announced that he will run the full IndyCar Series schedule, including the 106th running of the Indianapolis 500 in 2022.
“Where I am in life, it’s about these experiences and opportunities,” Johnson said. “I’m really open to any and all. My priority is to get my IndyCar career under control. Then, the IMSA series and my commitment with Hendrick Motorsports and Ally and trying to get that dialed in. Once those dominoes get in line, if I have any open weekends, then I am open to any and all.
“Our heroes, when I was growing up, the legends were Mario Andretti, Parnelli Jones and Dan Gurney — guys that would race anything; anywhere.
“Where I’m at right now, that sounds interesting.”