For the second straight year, NASCAR and INDYCAR will team up at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and share the weekend, as the two American motorsport titans will both race the Indy road course.
This weekend will also be the first time Jimmie Johnson will share the same garage as his former NASCAR Cup Series competitors since the 2020 season finale at Phoenix Raceway. It means there will likely be some catching up between Johnson and his former NASCAR competitors and team members.
However, will the topic of conversation be as simple as what they did over the two-week Olympic break? Or could it perhaps be something more?
Johnson began racing in part-time NTT IndyCar Series and IMSA competition in 2021, trading in his Cup Series stock car for more aero-sensitive, downforce-friendly Indy cars in each road and street course race IndyCar has to offer.
It’s been a steep learning curve for the NASCAR legend. In his first eight IndyCar starts in 2021, Johnson has earned an average finish of 22.5 and a best result of 19th at Barber Motorsports Park, which is not very impressive considering the most entries in a non-Indianapolis 500 race this year was 27 at the Nashville Street Circuit.
So halfway though his first year as a multi-series journeyman driver, many have wondered if the Californian had any thoughts on returning to NASCAR.
When Johnson spoke to the Charlotte Observer this week, he certainly raised some eyebrows when asked about a possible return to NASCAR racing.
“I’m open,” the seven-time Cup champion said. “More than anything, I’m trying to keep my race count around 20 races a year and with my road and street courses in IndyCar and then the four IMSA races I’m running. If a good opportunity came along, I would seriously consider it.”
Some subsequently pondered at the possibility of a possible Johnson return. What would it look like? What team would he drive for? What number would he use?
It’s the most obvious choice, right? When Michael Jordan returned to the NBA, he came back to the same team that he left.
It would make sense if Johnson came back for a last dance at Hendrick Motorsports, but there are some barriers — and they’re big ones.
First, HMS already has four drivers, the maximum amount allowed per team in the Cup Series. So even if Rick Hendrick wanted to field a part-time entry, he couldn’t. Thanks to the charter system, gone are the days of part-time returning racing legends for race teams, such as Bill Elliott and Terry Labonte in 2005.
And those four drivers at Hendrick have contracts that last through to at least the end of 2022. That includes sponsorship deals too, which is all the more important.
To boot, those four drivers are actually winning — like, a lot. So, there’s little reason for HMS to drop any of them at the moment.
It is extremely unlikely for HMS to sacrifice one team to field a part-time car as it would need to with Johnson. As cool as it would be to see Johnson return to the No. 48 Chevrolet, Alex Bowman and the rest of the crew are doing just fine without him.
So what about a team that has less than four cars?
Trackhouse Racing Team
It was announced on June 30 that Trackhouse will purchase Chip Ganassi Racing’s NASCAR race team, absorbing its assets at the end of the 2021 season.
While the news meant the end of a 21-year campaign for the legendary race team owner in NASCAR, it also meant the emergence of Trackhouse’s second team, which will field current Ganassi driver Ross Chastain.
Trackhouse is a growing team, and with only two cars announced to race the 2021 season, its affiliation with Ganassi could open doors for Ganassi’s IndyCar drivers, which includes Johnson. Even if it’s only for a part-time car.
It’s a Chevrolet team, so there’s no conflict to the GM-loyal Californian. Even more importantly, it’s competitive enough for a seven-time champion.
In its maiden year, Trackhouse has picked up three top 10s in the first 18 races in the Cup Series with its first driver, Daniel Suarez. That may not sound like much, but for a startup team with no prior experience, that’s more than a lot of fellow startups have had in their first year — including 23XI Racing. With the purchase of Ganassi’s assets, it’s likely to become even faster in 2022.
Despite his affiliation with Hendrick, Trackhouse seems the most likely route for Johnson in the Cup Series.
However, that’s the Cup Series.
Hear me out.
Johnson and the Xfinity Series don’t exactly mix well, and never really have save for his one career series win at Chicagoland Speedway in 2001.
However, Johnson hasn’t competed full time in the Xfinity Series since that same year, so it’s difficult to say how well he would do nowadays in a competitive team.
His last top-five finish in Xfinity was in a one-off race in 2011 at Watkins Glen International. What team did he compete for then? JRM.
So you have a Xfinity team that Johnson has competed with before, is affiliated with Hendrick, is Chevrolet-backed and even often has a part-time car made for journeyman drivers.
But it’s an Xfinity team, and Johnson is a top-tier driver.
Wait, it gets better.
In April, Earnhardt mentioned the idea of moving his race team into the Cup Series thanks to the introduction of the Next-Gen car. It’s only speculation, but if it were to happen, it’s very likely the JRM entry would be treated as a satellite team for Hendrick, something akin to what Wood Brothers Racing is for Team Penske.
That means a pathway for JRM’s young drivers to move from Xfinity into Cup. Of course, it also could mean an entry for Johnson.
In the end, however, it’s unlikely for JRM to announce a 2022 Cup entry this late in the year, but never say never.
Regardless of what team he would go to, Johnson will likely never compete for a NASCAR championship ever again. In fact, it’s more likely he could compete for the IndyCar championship instead, as Johnson will be participating in an oval test at Homestead-Miami Speedway in late August.
However, it appears the goal of the 45-year-old is set mostly on an entry in the Indianapolis 500, not a full-time ride.
“Honestly to run a full schedule next year would really be complicated,” Johnson told SpeedSport in late July. “So I don’t know how realistic that opportunity would be at the end of the day.”
Stay tuned to see if Johnson will prefer to stay out of his comfort zone in open-wheel racing or return to his bread and butter in stock cars in the coming years.
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