NASCAR’s Johnson hopes to go from Hall of Fame to victory lane at Kansas Speedway

Imagine George Brett, a few months after his induction into the baseball Hall of Fame, stepping into the batter’s box and ripping line drives again for the Kansas City Royals.

Or Tony Gonzalez, his bust already in place at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, suiting up and catching passes for the Chiefs.

That’s precisely what seven-time NASCAR Cup champion Jimmie Johnson is doing.

Johnson, enshrined last January in the NASCAR Hall of Fame, is competing in nine Cup races this season, including both events at Kansas Speedway: the AdventHealth 400 on Sunday and the Hollywood Casino 400 on Sept. 29.

Not counting exhibitions or senior tours, Johnson may be the only Hall of Famer returning to the highest level of competition since hockey’s Gordie Howe in the 1970s.

“I don’t make the rules,” said Johnson, 48. “Our sport is unique where drivers can come back and be competitive and be involved. It’s one of the nuances of our sport that I am experiencing. I do chuckle at the irony of it.

Johnson, who retired from full-time racing after the 2020 season, is now co-owner of Legacy Motor Sports after spending 2021-22 trying his hand in the IndyCar Series. He’s made three Cup starts this season in the No. 84 Toyota, finishing 28th in the Daytona 500, 29th at Texas last month and 27th at Dover last week.

While Johnson is adjusting to driving the three-year-old NextGen Car for a new organization and with a new manufacturer, he finds comfort and confidence in preparing to race at Kansas Speedway, where he is one of five drivers to have won three Cup races (2008, 2011, 2015).

“It’s a fun track. I’m excited to come back, not just once, but twice,” he said. “It certainly helps me from a performance standpoint, learning this new (NextGen) car and being on the same track a couple of times, and with our partner AdventHealth, I get to wear their colors and go fast.

“The cars have changed so much, it’s hard to carry anything over, but like a golfer on a golf course, you go somewhere you like and love, you just have positive vibes. That’s half of it, to enter these races with the right head space and to drive with a clear mind.

“It’s nice to be in the car representing these great companies. I’m really enjoying this stage of life in my career as both a driver and as an owner.”

As co-owner of Legacy Motor Sports with Maury Gallagher and with Richard “The King” Petty serving as the company’s Ambassador, Johnson is filling the role as a player-coach — not only the No. 84 team, but also the No 42 car driven by John Hunter Nemechek and No. 43 of Erik Jones, who missed the last two races and was replaced by Corey Heim.

“I’m still trying to find my lane,” Johnson said. “I certainly can be a help on the competition side. Being in the car really gives me a greater understanding of the competition challenges. I have been surprised how effective and helpful I can be on the business side, and that’s where a lot of my focus has been since I moved into this partnership with Maury Gallagher. Now that we have paint on cars and all these great new partners, it’s allowing more time to focus on the competition side.

Johnson, noting that he’s “always going to be competitive and want to win,” said his focus is different now than it was when he was a full-time driver.

“I’m balancing a few different goals and objectives,” he said. “I’m wearing multiple hats. I’m thankful for this experience and opportunity to get into a car and fill that bucket. I absolutely love driving race cars, and I love competing, and I’m very fortunate to be able to still do it.”

Johnson, who began his motorsports career as an off-road driver in his native California, also will compete in three Extreme E races — an off-road series featuring electric cars — in Sardina, Italy in September and Phoenix in November.

But for now, with 83 career NASCAR Cup wins, he’d love nothing better than to break a tie for fifth on the all-time list with fellow Hall of Famer Cale Yarborough.

“Of course, I want to win,” Johnson said. “Of course, I want to add to the win list and the other aspects of what I’ve been able to do in the sport, but that’s not why I’m here.

“When I put the helmet on, I want to win. That’s just how I’m wired. The purest of all is that I just love driving. I love racing. I’m excited to be here for those reasons.”