NASCAR legend Jimmie Johnson in new position as Daytona 500 long shot

AP photo by John Raoux / NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson gets ready to take the track for Daytona 500 practice Saturday. The seven-time Cup Series champion is running a partial schedule this year after spending the past two years competing in IndyCar.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — "New leader ... 84."

Jimmie Johnson sent a jolt through Daytona International Speedway when he shot to the top of the leaderboard in Friday's first practice for the Daytona 500. After a humbling two years of open-wheel racing in IndyCar, the seven-time Cup Series champion has returned to NASCAR as part owner and sometimes driver at what's called Legacy Motor Club.

Legacy is the Johnson-led rebrand of what began as Petty Enterprises in 1949 — a year after NASCAR was born. Sunday's Daytona 500 is the first Cup Series points race of NASCAR's celebratory 75th season, and all eyes are again on Johnson, who a little more than three months ago did an about-face, returned to stock cars and energized Richard Petty's limp race team.

Johnson is not driving the No. 48, the only number he's ever used at NASCAR's top level; that now belongs to Alex Bowman — Johnson's successor at Hendrick Motorsports — who will be on the pole position in the starting lineup and joined on the front row by teammate Kyle Larson, the 2022 season champion.

Johnson, now in the No. 84 Chevy, will start 39th. He's on the back row with action sports star Travis Pastrana, who's among the one-off entries in the race.

Everything is different at this new Legacy organization, which Petty said Saturday would be completely run by Johnson within five years. But Johnson showed he still knows his way around Daytona's 2.5-mile tri-oval, even if FanDuel lists him as 40-1 longshot to win Sunday.

"The large majority of it is familiar. I'm remembering little details as I make laps and get into the zone," Johnson said. "It drives like a stock car. It doesn't drive like an IndyCar, thank God. We know how that went."

Try no podium finishes in two seasons.

As a team owner, Johnson is a stabilizing figure for the two-car organization with Noah Gragson and Erik Jones as the full-time drivers. A two-time Daytona 500 winner, Johnson turns 48 this year, and is a mentor for Gragson, who has the wattage to be a superstar but struggled with maturity during his climb into a Cup Series ride.

He signed last year with what he thought was Petty GMS, a mediocre team with a legend in Petty in the team masthead. Now the 24-year-old has unrestricted access to one of the greatest sportsmen of his generation. Gragson is soaking in every bit of wisdom Johnson has to offer, and the deal came with spotter Earl Barban, who debuted with Johnson in that 2006 Daytona 500 victory.

"New leader ... 48," was Barban's trademark call as Johnson led nearly 19,000 laps in his career.

Johnson didn't want a new spotter, but he made a business decision to help his young driver.

"Wearing my team owner hat and knowing the experience that Earl has and what he can share with Noah," Johnson said, "... I just sensed it was the right thing to do."

Although Petty won the Daytona 500 seven times, a Petty-owned car hasn't won it since 1979. Johnson has the organization in the conversation for Sunday.