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With Johnson aboard, Petty GMS fast-tracks growth, explores third-car possibilities

Petty GMS Motorsports announced its partnership with Jimmie Johnson last weekend at Phoenix Raceway with an understated fanfare. When two seven-time NASCAR champions walk into the same room, not much more pyro or pulsing music is necessary.

Now that the deal is officially official with Johnson signing on as a part-owner and part-time driver, plotting the road map for the team’s rapidly evolving growth is already underway. What that looks like for Johnson’s first step into team ownership waters and the Petty GMS organization’s jump to a third part-time entry is still in fast-tracked development.

“I think overwhelming. I think that’s a perfect word for the way we do it,” said team president Mike Beam. “Like it never stays the same. We’re always striving to get better. It’s a great challenge. Some days I question it. It’s great. But it is great. I think, like I said, we’re very blessed.”

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Johnson documented his “first official day at the office” Monday on social media. But his first visit to the Petty GMS shop came Sept. 12, says Joey Cohen, the team’s Cup Series competition director. Johnson’s interest in the team was still in the negotiation phase then, and the date’s timing — just one week after Erik Jones’ first win for Petty GMS in the Southern 500 — was coincidental. The trip came one day after Johnson wrapped up his full-time duties in IndyCar, and Cohen spelled out how far the team had come and how far it had yet to go.

“Here’s what we’ve done in nine months. If you give us another nine months, we’ll double or triple this,” Cohen recalled telling Johnson. “We’ll force-multiply this effort that we’ve put in, and it’s going to be another level that we’re going to be at in nine months. Now, if you come on board, I mean, we weren’t planning for you to come on board, now it’s gonna happen even faster with you as a part of it.”

The team has already grown exponentially in that nine-month timetable since the former Richard Petty Motorsports group merged with GMS Racing’s expansion effort to create a two-car Cup Series operation. Since the season’s midpoint, Petty GMS has sought to solidify the next nine months, re-signing Jones to a long-term contract in the No. 43 Chevrolet, and bringing in the driver-crew chief pairing of Noah Gragson and Luke Lambert to the No. 42 team after their successful pairing this year in the Xfinity Series.

Cohen says even with those pieces locked in, Petty GMS still had a working list of plans. Then Johnson told Cohen the morning of the Phoenix announcement that he had his own list.

“We’re going to get together and look at two lists and what’s going to accelerate us through those next nine months,” Cohen said, adding that he felt their individual goals would match up. “Now we’ve got two sets of things that we’re going to go after.”

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Among those aspirations is Johnson’s return to Cup Series competition for the first time since 2020, competing in a select set of eight to 10 races in a third Petty GMS Chevy. The team — still without an announced car number — will compete as an open, non-chartered entry.

Cohen says extra care will be taken so that the expansion does not come at the expense of the organization’s two established teams. Still, there’s plenty to accomplish before the season opens next February. “Everything — haulers, pit boxes, all the infrastructure — that comes with another team,” Cohen says, “we’ve got to go create that again.”

As for races where Johnson isn’t competing, Cohen said other drivers could fill the seat, almost as a parallel to the Project 91 program that Trackhouse Racing introduced this year for all-stars and global figures from other motorsports disciplines. That outfit produced a much-ballyhooed Cup Series debut for former F1 driver Kimi Räikkönen in August.

Cohen says there’s already buzz around the possibilities at Petty GMS.

“Kind of through the rumbling of the circles, I think a lot of people knew that an open car was coming on our end, and it generated more interest, and there’s people out there that are looking to run races next year,” Cohen said. “The road-course stuff always interests people, there’s people lining up to do those from other series. We have partners that have asked us about drivers that they could go in in our organization that they would be interested in supporting. So I think it’s gonna be a really interesting year.

“We looked at the (Daytona) 500, and I’m sure we’re just the very beginning of a multiple amount of teams considering running an open car. I would say that that car will have an opportunity to run more races with other drivers in it next year as well.”

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As for the 2023 edition of the Great American Race on Feb. 19 (2:30 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM), Johnson confirmed that he’ll be the third Petty GMS driver of record, striving to qualify or race his way onto the grid without a guaranteed starting spot. Johnson said he was eager to “do everything that I can” to make the Daytona 500 field, at which point principal team owner Maury Gallagher interjected.

“You go back and look at the GMS super track record, we’re as good as anybody in the business,” Gallagher said. “I’m breaking my arm patting us on the back, but …”

“I can testify personally to that,” Beam threw in. “We build damn good (superspeedway) cars.”

“He’ll have an advantage, we believe,” Gallagher added, “in the quality of car that he’s going to be in.”