Before becoming one of the greatest drivers in NASCAR history, Jimmie Johnson was strutting his stuff in the off-road world. In 2022, he will once again break away from non-paved racing as he throws his name into the lineup for the snowy Race of Champions in Sweden. He will drive alongside Travis Pastrana for Team USA in the Nations Cup.
Johnson made his ROC début at Gran Canaria in 2002. Fresh off a fifth-place points finish in his Cup Series rookie season, he was joined on Team USA by NASCAR team-mate Jeff Gordon and World Superbike star Colin Edwards. He was defeated by France’s Sébastien Loeb in the semi-finals and Italy’s Renato Travaglia in the final, though the Americans went on to win the Cup. Johnson was eliminated by Marcus Grönholm of Finland in the individual ROC’s knockout stage.
“To win the ROC Nations Cup was something really unique: the only event where I represented my country,” Johnson said. “I’ve been able to accomplish a lot in my career, but that’s the only experience I’ve had like that. I’m really looking forward to returning to ROC and competing with Travis. He’s a tremendous talent and we have such fun competing together. Hopefully, we can go have some fun and success on the snow and ice.”
2004 at Stade de France saw his second run in the event after paving runner-up in the Cup standings, with another stock car team-mate in Casey Mears. Once again racing against rally stars, he lost to Armin Schwarz of Germany in the individual tournament and Britain’s Colin McRae in the Nations Cup.
He skipped the 2006 ROC due to a wrist injury he sustained after falling off a golf cart, which aborted a team-up with Pastrana. The two finally got their partnership the following year, shortly after Johnson won his second consecutive Cup title, in Wembley Stadium. Frenchman Sébastien Bourdais bested Johnson in the Drivers Cup’s opening round while Michael Schumacher defeated Johnson and Pastrana in the Nations Cup quarter-final. 2007 was Johnson’s last participation to date in ROC.
The 2022 ROC, held in Pite Havsbad, Sweden near the Arctic Circle, will be the first on a course made of snow and ice. While Johnson does not have much, if any, experience on such a surface, he competed in a variety of off-road disciplines during his early career including desert, short course, and stadium trucks. His 2019 Cup Darlington throwback (pictured) is also modelled after his 1995 trophy truck. When asked in an Instagram Q&A about potentially returning to off-road competition, Johnson answered, “I really hope so, my retirement schedule needs to lighten up some…”
“The short days, the brutal cold and the changing conditions will make Sweden really well suited for all-round talents like Jimmie,” commented ROC president Fredrik Johnsson. “He does not have much experience with four-wheel drive, but he is very skilled off-road and at high speeds, so I’m sure he’ll adjust very quickly just like he did in 2002.”
Furthermore, his 2002 and 2004 ROC starts came in the Rally class, which pitted him against World Rally Championship regulars. The Gran Canaria track, being built for rally cars, was composed of dirt which Johnson and Gordon, the latter a former dirt track racer, quickly adapted to. On the other hand, the ROC since 2004 have taken place in a paved stadium environment.
Pastrana, a rallycross driver and former NASCAR full-timer whose Nitro Rallycross series designed the FC1-X that ROC will use at Sweden, described the snow/ice course as “exactly what I had been hoping for. Jimmie and I has some bad luck at the 2006 and 2007 Nations Cup, but I think this type of track will be perfect for us.”
Johnson’s seven Cup championships are tied with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for the most in series history, while his eighty-three victories are the sixth most. Since retiring from full-time Cup racing after 2020, he competes in the NTT IndyCar Series, having just finished his maiden season, and the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.