NASCAR: The unexpected offseason gamble that is clearly paying off

Just six races into the 2024 NASCAR Cup Series season, Legacy Motor Club's switch from Chevrolet to Toyota has already proven to be the right move.
John Hunter Nemechek, Legacy Motor Club, NASCAR
John Hunter Nemechek, Legacy Motor Club, NASCAR / Sean Gardner/GettyImages

The news last spring that the recently rebranded Legacy Motor Club would be switching to Toyota for the 2024 NASCAR Cup Series season and beyond caught many by surprise.

The team, formerly known as Petty GMS Motorsports following a merger between Chevrolet teams Richard Petty Motorsports and GMS Racing, had just added Jimmie Johnson as a co-owner.

Johnson, a seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion, had only ever driven for Chevrolet at any level of NASCAR competition. GMS Racing had only ever operated with Chevrolet as their manufacturer since they began their NASCAR journey in 2011. Richard Petty himself had never previously been affiliated with Toyota.

So naturally a switch to Toyota made sense for all involved, right?

Following a rough start to the 2023 season, the team felt that there was a need for a major change, and by announcing a switch to Toyota, they effectively pulled off the unthinkable.

Prior to the start of the 2024 season, comments were made by the team that they felt they were given "tier three" treatment by Chevrolet. Last year, they were one of eight teams in the Chevrolet camp. This year, they are one of three with Toyota, the other two being Joe Gibbs Racing and the Joe Gibbs Racing-affiliated 23XI Racing.

Johnson, who returned from his Cup Series "retirement" after two seasons in IndyCar to compete part-time in the Cup Series starting last year, made his Toyota debut in the 2024 season-opening Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway last month.

The team's two drivers, Erik Jones and newcomer John Hunter Nemechek, have already given Johnson reason to believe that the team have made significant progress. Last year, Jones led the team in only 27th place in the standings and Noah Gragson scored just two top 20 finishes in 21 starts.

"Oh yes, we totally are [making progress]," Johnson said. "It's been amazing and as you can see the on track, performance progress is already there."

He spoke highly of both of his full-time drivers. While only six races are in the books, Nemechek finds himself in a provisional playoff spot for a team that haven't had a driver qualify for the postseason since 2014.

Nemechek's gamble to drop back down to the Truck Series to re-align himself with Toyota after the 2020 Cup Series season -- and Legacy Motor Club's decision to sign him for 2024 -- appear to be paying off in a big way.

"John Hunter is focused and driven, and really competitive," Johnson said of the team's new driver. "He is all in with this Club and he’s been a great teammate to both Erik and I. He doesn’t settle for poor performance and is really studying every week to help performance."

Johnson made just three starts last season, but he has eight more planned for 2024. He spoke about the new perspective he has gained as both a part-time driver and a co-owner of the team for which he is driving, something he never experienced during a 19-year run at Hendrick Motorsports which produced 83 victories.

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"I wear a lot of hats these days, so it just adds to my plate and how much I worry about things over the race weekends," Johnson explained. "I have to compete, but I also have to be Jimmie the co-owner, so it's been interesting on how I can spend my time and where I’m most needed. I really have been embracing it as we are always working on the future and how we can be the best we can be on all fronts."