Billy Johnson joins RPM for Sonoma run

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By Aaron Bearden, Motorsports Editor

With the year’s first road course race approaching, Richard Petty Motorsports has added a road course ringer to their stable.

The organization announced Monday morning that sports car veteran Billy Johnson, 30, will pilot their iconic No. 43 Ford in the June 25 Toyota / Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway. He’ll run in place of Aric Almirola, who was injured in an May crash at Kansas Speedway.

A native of San Clemente, California, Johnson will make his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series debut in the effort. The 30-year-old has five-career NASCAR starts, all coming in the XFINITY Series on road courses. His best effort to date was an eighth-place performance with Roush Fenway Racing at Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve in 2012.

The Californian comes from a sports car background, having made his debut in the IMSA Weathertech SportsCar Championship (then Rolex Grand-Am Sports Car Series) in 2005. Johnson has celebrated three victories and five podiums in his 24 starts on the tour.

Johnson has spent this year trading off a full-time effort for Chip Ganassi Team UK in the FIA World Endurance Championship and occasional IMSA opportunities.

“It is going to be awesome,” Johnson said in a release. “It will be my first NASCAR Cup race and to debut in the 43 car, one of the most iconic numbers to ever race in NASCAR, is a huge honor. Richard Petty Motorsports is a great organization. To be able to make my Cup debut for the King is surreal, and I appreciate them putting me in the car.

“I have run a lot of XFINITY races, but this will be my first Cup race. It is awesome that RPM and everyone at Ford Performance has the confidence in me to take on Sonoma. I have run pretty well in the XFINITY road course races I have done, so I hope that translates into a good showing this weekend.”

The move is one of the most notable additions of a road-course specialist in the Cup Series in recent years. In previous decades, “road-course ringers” such as Ron Fellows and Boris Said were brought in from notable teams with fairly solid equipment, often performing well against a Cup field that emphasized ovals and didn’t necessarily have road-course prowess.

However, in recent years the narrative has changed. Cup drivers have honed their road-course skills, often by participating in programs led by the same veterans and talents they compete against. In fact, Almirola and Johnson previously worked together as part of the Ford Performance racing school at Miller Motorsports Park.

A few road-course specialists still arrive for the year’s two – and soon to be three with the Charlotte Motor Speedway “roval” – road-course races, but they typically do so for small-scale, underfunded operations, greatly hindering their hopes for victory.

Just one week removed from a 10th-place finish in the GTE-Pro class (and 28th overall) with the No. 66 Ganassi Ford GT team in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Johnson arrives at a full-time program with the necessary resources to compete for a top 10 or better.

“We are so excited about Billy Johnson making his Cup debut,” Ford Performance global director Dave Pericak said. “He drove great for us in Le Mans this past weekend, has been a champion for us in the past in the GT350, and he’s been one of our development drivers for a while.”

Johnson will replace Darrell “Bubba” Wallace, Jr., who competed for the team in the prior two races at Pocono Raceway and Michigan International Speedway. Wallace is expected to return to the team for the following race at Daytona International Speedway, with the release noting he “will compete with the team until Almirola is able to return to the seat.”

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