By Dustin Albino

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — When Legacy Motor Club announced last spring it would change manufacturers ahead of the 2024 season, pairing longtime Chevrolet driver and team co-owner Jimmie Johnson with Toyota, expectations were heightened. No longer was the team low on the data-sharing totem pole within the manufacturer.

Legacy is opting to have no technical alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing for the 2024 season. However, the Toyota teams — Legacy, JGR and 23XI Racing — are expected to work with each other on superspeedways, giving them strength in numbers on the race track.

That was on display initially during the Bluegreen Vacations Duel races at Daytona on Thursday. Toyota swept the Duels, with Tyler Reddick and Christopher Bell splitting the victories. Not far behind was Erik Jones, who was impressive by leading a handful of laps in the first Duel and finished fifth. On the flip side, Jimmie Johnson narrowly avoided disaster, making a last-lap surge to pass JJ Yeley and lock into the Great American Race. John Hunter Nemechek executed towards the end of the second Duel, placing fourth. Both full-time Legacy cars started the Daytona 500 inside the top 12.

It didn‘t take long for trouble to strike Legacy in the Great American Race. A mere six laps in, Brad Keselowski bumped Nemechek in the tri-oval, which turned the No. 42 car into Harrison Burton. That triggered a seven-car pileup, ending the days of Burton, Carson Hocevar and Kaz Grala. Austin Dillon and Johnson were both hindered in the incident.

Nemechek made a late charge to end the first stage in 15th. Jones wasn‘t far behind in 17th. The famed No. 43 ride maintained track position in the second stage, finishing 13th. Nemechek, however, dropped an anchor to 30th. Both were still trucking along with a shot at the Harley J. Earl Trophy.

In what turned out to be a fairly clean final stage, Jones was swept into the massive 23-car melee with nine laps remaining, beginning when Alex Bowman gave William Byron a shove. That turned the No. 24 car into Brad Keselowski at the front of the pack, ending the day of multiple pre-race favorites. Jones had minimal damage and Nemechek escaped it completely.

In the four-lap dash to decide the 66th annual Daytona 500, Nemechek powered to a seventh-place effort. Jones was directly behind the No. 42 Toyota in eighth. It‘s the first time the team placed multiple cars in the top 10 since rebranding to Legacy Motor Club last season.

“Solid Daytona 500, solid start to our year,” Nemechek said. “Ran up front a little bit, rode around for a while and stayed out of the carnage.”

Jones, who is often regarded as an underrated superspeedway competitor, picked up his second top-10 finish in the Daytona 500 — and his first since rounding out the podium in 2019 for JGR.

“It went the way we needed it to,” Jones said. “We had some issues on pit road. We had a fast car; just didn‘t work out. We were out front there and got caught up in a wreck, and then came back and finished top 10.

“It‘s a good start to the season. I‘ve not had good luck at the start of the season at Daytona, so we will take a top 10. I wish it was more. I think we had a car capable of more, I just struggled getting in line and getting to the front.”

The Cup Series moves to Atlanta, where Jones has a pair of top-10 finishes in four starts on the reconfigured track. His average finish in those races is just south of ninth. The last time NASCAR visited the Peach State, Nemechek was victorious in the Xfinity Series.

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