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Jimmie’s Future May Not Include Fenders

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, February 14 2020

Jimmie Johnson’s future past the 2020 NASCAR season is uncertain. He hinted recently that he may give Indy cars a whirl. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Alan Marler)

NASCAR superstar Jimmie Johnson is open to the notion of racing without fenders once his full-time Cup Series career concludes at the end of the 2020 season.

The seven-time Cup champion raised eyebrows on Tuesday when he patrolled the paddock at Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas, during the first open test of the NTT IndyCar Series. While inclement weather limited on-track action, Johnson visited as a guest and spent time with drivers of Arrow McLaren SP. Johnson also attended the morning drivers’ meeting and met with several friends in the paddock.

Johnson confirmed his possible interest in racing an Indy car in 2021 after his NASCAR contract with Hendrick Motorsports expires.

“I’m definitely learning,” said Johnson, 44, and a lock for the NASCAR Hall of Fame. “This is a totally different world than what I’ve been used to, but it’s a world I dreamed of racing in when I was a kid growing up in San Diego. My heroes were the guys that raced in the Indy 500. I’d go to the Long Beach Grand Prix and watch, hang out and wanted to be in a car going by.

“For me, this is a learning experience and (INDYCAR) has always been a bucket list category for me to come see these cars, be around these cars. (Next year) is open for me and who knows what opportunity might come along in INDYCAR, sports cars or back to my off-road roots. I’m just taking it all in and see what comes of it.”

Johnson said he has no formalized plans for racing in 2021, and in fact is totally focused on the NASCAR season that will begin with Sunday’s Daytona 500. Mired in a 95-race winless streak, Johnson finished second to Hendrick teammate William Byron in Thursday night’s second 60-lap Bluegreen Vacations Duel on Daytona International Speedway’s high-banked/2.5-mile trioval. Johnson, driver of the No. 48 Ally Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE, will start Sunday’s “Great American Race” in Row 3.

“There’s going to be a fine balance of making sure I can do everything I can on the Cup side while looking at some opportunities that should develop through the course of 2020,” Johnson said during a NASCAR Media Day scrum on Wednesday at DIS. “There haven’t been any specific plans thrown at me. I’ve had everybody from sanctioning bodies to team owners far and wide (contact him). I’ve been saying this for a lot of years _ I’m open to all other forms of racing. Now that there is an ending near at the end of 2020, those calls and texts and stuff are coming in more often.”

Johnson said he is particularly interested in racing an Indy car on a layout like COTA’s 3.41-mile/20-turn natural-terrain road-course. The FIA-approved layout is home to the Formula One U.S. Grand Prix as well as a round of the NTT IndyCar Series.

“I’ve gone in circles enough, and granted a road-course is still a circle, but I’m not interested in ovals really,” Johnson said. “I think the (Aeroscreen) windscreen on the Indy car certainly creates a huge upgrade in safety for those cars. I don’t want to say that an oval would be completely out of the question. The right oval would be important. I want to do some road-course racing. After driving that F1 car (in Bahrain) a couple Novembers ago, just blew my mind what that experience was like.

“Was able to go around (the F1 circuit) in Abu Dhabi with Fernando (Alonso) in a McLaren production car, which was really rad. To see it even in a rent a car (Tuesday at COTA), there’s just a unique feel that TV doesn’t carry over. The tracks are awesome. I mean, they look big and nice and wonderful. From the driver seat, the way they shape turns really, really complicated angles and corners, a lot of elevation you can’t see from television which is very intriguing as a driver.

“INDYCAR is an option. Sports cars. I could see a situation where the WECS Series has an eight-race schedule; there’s a lot of off-weeks in an eight-week schedule. Travel the world, take my family with me, school, experience the world. I could see a neat opportunity there. Clearly the IMSA Series racing here in North America would be a lot of fun. Those divisions would be probably my first focus in 2021 or ’22.

“In my heart, I still want to go back and do some off-road racing. I think opportunities like that will be around for a long time. I feel like there’s probably a shorter runway on some of these other series. With that being said, I’m just open. We’ll see what develops over the year.”

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Team Penske’s Will Power topped a list of 27 drivers turning laps during the NTT IndyCar Series’ two-day open test at Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas. The 27 drivers completed 1,480 laps around the3.41-mile/20-turn natural-terrain layout in preparation for the season’s fourth race, the AutoNation INDYCAR Challenge on Sunday, April 26.

Power, the 2014 series champ and 2018 Indianapolis 500 winner, recorded a lap of 1-minute, 46.7603-seconds/114.987 mph that was not far off his pole-winning speed of a year ago at COTA. He was inside 0.8-seconds from his pole-winning effort of 1:46.0177/115.792 mph last March.

“It always feels great, you know,” said Power, driver of the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet. “It’s good for all my guys to see we have the pace. We went through as many items as we could. Obviously, it was very rushed at the end there with red flags and everything, so didn’t get everything done, but kind of some of the big stuff that we needed to know, we understand.”

The field included six former series champions and seven drivers who have yet to start a series race. Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi posted the second-fastest lap at 1:46.9999/114.729 mph in his No. 27 NAPA Auto Parts Honda. Interestingly, Rossi qualified second to Power at COTA last season.

“It was obviously great to finally get back on track,” said Rossi, the 2016 Indy 500 champion. “It’s been a long offseason. The waiting around for weather was hard, but I think the team did a good job. We got through a lot of our run plan with no dramas, despite the delays.

“The Aeroscreen was tentatively less dramatic than everyone was expecting it to be, and didn’t have any real issues until some slight, reflection issues at the end which we should be able to rectify. So that was positive. We worked through a good test list and found a pretty decent place in adapting the car with the 2020 needs within a half-day. Generally, pretty happy.”

Two-time/reigning Virgin Australia Supercars champion Scott McLaughlin made an immediate impression, recording the third-fastest lap of the session at 1:47.2630/114.448 mph in the No. 2 Team Penske Chevrolet. “It’s an altogether new feeling,” McLaughlin said after logging 62 laps. “I’m a race driver. I like going fast, so this is a lot faster. I’m having fun. A lot of grip and it’s tough to drive.

“You turn that pit speed (limiter) off and there’s a lot of power and a lot of braking. I’m just really privileged to drive this car. Roger (Penske) and Team Penske have given me a-go. I’m just trying to enjoy it as much as I can with a smile on my face.”

McLaughlin is scheduled to make his series debut with Team Penske on Saturday, May 9, in the GMR Grand Prix on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road-course. “I’d like to explore (the NTT IndyCar Series) more,” McLaughlin said. “And I’d like to explore more in America. I’d love to get to America one day. That’s my ultimate goal. Whether it’s here or whether it’s anywhere, I just want to try to be here one day. I love the country. I love the people. I love the sport that it is, and we’ll see what happens.”

McLaughlin was followed by Team Penske teammate and two-time/reigning series champion Josef Newgarden, fourth at 1:47.2750/114.435 mph in the No. 1 Team Penske Chevrolet. Colton Herta, last year’s winner at COTA as a series rookie, rounded out the top five at 1:47.3672/114.337 mph in the No. 88 Andretti Harding Steinbrenner Autosport Honda.

Inclement weather hampered Tuesday’s opening day of the test, with just 17 laps being run collectively by the field.

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COTA’s open test featured the full-field debut of INDYCAR’s latest safety innovation, the cockpit-protecting Aeroscreen mandated for all cars on all tracks beginning this season. The Aeroscreen will make it competition debut March 13-15 at the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, Fla. (3:30 p.m., ET, NBC Sports Network).

Graham Rahal reported no issues with the Aeroscreen on his No. 15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda. “Little bit warmer in the car but not too bad. Visibility is great,” Rahal said. “I followed someone through a puddle and actually a ton of water came up on the Aeroscreen and it dissipated immediately. Better…better than what we would have experienced honestly before this.”

Open-wheel veteran Charlie Kimball, returning to the series fulltime in the No. 4 Chevrolet fielded by AJ Foyt Racing, cited “some cooling issues” he believes series officials should address on a day that was borderline cold. “But at the same time, I didn’t have any vision issues and it’s a lot quieter in the car,” Kimball said. “There’s a lot less wind noise, and I think the radio is clearer, so if we can figure out how to stay cool on a really hot day we’ll be in good shape. Even with the puddles and the dirt and all the other stuff that’s been on the Aeroscreen, I haven’t felt like I lost any significant vision.”

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The driver lineup competing for Rookie of The Year honors currently consists of 2019 Super Formula Rookie of the Year Alex Palou (No. 55 Dale Coyne Racing with Team Goh Honda); 2019 Indy Lights champion Oliver Askew (No. 7 Arrow McLaren SP Honda); 2019 Indy Lights championship runnerup Rinus VeeKay (No. 21 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet) and Indy Lights graduate Dalton Kellett (No. 14 AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet).

Kellett is the only rookie not scheduled for a full season. He will be competing in nine races in Foyt’s famed No. 14 entry while sharing the ride with veteran open-wheel champions Tony Kanaan and Sebastien Bourdais. Kellett split time with Bourdais at the COTA test.

Askew was fastest among this group, finishing seventh on the chart with a lap of 1:47.5611/114.130 mph after running 76 laps. VeeKay completed the most laps of the day with 82.

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Brazilian Felipe Nasr shared Carlin’s No. 31 Chevrolet with countryman Sergio Sette Camara during the COTA test. Nasr competed in Formula One for two seasons and was the 2018 WeatherTech SportsCar Championship Prototype champion.

Despite the two testing at COTA, Carlin has not confirmed a driver for the No. 31 for the 17-race season. Nasr is scheduled to compete in all of IMSA’s sports car races this year for Action Express Racing while Camara’s plans are unsettled after finishing fourth in the FIA’s Formula 2 Championship last year.

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INDYCAR’s Aeroscreen will make its Texas Motor Speedway debut during a test Friday in Fort Worth. Josef Newgarden, the two-time/reigning NTT IndyCar Series champion and 2019 Texas Indy 600 race winner, will headline a session featuring three series rookies.

Joining Team Penske’s Newgarden will be 2014 Texas Indy 600 winner Ed Carpenter, the series’ only owner/driver and an oval-track specialist; Dale Coyne Racing w/ Vasser-Sullivan’s Santino Ferrucci; series rookies Oliver Askew, Alex Palou of Spain and Rinus VeeKay  of The Netherlands as well as Team Penske’s Scott McLaughlin of New Zealand.

The Texas Indy 600 _ “America’s Original Night Time IndyCar Series Race” _ is scheduled for Saturday, June 6.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, February 14 2020
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