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Johnson Speeds Closer to The Indy 500

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, September 1 2021

Seven-time NASCAR Cup champion Jimmie Johnson continues to prep for his first Indy 500. (Photo courtesy of Texas Motor Speedway.

Jimmie Johnson is one step closer to answering the siren call of the Indianapolis 500.

Johnson successfully completed his first NTT IndyCar Series test on an oval Monday at Texas Motor Speedway, logging several laps in the 214-mph bracket around the high-banked/1.5-mile oval where he has posted a track-record seven NASCAR Cup Series victories.

An open-wheel rookie this season, Johnson has made nine INDYCAR starts on the series’ road-and-street circuits with Chip Ganassi Racing. Monday’s seven-hour test in Fort Worth began with a 4:30 a.m. wakeup call for a crack-of-dawn session (6 a.m., CDT) in a relatively cool 75 degrees. The test finished shortly after 1 p.m. with the heat index reading nearly 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

Teammate Scott Dixon, the six-time/reigning IndyCar Series champion and record five-time winner at TMS, drove the initial setup laps in the No. 48 Honda. But Johnson indicated he exited the cockpit ready for more left-turns-only.

“I would even say by the end of the day I was more in-tune with the car than I’ve been on a road or street-course so far,” Johnson said during a Zoom conference with national media Tuesday morning. “The second half of the test session was very comfortable for me and felt much more like home.”

Understandable, given that Johnson made 35 Cup starts at “The Great American Speedway” in Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolets during his run to a record-tying seven NASCAR championships.

“It’s been really nice to be on a familiar track,” Johnson said from Phoenix, prior to a scheduled sponsor appearance before The American Legion National Convention. “I know where I am, I know what to do, I know the line around the place and even down to simple things like knowing where the hotel was last night or knowing how to drive into the tunnel and get into the infield. There’s been some small wins that are nice to have.”

But that’s where the familiarity ended. Among the differences between a Cup and Indy car, Johnson noted, was an approximate 25 mph increase in speed in a cockpit with relatively limited visibility and more demanding G-forces.

“The car drives way different,” Johnson said. “It’s much more responsive so I found the majority of the day just trying to acclimate to this new environment, one that’s much faster and certainly a bit more sensitive to the inputs that the driver gives to the car.

“In NASCAR, you go fast by being on the ragged edge and having the car sideways. I’m quickly learning and understanding that in an Indy car you can’t drive it and you don’t set the car up to drive it to (that edge). Sure, you end up there in some moments, but it’s not where you live. That’s been a pretty big eye-opener for me _ on road, street and then just this one oval test that I’ve done.

“Being on-track and really being able to understand, I guess, more specifically to the car, how much you need to sense through the weight of the steering wheel. I’m used to being sideways in a Cup car and people can see…the car is loose. I have oversteer, I need to work on the car. If you’re at that point in an Indy car, it’s all over, and you’re crashing.

“So, that really kind of changed my mindset and the weight of the steering wheel _ that’s the part that really talks to you about the grip-level of the car. The lighter the wheel, nine times out of 10, the more oversteer you have in the car and that means pit. Don’t wait until it slides. You’re probably not going to catch it; come in and let’s work on it.”

Dixon won the series’ first oval-track race of 2021 at TMS on May 1 to break out of a tie with former Team Penske star Helio Castroneves. Dixon was joined in a mentor’s role Monday by teammate Tony Kanaan _ the 2004 series champion and 2004 TMS race-winner who drove the No. 48 on the schedule’s four oval-track events this season _ and Dario Franchitti, a four-time series champion, three-time Indy 500 winner and 2011 TMS race-winner. 

Johnson began the day with a conservative setup as he worked through each set of tires. By the third set, Johnson said his comfort level allowed him to begin challenging himself and offer input on chassis changes during stops for fresh rubber.

“I was able to feel the car, speak the language, work through adjustments in the car; I knew what to talk to Eric (Cowdin, veteran engineer) about,” Johnson said. “I knew where the spring-split worked _ I guess they call it using the weight-jacker button, which was cross-weight wedge is what we call it in NASCAR _ just using the tools and the way you make a car go was so much more familiar. I knew what I was feeling, and I could be of help.

“To know that I could come here and test and experience it as a driver was important to me. It’s one thing by myself. I feel like I can control my environment, and I’m very thankful that I’m able to go out and do it. The way INDYCAR has advanced their safety and certainly what the tracks have done to increase the safety, my concerns are much less. Now that my concerns are at a certain point, now it’s time to get in the car and see what my point of view is from there.”

TMS has played host to INDYCAR since the track’s inaugural season of 1997, when its June night race was part of Tony George’s fledgling/all-oval Indy Racing League. TMS kicked-off the series’ 2021 oval-track schedule with a doubleheader weekend May 1-2, billed as a prelude to the 105th Indy 500 on May 30. Dixon won the opener while Pato O’Ward of Arrow McLaren SP prevailed in Race 2.

Johnson said in addition to TMS, the Ganassi organization considered testing him on the 1.5-mile Homestead-Miami Speedway _ a track not currently on the schedule. Even with the early start to the day, TMS offered the challenges of a hot, slick track with high tire degradation.

“As I got closer to the test date, it would be a proper test,” Johnson said. “Worst-case scenario, worst-case conditions.

“Now looking back at having (TMS) as my first oval test, since I’ve had so many reps there in a stock car, it really, really turned out to be the right place…the perfect storm for me to evaluate an oval in an Indy car.”

Johnson’s next oval test will be on the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway in October, where he is expected to be joined by fellow-rookie and Formula One veteran Romain Grosjean of Dale Coyne Racing with RWR. Johnson said a decision on competing in the 106th Indy 500 in May 2022 is definitely “a step-closer,” although that would not necessarily include any other oval on the schedule.

“I think that there are more conversations to be had with family, team and sponsors (and) at least another test session ahead of me before I can really make a decision,” said Johnson, who will turn 46 on Sept. 17.  “But driving the car yesterday only piqued my interest more.”

While Johnson has been running at the finish of seven of the nine series races he’s started, his stats have been modest. His best start was in the season-opener, 21st, at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Ala., where he finished 19th. Johnson also finished 19th in his most recent start last month at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis on the IMS Road-Course. But his in-race TV advertisements for Carvana have easily out-paced any established series regular.

“I’m having such a good time, and every rep I get in the car, I’m only going to get better,” Johnson said. ”My intent is to stick around (INDYCAR) as long as I possibly can.”

Johnson’s next series start will be in the Grand Prix of Portland at Portland (Ore.) International Raceway on Sept. 12, the first of three consecutive road/street-course events to close the INDYCAR season. Johnson has tested at Portland and at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca in California, site of the second race in the sequence on Sept. 19.

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UPDATED 2021 NTT INDYCAR SERIES SCHEDULE/RACE WINNER

Sunday, April 18 _ Barber Motorsports Park, Birmingham, Ala. (Alex Palou, Chip Ganassi Racing)

Sunday, April 25 _Streets of St. Petersburg, Fla. (Colton Herta, Andretti Autosport)

Saturday, May 1 _ Texas Motor Speedway Race 1, Fort Worth (Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing)

Sunday, May 2 _ Texas Motor Speedway Race 2, Fort Worth (Pato O’Ward, Arrow McLaren SP)

Saturday, May 15 _ Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road-Course (Rinus VeeKay, Ed Carpenter Racing)

Sunday, May 30 _ The 105th Indianapolis 500-Mile Race (Helio Castroneves, Meyer Shank Racing)

Saturday, June 12 _ The Raceway at Belle Isle Park Race 1, Detroit (Marcus Ericsson, Chip Ganassi Racing)

Sunday, June 13 _ The Raceway at Belle Isle Park Race 2, Detroit (Pato O’Ward, Arrow McLaren SP)

Sunday, June 20 _ Road America, Elkhart Lake, Wis. (Alex Palou, Chip Ganassi Racing)

Sunday, July 4 _ Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, Lexington, Ohio (Josef Newgarden, Team Penske)

Sunday, Aug. 8 _ Streets of Nashville, Tenn. (Marcus Ericsson, Chip Ganassi Racing)

Saturday, Aug. 14 _ Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road-Course (Will Power, Team Penske)

Saturday, Aug. 21 _ World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway, Madison, Ill. (Josef Newgarden, Team Penske)

Sunday, Sept. 12 _ Portland (Ore.) International Raceway (NBC)

Sunday, Sept. 19 _ WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, Monterey, Calif. (NBC)

Sunday, Sept. 26 _ Streets of Long Beach, Calif. (NBCSN)

(Editor’s Note: John Sturbin is a Texas-based journalist specializing in motorsports. During a near 30-year career with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, he won the Bloys Britt Award for top motorsports story of the year (1991) as judged by The Associated Press; received the National Hot Rod Association’s Media Award (1997) and several in-house Star-Telegram honors. He also was the inaugural recipient of the Texas Motorsports Hall of Fame Media Award (2010). His list of freelance clients has included Texas Motor Speedway, the Dallas Morning News, New York Newsday, NASCAR Wire Service and Ford Racing).

 

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, September 1 2021
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