Jimmie Is All-In On Winning The Indianapolis 500

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, March 24 2022

Jimmie Johnson’s first oval race in an Indy car resulted in his best finish in the IndyCar Series. (Photo courtesy of INDYCAR)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

FORT WORTH, Texas – Jimmie Johnson was only a few minutes into his post-race presser at Texas Motor Speedway when he was asked the question of the day _ maybe the question of his racing lifetime.

Hey Jimmie, are you ready to launch Jimmiemania heading into the 106th Indianapolis 500 on May 29? Can you win “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing?”

“Why not? Why can’t we?” Johnson said after a workmanlike, sixth-place finish in Sunday’s XPEL 375, his first NTT IndyCar Series oval-track race. “The 500 is a special race and we’ve seen favorites win and we’ve seen the race won by strategy. Helio (Castroneves) is like ages older than me (both are 46) and he won last year, so I mean really, anything’s possible.”

That last comment, of course, was a friendly jab at Castroneves, the popular Brazilian who won his record-tying fourth Indy 500 last May 30.

“Learning what I did today, I’m going to start at such a better spot,” Johnson said. “If the race was 50 laps longer (at TMS) I think I would have finished further forward. Heck, if I would have started the race 10th I think the way track position played-out I would have finished better than sixth. So why not? Let’s dream big.”

Indeed, Johnson said his finish following 248-laps/372-miles around TMS’ high-banked/1.5-mile oval basically validated his transition from seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion to INDYCAR rookie in 2021.

“Yeah, and in another respect there’s relief and just plain old ‘I like to go racing,’^” Johnson said. “So it’s a bit of everything. I honestly don’t have anything to prove to anyone. I’m truly doing this because I want to race cars and I want to race in the IndyCar Series. Of course I’m a competitor and of course I knew that I should run better on ovals and was able to do that this weekend, so that feels good. But I don’t have some axe to grind, I don’t have a point to prove, I’m just going racing. And I’m just truly happy to have a great day in a race car.

“I really don’t have any regrets. It’s been a great journey and no regrets at all.”

Can Jimmie Johnson win at Indy in May? “Why not,” he says.

Recall that Johnson spent his rookie INDYCAR season with Chip Ganassi Racing competing in only the series’ street and road-course events, with a best finish of 17th. Jimmie-haters gleefully took their shots on social media while watching the guy who had won those seven Cup championships with Hendrick Motorsports run as a back-marker without fenders.

“Yes, I’m absolutely happy coming home sixth,” said Johnson, driver of the No. 48 CGR Honda. “I hoped to qualify in the top-10 and race in the top-10. Missed the qualifying mark a bit (18th), but once we hit the halfway point of the race, I really could sense and feel the car. It became second nature, and off I went. We knew going oval racing would help, and today got us into the competitive mix.”

Amazingly, Johnson’s finish in the season’s second of 17 races elevated him into the top-10 in points for the first time in his open-wheel career.

“I think today just showed what the No. 48 car is capable of,” Johnson said. “We all know what the Chip Ganassi cars are capable of. I just haven’t been fast enough on the street and road-courses to put the car in that window and get the results. So being here on a track that I know and a dynamic that I know, I feel very excited about it and very encouraged about the remaining oval races on the books.”

The XPEL 375 was the only oval booked on the schedule before the Indy 500. And while there is little physical comparison between TMS’ 1.5-mile layout and the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the basic dynamics are quite similar.

“I know I’m going to have a great car (at IMS), so let’s see how it goes,” Johnson said. “I passed Scott Dixon _ probably to his disappointment and to my excitement. When I caught that group and caught the No. 9 car, I had to look two or three times to make sure it was the No. 9 car.”

That pass occurred during the closing stages of an entertaining race won by Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden via a last-lap, last corner pass of teammate Scott McLaughlin.

“What a two-day adventure this has been,” Johnson said. “To be able to get enough laps in the race, to feel the tires from start to finish, three pit stops, being in dirty air and just how uncomfortable and treacherous that is…all of those little moments gave me a sense of the car and helped me feel really how to drive this car at great speed.

“Then the second half of the race I started working my way forward, and that final stint I had a very competitive car.”

The line of peers congratulating Johnson post-race included CGR teammates Dixon, a six-time series champion and five-time TMS winner, and third-place finisher Marcus Ericsson.

“I mean it feels good for all my own reasons,” Johnson said of the kudos. “It definitely feels good to be complimented by other drivers and my teammates and (engineer) Eric Cowdin and see Chip on pit lane _ that all feels really, really good. But it’s almost icing on top of the cake. The cake is what I know I did behind the wheel today and the growth I had in the race car. So that’s really the part I’m savoring the most right now. I do enjoy the congratulations from others but I’m almost speechless myself just kind of savoring it and taking it all in.”

ICYMI, “Full Time” is Jimmie’s mantra and mission for the 2022 campaign, which includes five oval-track events. Johnson went into the XPEL 375 well-aware the eyes of the motorsports world would be locked on his every left turn.

Turning left. That is what Johnson did best en route to winning 83 NASCAR Cup Series races in various 3,200-pound, 200 mph No. 48 Chevrolet stock cars fielded by team-owner Rick Hendrick. Translating that skill-set to Chip Ganassi’s No. 48 Honda-powered Dallara _ a low-slung, 1,655-pound, 240-mph missile without fenders_ has emerged as Jimmie’s siren call.   

“Yeah, I mean INDYCAR was the dream when I was a kid,” said Johnson, looking typically fit-and-trim at age 46. “First it was motocross and then quickly to INDYCAR just because it’s what I grew up around in Southern California. When I go back to being a kid, the only race I had the patience to sit down and watch with my dad (Gary) and my grandfather (Kenneth) was the Indy 500. So from my earliest memories of dreaming of being a race car driver, the 500 was it.”

Johnson said he gravitated toward a pair of four-time Indy 500 champions. “A.J. Foyt was my grandfather’s favorite,” Jimmie said of the now 87-year-old Foyt, first four-time winner of the Indy 500. “My grandfather would always tell me, ‘If you want to be a man you’ve got to be like Foyt.’ My grandfather bought me his book so I was definitely able to experience a lot of that.

“Rick Mears and the Mears family came from off-road racing, so there was some kind of tie associated with my dreams, because I grew up off-road racing in California. I had this fantasy in my mind that I could be like Rick Mears some day and race in the Indy 500.“

The XPEL 375 was the ideal venue for Johnson’s open-wheel, oval-track debut. Jimmie concluded his NASCAR career after logging 35 Cup starts at TMS en route to a track-record seven victories. Johnson also owns the track’s Cup records for consecutive wins (three), laps-led (1,152) and top-five finishes (16).

“My test here in August, I felt more comfortable on the second set of (Firestone Firehawk) tires than I have on any INDYCAR road or street-course,” Johnson said. “It was really surprising to me that there were similarities because on a road-course there are none between a NASCAR and an INDYCAR vehicle.”

Saturday’s qualifying format _ the average of two hot laps _ relegated Johnson to the 18th spot on a 27-car grid at 219.865 mph. For comparison, Felix Rosenqvist earned his first oval-track pole with an average of 221.110 mph in the No. 7 Vuse Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet. Johnson started in Row 9 alongside Canadian Devlin DeFrancesco, the top rookie qualifier in17th at 219.888 mph in the No. 29 PowerTap Honda fielded by Andretti Steinbrenner Autosport.

“I think we’re being very measured in how we’re working me into qualifying and working me into a car that’s more trimmed-out and a bit more neutral,” Johnson said after his run. “But all is good so far, and it’s certainly been a fun morning and afternoon getting these laps in at Texas Motor Speedway.

“When I rolled off in the Carvana Honda (for qualifying), my heart rate was definitely elevated. I didn’t know what to expect. I kind of went off the confidence level of my teammates. They knew my trim settings, and they said, ‘Yeah, you should be able to go flat,’ so I just took their word and made a promise to myself not to lift my right foot up.”

Johnson launched his open-wheel program with the blessing of wife Chandra and daughters Genevieve and Lydia on the condition that ovals were strictly verboten _ especially that siren-of-a-track at the corner of 16th Street and Georgetown Road in Indianapolis.

“It’s funny because I feel like when we started to put this program together in late 2020 it was a hard ‘no’ from me,” Johnson said. “You know, my family really kind of paralleled that. And then being around the sport last year, it was kind of a soft ‘no.’ And then I go to Indy and I watch the 500…Alex (Rossi) had a big crash and I was one of the first ones to him (and asked), ‘Did it hurt?’ He said, ‘No, I’m fine.’ OK, cool! So then I moved into like ‘maybe.’

“And then it was, ‘Hey, honey, what do you think about this?’ And she said, ‘Well, it’s up to you. If you feel like it’s something you want to do and it checks all the boxes safety-wise, do a test.’ The team came here for that first test and things started moving quickly from there. I’m a bit surprised how my point of view changed from the fall of 2020 to May of 2021. It moved pretty quick.”

The speed difference between an Indy car and Cup car here, Johnson said, can be measured in “pucker-up” value.

“I would say top speed in rough numbers is maybe 20 mph difference,” Johnsons said. “But center of the corner speeds, probably 40 to 45 mph different. These cars just don’t slow down because of the downforce they create, they carry that speed through the turns. Where a Cup car has more power, accelerates a lot but you have to stop it and change directions and go again. So the minimum speed through the turns is slower in a Cup car.

“There’s a rhythm to an oval on how to maintain a minimum speed, how to set up a gap and try to close the gap and use the draft _ some race craft that I think will be useful. But man, the worlds are pretty far apart. It’s really has been farther apart than I anticipated.”

In that respect, Johnson admitted he is still very much an oval-track rookie _ a guy not favored to win every time out.

“When I look back through my career I’ve been here before and I know there’s a pattern to my learning, there’s a pattern to adapting to cars, tracks _ so I’m not as nervous about it,” Johnson said. “I know there’s a natural process and I just have to give it time. I know myself, it’s really energized me and I love the time and effort I’m putting in to try to cover as much ground as fast as I can. So it’s been a familiar process but also a fun one and one I’m really enjoying.

“From a driver’s standpoint, things come at you so much faster in these cars that getting my reaction time, hand-eye coordination, even my senses kind of recalibrated for these smaller and quicker subtleties that show up and give you the confidence you need in the car _ that’s been a journey I’m on personally and constantly trying to get better at.

“And especially on the street and road-courses, the physicality. I mean these cars really take a lot of physical work and you don’t have cautions, you don’t have stage breaks, you don’t have these moments to catch your breath. And oftentimes the green falls, the next flag you see is the checkered. And every tenth-of-a-second you’ve lost, you’re not going to get back. So there’s also a component to the race craft that I need to learn that’s different than what I’ve experienced before.”

In a paddock full of Type-A personalities, Johnson has impressed his teammates via a relentless attention to detail. “Yeah, the work _ the amount of work that he’s able to put in and continues to put in is incredible,” said Alex Palou, 24, the reigning series champion from Spain and driver of the No. 10 NTT DATA Chip Ganassi Racing Honda.

CGR teammate Dixon, who counts the 2008 Indy 500 among his 51 career wins, said Johnson’s “steep learning curve” will continue to increase exponentially at IMS during the Month of May.

“He definitely had a big smile on his face the first time here,” said Dixon, driver of the No. 9 PNC Bank Honda. “I thought he was crazy for doing it from the get-go _ in a good way. So I give him so much credit for actually making the decision and sticking to it and enjoying it even though the difficulty level is through the roof.”

Dixon scored his record fifth INDYCAR victory here last May 1 to break out of a tie with Castroneves during his tenure at Team Penske.

“Even if it’s small wins, you can see Jimmie enjoying the process, him working with the team, him honestly just loving to race,” said Dixon, a 41-year-old native of New Zealand. “I think at this point in his career you might have burned through a lot of that time.

“For Jimmie, I think it’s probably his work ethic and just that he’s probably the nicest person you meet. And I think that’s what shocks a lot of people _ considering what he’s done, he could be a dick. But he’s a freaking nice person. I just love hanging out with him and seeing his progression and seeing what he’s been able to do. It’s very few people you’ll ever see in your life that will try to do a switch like this. He’s one of them.”


NTT IndyCar Series point standings (top-10): 1, Scott McLaughlin, Team Penske, 97; 2, Will Power, Team Penske, 69; 3, Alex Palou, Chip Ganassi Racing, 67; 4, Josef Newgarden, Team Penske, 65; 5, Marcus Ericsson, Chip Ganassi Racing, 58; 6, Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing, 55; 7, Colton Herta, Andretti Autosport, (tie), Rinus VeeKay, Ed Carpenter Racing, 50; 9, Simon Pagenaud, Meyer Shank Racing, 39; 10, Jimmie Johnson, Chip Ganassi Racing, 35.

(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 inaugural recipient of the Texas Motor Speedway Excellence in Journalism Award (2009). His list of freelance clients includes Texas Motor Speedway, the Dallas Morning News, New York Newsday, Rome (N.Y) Daily Sentinel, Corpus Christi (Texas) Caller Times, NASCAR Wire Service and Ford Racing).


| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, March 24 2022
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