Jimmie Johnson is back behind the wheel of an NTT IndyCar Series machine. He went from turning 500 laps on Sunday afternoon at the Martinsville (VA) Speedway to testing an INDYCAR for Chip Ganassi Racing the very next morning at the Barber Motorsports Park.
For Johnson, once the checkered flag drops this Sunday at Phoenix, the INDYCAR is his new focus. NASCAR will be a thing of the past for the seven time champion. He’s retiring at seasons end and the seasons end is actually only in a few days.
That’s why he was on hand with 20 other drivers on Monday morning at Barber for his first test with other cars on the track.
“It’s a beautiful facility,” Johnson said after turning 30 laps this morning. “I’m highly impressed. A very technical track, very attractive. Rewards bravery and aggression.”
For Johnson, this is the first of what he thinks will be around seven tests in his No. 48 Honda between now and St. Pete next March. But, as we sit here today, he really was hoping to get more seat time. Right now, he’s just not comfortable yet and who could blame him?
INDYCAR is the single most difficult series to win a race in. From top to bottom, the field is normally separated by a single second. Anyone can win on any given race. So, for a driver literally turning laps for just the second time of his life in one of these cars, he’s facing a tough uphill battle.
Plus, given the fact that some weekend’s could be condensed again next year and you get a driver that’s going to be facing a tough climb.
“It’s a bad time to be a rookie, even a 45-year-old rookie with all the years I have in racing,” Johnson said. “To learn these cars and tracks, it’s going to be a real steep learning curve for me. I just don’t have that yet. I’m still trying to get comfortable in these cars.”
Johnson, said that Barber in particular, he’s finding pace in the lower speed sections. It’s just that he’s trying to unlearn some past habits out of a NASCAR which is causing him to lose time in the faster sectors.
See, a NASCAR is a heavier machine with lower downforce. The way to generate downforce in the corners is vastly different. An INDYCAR can get heavier downforce in some areas if you work the corners right.
“These blind corners, the approaches to turns that are on an uphill, you can charge them a lot harder, extract a lot more speed out of the car,” Johnson continued. “Really I’m trying to figure out where the edge is, where to push the car. There’s really no runoff. If you go off, you’re in the grass, into a barrier.
“I’m still working on the boundaries. I would say the low-speed stuff, I have a good sense of it, seem to be on pace, where I need to be. Faster turns with the vehicle speed creates more downforce, I’m just not used to that environment. I’m used to trusting that all the years that I spent in the heavy NASCAR vehicles without much downforce.
“That’s the challenge right now, to carry a bit more speed in, use a lot less brake, let the vehicle create the grip and the downforce from the corner itself.”
Johnson, said that he’s having to balance being aggressive and finding speed in those areas and not getting too far off course and wrecking and wasting valuable seat time.
“I wish there was a day two,” he said. “It’s only a single-day event. That would be awesome, a great goal to set for myself. First half is gone. Only had my 30 laps out there. Just the way things worked out this morning with the temperatures being cool, we couldn’t start when we had hoped.
“More important to me is logging every lap I can just because I’m starting at ground zero. I feel like that’s more important than anything, although I’m eager to look at the sheet, see how far I’m off, how much ground I need to make up. I’ll keep a close eye on that.”
Johnson said that he’d love to be within a second of the guys but he’s just not there yet. He is taking big chunks out of it each time he’s making laps, so that’s rewarding to him after his first full day of having cars on the track with him.
“Just adapting to this new environment,” Johnson said. “There’s so many things that are foreign to me, working through a lot of those little technicalities with the car, with the cockpit, procedures, then trying to get some laps in there as well.
“There’s so many cars here. To get there out on the track, find a clean spot to run, take my time getting up to speed has been a bit challenging with the heavy traffic and how fast these guys are.
“I just want to be courteous on track, not be the rookie that makes mistakes. I feel like I’ve probably been a bit too worried about my mirrors, making sure I let guys by.
“Now that I’m closer on pace, it takes them a lot longer to get to me, catch me, they can pass me in a traditional braking area. Everything is sped, it’s so much quicker, from the car speed everything, so much quicker, closing rate, braking distance. All those things just compound, things happen a lot quicker.
“Each time I go on track, things seem to slow down a bit more for me. I’m able to work through all that stuff to get faster and get more comfortable.”