INDIANAPOLIS — Jimmie Johnson has a love to sports car racing. On Wednesday, he spoke about that in a break between a two-day test session for his Action Express No. 48 Cadillac team at the Daytona International Speedway. See, Johnson announced last Friday that he’d be racing in the 2021 Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona on the 3.56 mile road course. He’ll do so in a competitive car too.
The two-time Daytona 500 champion, has made seven past Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona starts. The last coming in 2011. While this race and sports cars have a special place in Johnson’s heart, he’s not doing this race for fun. It’s for him to grow in other areas in fact.
“I’ve had a bit of a journey here trying to let it be known that sports cars and racing in these events have an interest to me,” Johnson said via a zoom call on Wednesday afternoon from the DIS media center. “I’ve always felt like sports car racing was something I wanted to do after my Cup career. I feel like I need to let it be known that sports car racing is definitely an interest for me. And being in this race is crucial for that to set up for things down the road and obviously a good run and good performance should help open doors or at least keep me in people’s minds.”
Yes, Johnson is retired from NASCAR racing. Yes, he’s over the last nine years focused fully on his duties to Hendrick Motorsports and NASCAR Cup Series team. Yes, he’s looking to race is other events outside of NASCAR now, but this race next month is for learning more about his next adventure – INDYCAR.
Johnson, will race 13 times in the NTT IndyCar Series in 2021 for Chip Ganassi Racing. He’s taking this entire journey seriously. He has to. He knows the spotlight will be on him the next two years in the series and he doesn’t want to fail.
“The season is going to be here before I know it and of course, there is going to be a big spotlight on me in how I perform in the car,” Johnson said on his INDYCAR opportunity.
So, he tested at the Barber Motorsports Park last month in Leeds, Ala and he didn’t necessarily like where he was at then. He wants to be faster, but the series is so damn competitive, it’s hard to be near the top of the timing charts when from top to bottom is typically only separated by a second. Now, he’s having to do so as a 45 year old rookie without any knowledge on what he’s doing.
Most of the other drivers came up through open wheel ranks where you have a different style of racing. Johnson, has 20+ years in a completely different form, so he’s having to foget everything he’s already known and try to learn everything new in a span of four months.
“Just adapting to this new environment,” Johnson said during his Barber test in November. “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.
“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.”
That’s why the IMSA race is here for him to help him get comfortable in an INDYCAR. This is in fact to help him get comfortable even further. He spent a lot of time with teenagers at Barber in lower division open wheel cars just to continue to getting used to this.
Now, he is graduating up to an IMSA DPi. It’s all part of the master plan.
“To have such a high caliber opportunity, it’s a no-brainer,” Johnson continued at Daytona on Wednesday. “But one other piece is I’m trying to understand how to use downforce in the race car and get up to speed in IndyCar how little testing there is in IndyCar.
“This is a great way for me to get reps in a high-downforce car. The power isn’t the same, but the downforce is very significant and the trends and habits that I need to break and then re-create. I can use this experience to start that process.
“The Indy car is a whole different ballgame of power to weight. It’s like wrestling a monster. It is quite a vehicle. This one is very impressive, but the Indy car is something else.”
That’s why Johnson said that there’s nothing else on his plate other than if he does it, it’s to help him for INDYCAR. Even with a guaranteed spot into February’s Busch Clash on this very same road course, Johnson said that he’s not fielded any calls to race in that event and even if he did, he wouldn’t race in it this year anyways.
“I don’t think I’d do it right now,” Johnson said of the Clash. “Just in pure transparency, I need to not drive a stock car for a while to really reprogram my senses in my brain to drive downforce. It’s just a total different way to get through the center of a corner.
“I really need to stay focused in developing the right habits in IndyCar.”
Another thing people have wondered about Johnson is if he’d race in the Indianapolis 500. He’s always said that he’s had an interest but that desire stopped when his wife said ‘no’ when the kids were born. But, with the Aeroscreen now in place, could the option be back on the table?
“I think my journey for the 500 will really take place when I’m around Indy cars more,” Johnson said on the Indy 500. “It’s easy to have a perspective of things when you’re watching on television. And then the further you get into a sport, the deeper the understanding is so I’ll see as the year develops and I hope to be able to test on an oval and experience it firsthand.
“By myself out there, I feel plenty comfortable and safe with doing that. But 250 (mph) four wide in the closing laps of the 500, I don’t know if I can help myself and not race like a 20-year-old for the win. And I’ve always felt that if I’m thinking about my safety in a car, I don’t need to be in it. I’ve just always had that golden rule in my head.
“I’m not really sure if there’s even an opportunity there if I do change my mind, but we’ll see as 2021 develops and hopefully I can get at least a day on an oval and see how it goes.”
He’s not saying yes, but he’s also not saying no either. But, what he is saying is that he’s serious about this INDYCAR opportunity and doing everything he possibly can to be prepared when the season opens next March on the streets of St. Pete.