INDIANAPOLIS — Jimmie Johnson is no stranger to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The California native made 18 starts here in a NASCAR. He was able to pucker up and kiss the bricks four times in those 18 annual visits. This time, he returns to the famed track for the first time since the 2019 season. Last year, he missed the Brickyard 400 due to COVID. This time, he’s doing so in a vastly different discipline of motorsports. He’s doing so in an NTT IndyCar Series machine.
He previously tested here last summer and last fall, decided that this was the route he wanted to go post NASCAR. On Friday, he had two practice sessions then qualifying. Johnson, qualified his No. 48 Honda 23rd for Chip Ganassi Racing on late Friday afternoon. He says that while the success in the past was nice, the pressure to success right now is still minimal.
“I’m not in the game yet, so at least right now there’s less pressure on me than I’ve had in years past, really kind of ever here,” he told me on Friday afternoon from his garage inside of Gasoline Alley. “Because I always kind of came here with the thought of winning. That kind of pressure is the highest of pressures. Right now, it’s my rookie year. There’s very little testing. People kind of understand that’s the environment that I’m in, the situation that I’m in. The change of pace. I don’t feel like there’s a lot of pressure now but as the year goes on it really ramps up.”
But, to be in an open wheel car in Indianapolis no matter what layout they’re running in special to Johnson. See, he grew up wanting to race here in the Indy 500. He idolized Rick Mears. He felt like his future would be best suited here. Instead, his path went to NASCAR and it’s not like it was a bad thing. He won 83 times and took home seven championships. That path was best for him.
Now, he can carve his own path to wind down his career in making his childhood dreams come true.
“This is their native environment. This is what they’re supposed to be doing. It’s cool,” Johnson said of being an Indy Car driver at Indianapolis during the Month of May. “I can’t wait to be here for the oval practice and qualifying and see the race and soak all of that in. An Indy Car on this track is pretty darn special.”
In saying that, he’s not racing here in the 105th Running of the Indianapolis 500 in a couple of weeks. But, does being here make him wish he changed his mind sooner?
“I’m good with where I am right now,” Johnson said on how badly he would want to be in a car here on May 30. “Until I can test a car, which is the most realistic next step for me on an oval, you know I had a chance when this was all getting started to be here on May 30 but I elected not to. I still have a process that I’m going through. I’m very eager to try an oval. I’m very eager to be here for the ‘500 and I know that’s only going to fuel the fire more.”
So, Johnson will focus on his third start of his career on Saturday. He finished 19th in the season opener at the Barber Motorsports Park and 22nd a week later on the streets of St. Pete.
“Just feeling comfortable and confident so I can attack,” Johnson said on what he’s most looking forward to on Saturday. I feel like the big chunks of speed aren’t there for me anymore so it’s just about the little nuances on how to carry the speed in different areas. This is where the fun really begins.