INDIANAPOLIS — Jimmie Johnson has always been at a disadvantage this year. Not only is he embarking in the most difficult racing series in the world to compete in, he’s doing so having never seen most of these tracks before. This weekend though, he has a rare opportunity of showing up at the race track for a second time.
He has all the data from May to decipher through. While he wasn’t blazing quick, he had a lot to learn. Is the comfort level higher now than at any other time this season?
“Definitely. To have notes to review, video to review, even in the sim yesterday we have a starting setup to work from where I didn’t have that before,” he said to me on Friday at IMS. “We’re starting at what I feel and hope that I hope to start where I left off in the race and build from there and get closer.”
Johnson, well he was 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. In May time, he returned 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. In May, he had two practice sessions then qualifying. Johnson, qualified his No. 48 Honda 23rd for Chip Ganassi Racing on late Friday afternoon of that race weekend. 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.”
Now that he’s done this once here and has several races under his belt, does he feel like he’s in the game yet?
“Nope, not in the game,” Johnson told me still. “I really thought I would be by now. New tracks all the time but kind of excited to come back this weekend at a track for a second time. It’s just hard. I’m not missing a lot. It’s just a tenth of a second in the braking zone. That’s so small. But, those tenths of a second around over a 2-mile course with all these turns, that’s where I’m off.”
Johnson says that he’s not in the hard spot of finding the limit the last little bit. With how minimal testing is these days, the only time he can have a chance to find the limit is in actual race weekends.
“In NASCAR when you end up in a slide, there’s a large window to control the car. Here, the window is so small you rarely can react to it and save it. It’s almost you have to have the experience to know ‘oh I have too much steering where in it or I’m on the brakes a little too much at this point or I’m on the gas too much.’ You almost have to be ahead of it and the only way to get ahead of it is to get laps. I’ve made a career in driving a loose race car in NASCAR and my car is much tighter on balance than my teammates. It thought that would be a strength of mine to convert but it hasn’t.”
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.”