As Jimmie Johnson is set to prepare for the final three NTT IndyCar Series races next month, he will be back behind the wheel of his No. 48 Honda sooner than initially planned. See, the series doesn’t hit the track again until Sept. 11 in Portland. But, Johnson will get a head start, albeit on a track that holds no translation for the west coast swing to end the year.
Johnson, will finally get his oval test that he’s been wanting. He will do so on Monday at the Texas Motor Speedway for Chip Ganassi Racing, his current team that he’s already driving for.
See, this journey went from a door completely shut with a deadbolt locking mechanism, to that deadbolts coming loose, to the door being cracked to the door now being wide open.
“I think my journey for the 500 will really take place when I’m around Indy cars more,” Johnson said on the Indy 500 back in December of last year. “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 now has that day on an oval, so how did this journey then come about?
Johnson, 45, grew up idolizing Rick Mears. Both hail from California and Johnson saw with a watchful eye how successful Mears would become as an open wheel driver. That meant when Johnson started racing, he wanted his career path to take him to Indianapolis. This was a place that he had always dreamed about racing in.
As we’ve already seen though, the career path went down a different route, one that you can’t look back and wonder ‘what if’ on.
Johnson, is a seven-time NASCAR champion who’s won 83 times including two-Daytona 500’s, four Brickyard 400’s, four Coca-Cola 600’s and two Southern 500’s. He’s done everything and more that stock car drivers strive to do.
Where this started was, as his career was winding down, he knew that he wasn’t fully ready to hang his helmet up for good yet. He felt like he had some good years left in him, but racing 38 weekend’s out of 52 wasn’t appealing anymore. So, while he was still young enough and plenty fit, that INDYCAR dream crept back in.
In fact, it never fully left. He had always had an eye on the series but once the marriage to his wife came and the birth of his children, the door to race in the series was barricaded shut. While he had an opportunity in the mid 2000’s, Chevrolet said, no. At that point, INDYCAR’s sole engine provider was Honda and a successful Chevy driver in NASCAR would have no business in a Honda INDYCAR even as a one-off.
Then with an open cockpit, his wife said no to the future endeavors here.
But, with his career in NASCAR coming to a close and an Aeroscreen introduced to the Indy Car’s for the 2020 season and beyond, the conversations with his wife began again. With her blessing, a test on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course occurred last summer. He did so with Chip Ganassi Racing.
At that point, ovals weren’t even up for discussion. It was road/street courses only being sought. By the Fall, deals were in place for Johnson to put this program together. He’d run 13 road and street courses in 2021 and again in 2022 with Tony Kanaan taking over on the ovals. One race was taken away due to the cancelation of Toronto, but here he is after nine races having the time of his life and now an oval test coming up.
Safety and comfort happened. As he said last winter, he wasn’t closed off to it, but he needed to see more up close and personal.
His wife was more open to an oval opportunity but Johnson said that in order to even think about racing on ovals, he needed a test. The same way that he needed a test in order to see if an INDYCAR was even an option.
That worked. Will this one?
“I’m good with where I am right now,” Johnson said back in May on how badly would he want to be in a car for the Indy 500 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.”
That eagerness helped this happen.
At that time in May, Chip Ganassi said that he hasn’t had any discussions about Johnson testing on an oval but it would totally be up to him when he wants to.
“He knows the opportunity is there,” Ganassi told me of Johnson and an oval test. “I’m not trying to put T.K. out of a job or anything. We’ll have to come up with another car or something. He knows it’s there if he wants.”
Johnson was awe struck in May to be at Indianapolis, as an INDYCAR driver, roaming Gasoline Alley.
“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.”
Now, he’s one step closer to being one of the drivers piloting those cars next May.
It’s all dependent on the Texas test as some may be wondering, ‘why Texas?’ Well for starters, Johnson won seven times in a Cup car there and it’s also a spot that the series already races at. Rumors are swirling that Texas will remain early in the season next year before Indianapolis 500, so if a Texas test goes well, you know what would be next…
If Johnson did end up testing a car and want to run next year’s race, would Ganassi be willing to expand to a fifth car?
“I think you’d certainly take a look at it, yeah,” he said.
The look comes Monday.