Did Wednesday’s Indy 500 Rookie Orientation test make Johnson want to now do next year’s race? “I’m absolutely closer. It’s the closest I’ve ever been to running the Indy 500,” Johnson tells me with a full recap on today’s test

INDIANAPOLIS — They’re almost eligible. Against mother nature’s best efforts, both Romain Grosjean and Jimmie Johnson will now be able to compete in practice for the 106th Running of the Indianapolis 500 should they each choose to do so. Grosjean we know most definitely will. He recently signed a multi-year contract to drive for Andretti Autosport in the No. 28 Honda for the 2022 NTT IndyCar Series and beyond. That includes the Indy 500.

He’s two laps shy of becoming Indy 500 eligible in general as he passed the first two phases and needs two more laps of 215 mph+ in order to gain full eligibility. Five miles separate Grosjean from the 2022 Indy 500.

Johnson, well he is also in the final phase but he needs 10 more laps to finish. According to series officials, both can complete their final phase of orientation during the open test on April 20-21 of next year. They’ll be able to join the veterans in that session.

The reason they didn’t finish on Wednesday is that the duo got a late start to the day after Johnson, turned five laps in his initial phase before the rain fell shortly after 11 a.m. ET. Grosjean, had done just his install laps. We’d go red for several hours so the rain could stop and the track get dried before returning to a green track around 3:05 p.m. ET.

They nearly got done before rains fell again and ended the day prematurely.

In saying this, is Johnson ready to come back next April? He’s not guaranteed to race here next May on the oval. He will on the road course race for sure, but Wednesday’s orientation was just another step in the process for him on determining if he truly wants to do this or not.

See, Johnson isn’t going to do something and not be competitive. If he’s going to race, he has a limit he wants to be within and if he’s not in those grasps, he’s not interested.

That’s why this all started with a test on the IMS road course last summer. That sparked the interest. If it did well and ran competitive lap times, then he’d be open to some INDYCAR races in 2021. Not only did it go well, he eventually ran all 12 road/street course events this past season.

The next step in Johnson’s progression would be on the ovals. For the longest time, they were off limits for him. But, once the series adopted the Aeroscreen for the 2020 season and beyond, it helped launched a new door in Johnson’s view again. That hallway to the INDYCAR door in his life wasn’t so long anymore. He was now facing it square in his vision.

The first step is opening in. Was he willing to turn the handle?

“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 of this last year. “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.”

He’s since turned the handle and cracked open the door in the process. Behind that door was a test at the Texas Motor Speedway on Aug. 30. See, before you can even hop behind the wheel of an INDYCAR on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval, you have to have oval experience elsewhere.

Texas was the spot they chose to do so at and it went well. That left the decision back up to him on if he’d take the opportunity to test here at Indy this week. The track was available. A car was ready. Grosjean was already going to be running through his three phases. It was truly a decision up to Johnson on if he wanted to join.

“You know, it’s — I hate that I’ve joked about it over the years that it’s my family, and they certainly do have a very big voice in all this, but my family is looking directly at me and my comfort,” said Johnson to me after his Texas test on if discussions with his family were the next step. “The INDYCAR that we have today versus where it was five years ago is just totally different from the aeroscreen and all the safety it brings in so many different ways, to the fact that we don’t have pack racing any longer.

“My journey and my comfort in this is really what my family is looking at, and I’m trying to be systematic and work through, and yesterday went very well, and it’s only created more interest for me to check out the Brickyard, so that’s the next step.

“But yes, there will be conversations, and I guess ultimately I’m trying not to say that it’s on my family and the pressure that comes with that. But it’s my journey and my wife and kids support me in whatever I want to do. Certainly they have their concerns, and their concerns are mine.

“I share the same concerns. I try to be very systematic and methodical and make sure that I’m in a standard — in a traditional box of risk in getting into a race car.

“We were all very comfortable with the risks associated to NASCAR, and through my experience this year in the INDYCAR Series, and certainly being in the car (at Texas), I feel that the INDYCAR is now back in that same box. There are inherent risks when you’re driving a race car, and I’m good with that, and I’m on this journey right now to prove to myself that the INDYCAR is back in that inherent box of danger of driving a race car.”

Jimmie Johnson climbs aboard his No. 48 Honda at Indianapolis – Photo Credit INDYCAR Media Site (Chris Owens)

So, Johnson kept the oval door open, peeked through it at Texas and now walked into the room Wednesday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. All he and Grosjean for that matter had to do was turn 10 Laps in the range of 205-210 mph, then 15 laps of 210-215 mph and finally 15 more laps at speeds in excess of 215 mph.

Pass all three phases and you’re Indy 500 eligible. Grosjean will be here. Does Johnson want to join?

“Yeah being here today is definitely a step closer in doing that,” Johnson told me. “First step was Texas. Then this step here today. I wish I could have run more laps and got into the faster phase of things and put the car on the edge. I’m still trying to find what it’s like living on the edge in one of these things. That’s what this journey has been. I’m absolutely closer. It’s the closest I’ve ever been to running the Indy 500. I still have a lot to work through. Family, sponsors, team. But it’s definitely a step closer.”

Did Wednesday fuel Johnson’s passion even more? See, the California native grew up idolizing Rick Mears. He had always wanted to race here in an INDYCAR. His career path took him a different route. He’s won four times here in a stock car. Now, he finally got that opportunity here in an open wheel car in what he describes as their native environment.

“Definitely a different kind of excitement,” Johnson told me on his feelings coming here this morning knowing he’s finally going to get to drive an INDYCAR on the oval. “Then oddly enough, after driving in Texas, I came here more optimistic than going in the other direction on the road course.”

He liked it so much, when he walked out of Gasoline Alley and stopped by his car that sat idle on pit road, he snapped a photo on his phone. He had to do so for his memories for his car going in the right direction here now he says.

Johnson feels like he could contend more on ovals than in road/street courses. He says that the comfort is more here than running the 2.439-mile road course layout. There’s some similarities that he’s used to and can get it better in range quicker than he would otherwise on turning left and right.

I mean, it took Johnson a few years to figure this place out in a stock car. 3 of his first 4 finishes here were 18th or worse with his best finish of ninth. Once he did, he was among the greatest ever. He won all four of his Brickyard 400’s in a seven year span between 2006 and 2012. In fact, from 2006 through 2013, he had five top two results in eight years.

What was it that decreased his gap and increased his comfort level here between 2005 and 2006 and what can he do to help expedite that in INDYCAR.

Does he expect the learning curve to take longer on an open wheel side of things? I mean it’s not like he has a lot of time to do so like he had nearly two decades ago in NASCAR. Wednesday was that final step and I feel like he’s there. He’s ready. The decision is going to come down to himself. Does he want to do this? I think he does.

Romain Grosjean at Indianapolis on Wednesday – Photo Credit INDYCAR Media Site (Chris Owens)

For Grosjean, this was his first laps turned at these types of speeds. At this time last year, he was bracing himself for a full time slate in the NTT IndyCar Series. He knew his F1 days were numbered and a change was needed. He was talking to teams over here about a potential venture Stateside. Then came that frightening crash in late Fall which changed his future outlook.

While racing was still in his future, he didn’t want to race on the ovals anymore, especially the high speed ones. See, without any past oval experience and coming off of a crash that frankly he’s lucky to be alive from, he didn’t want to take any additional risks nor put his family through that fear anymore.

But, once we got over here and saw how safe these cars are and how fun they are to drive, Grosjean became more open to the potential of a full time slate again. If he was going to do so though, he’d have to run the ovals including Texas and Indianapolis.

So, off he went to World Wide Technology Raceway this past summer for a test and after being there, he wanted more. So, Grosjean ran the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 in August and had a blast. That opened the door again for a full time effort in the series.

In turn, Andretti Autosport had an open seat and they courted Grosjean. He happily obliged and now he’s driving the same No. 28 Honda that Ryan Hunter-Reay has for over a decade. He will be full time in 2022.

He looked very fast and consistent on Wednesday.

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