INDIANAPOLIS — I’ve always said, if you wanted to turn any person into a race fan, all you had to do was take them to an NTT IndyCar Series event. From there, your work is done. From the aroma of the exhaust coming from these Dallara machines. To the screeching of the Firestone tires. To the speed being turned out of these Honda or Chevrolet engines. It was enough to do the job. They’d be hooked once you got them through the gates.
Well, it plays a factor in other race car drivers too. Just ask Jimmie Johnson.
The seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion announced this morning on the TODAY Show that he’ll contest in all 17 races next season in his No. 48 Honda from Chip Ganassi Racing. That includes the 106th Running of the Indianapolis 500 next May.
Johnson, said on the morning show that all it took was being a part of the NBC Sports’ Indy 500 broadcast team from this past year to get him to want to try it in 2022 as a driver. He said he had never been to an Indy 500 before that and once he was there, he wanted more.
Now, he’ll be a part of it next year.
So, how did we get here? How did we get from a driver that had INDYCAR being off limits, to wanting to wind down his racing career with select events to being a full-time INDYCAR driver?
November 2019 – NASCAR Retirement Announcement
Back on Nov. 20, 2019, Johnson announced his retirement from NASCAR. It would come at the end of the 2020 season. He said then that he’d race one more year then walk away from the cars that made him.
Johnson though said then that he knew by time the NASCAR schedule hit October that he was about done with traveling for 38 weeks a year. In October of that year, Johnson said that the retirement plans got “real” and it “felt good to think about.”
“I feel very, very good about my decision and it’s just time,” Johnson said then. “It showed up. I feel very blessed and fortunate to have this opportunity. It just feels right. I’m ready.”
He also made it clear then too, he wasn’t retiring from racing all together. He was just done with traveling more than half of a year.
Now, he’s full time again, albeit on a shorter scheduled that’s a little more than half of what NASCAR’s is. NASCAR races 38 weekends in a year, two of which being for all-star races. INDYCAR will race 17 weekends in 2022 and 18 if you throw in Indy 500 qualifying.
So, how did we get from NASCAR to INDYCAR?
July 2020 – INDYCAR Test
It started with a test in July 2020 on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. He did so with Chip Ganassi Racing.
Johnson, had always wanted to try out the Indianapolis 500. The California native grew up with Indy Car idols. But, when his career started growing with a NASCAR future, those Indy dreams was pushed aside.
I’d say after 83 wins and seven Cup Series championships, he chose the right path though. But, with his NASCAR career wrapping up at the end of the 2020 season, why not test an INDYCAR to see if those childhood dreams still lived inside of his heart? Why not see if this dream could turn into a reality?
“Yep absolutely,” Johnson said prior to the test if this was more of a tryout than a test for fun. “It’s a test. It’s a tryout. It’s a two way tryout for the team to look at me and for me to look at the team.”
This was also a test that would make or break for him if this is just a one-off test or potentially more to it too.
“If I’m four seconds off the pace, then that’s probably a quick sign that I don’t need to be in these cars,” Johnson continued. “It’s really on how I feel in the car. What my pace is like. Of course it’s unrealistic that I’ll be in a race winning pace in the first test session. If I’m within a certain amount of time and I have a good feel of the car, then for me, I feel like that’s an important first step that I need that I can be competitive.
“I don’t want to go race in any series and not be competitive. It’s really in those lines. Lap times always play a role in things.”
Those Indy dreams? Well they never died. He quickly found out that day. They were still there.
“There’s 12 on the schedule right now and I’d be open to run all 12 if the right opportunity came along,” Johnson said of the road courses in IndyCar after the test.
So, what about the Indy 500? That’s his biggest dream. Johnson, admitted that he had a chance to race in the event over a decade ago but Chevrolet said no since IndyCar was under only Honda power at that point.
Then, factor in once Chevy was back in IndyCar in 2012, his wife was a firm no on racing an open wheel car on an oval. She was okay with it until they started having kids. Now, it’s not even a discussion.
But, with the safety that’s come this year in terms of an Aeroscreen, that option was creeping back to the table again.
“I’m going to keep a close eye on things, Johnson admitted then. “Their safety on ovals has dramatically increased this year with the windscreen that they have. I’ll keep a close eye on things there to see how the safety level looks.
“I’ve always wanted to race the ‘500. I’d have to do a lot of selling to my wife to get that hall pass to do it. But, my true desire right now is to run the road courses.”
November 2020 – Team Announcement
The next step though was figuring out how to make this work for a part-time ride on road/street courses. Johnson had no interest in the ovals but if he was going to race, he needed to find someone to split the car with. Tony Kanaan, a good friend of Johnson’s, raced on the ovals for AJ Foyt Racing and didn’t have a ride lined up yet for 2021. Kanaan, used to race for Ganassi prior to his stint with Foyt, so this was a potential marriage to make this all work. So, Johnson sought out Kanaan to see if he wanted to give it a go.
See, Johnson called Kanaan a little bit after the test at IMS while the fan favorite was riding his cycle. Kanaan, thought Johnson was inviting him to a triathlon or to train somewhere seeing that both share the common off track activities. Instead, it was Johnson calling to tell Kanaan that he wanted him to share a seat with him in 2021.
“That phone call — you know what is one of those things that you remember exactly the day, the clothes you were wearing, where you were and so on?” Kanaan said of how this deal came about. “I was actually on my bike working out, which is not a surprise, here at home, and the phone rang, and it was Jimmie. I’m like, whoa, I thought he was going to invite me to do a triathlon or something like that, and he popped the question, and I said, are you joking? I don’t think we can pull this off.”
Kanaan, noted then that he was floored by the call and happily obliged. But, they still had some work to do if this realistically was going to happen though. Kanaan, obviously wanted to drive, but they still needed funding to make it realistically happen.
Kanaan admitted that he only talked to a few teams in the paddock about a possibility of 2021 and that this in turn could work if they could secure some sponsorship dollars. The other and yet main aspect was that Johnson needed to find a team first too.
“Although people would think different that this has been going on, this was obvious, it was never obvious,” Kanaan said. “It took a lot of work from a lot of parties to make it happen.
“Bryant has been with me since 2003. NTT has been with me since I’ve joined Ganassi, and since I left Ganassi they came with me, as well, and now they’re back.
“You know, I have to blame a lot, if there is somebody to blame, number one, it would be my sponsors that when I came back saying maybe we should come back next year, David from NTT and then Justin and Margo from Bryant said, why not.
“The two biggest ones were NTT and Bryant really that made this happen.
“I was lucky then, but then that was step one, get the sponsorship. Step two, it was trying to find a place that would fit right, that would make the right decision and so and so, and that was a little bit more complicated. There was a few sleepless nights and talking to Jimmie every day, like come on, what’s happening, and trying to — if you think about it, look how many pieces of the puzzle we had to put together.
“Jimmie had to get his deal first, which we didn’t even know if it was going to be Ganassi at the time. Yeah, the deal happened really quick, but we’ve been talking about this on and off for quite a while. But in the beginning I really said argh, this is never going to happen. That was the pessimistic side of me thinking it was going to be impossible to pull it off.”
One team that Kanaan admitted that he talked to outside of the Johnson deal was Ed Carpenter Racing. Still, he and Ed Carpenter wanted the same thing — to race on ovals only. It wasn’t going to be a viable option for him in the long run. AJ Foyt Racing was the most realistic but a second stint back with Ganassi made the most sense but needed a lot of work though too.
With Johnson’s blessing and long time sponsors like Bryant, NTT Data and 7-11 willing to fund this deal, Kanaan had a new contract in place waiting for him.
December 2020 – IMSA Deal
So, off they went. They’d split the No. 48 Honda with Ganassi for 2021. In the meantime, Johnson wanted to learn what he could as quickly as he can. Remember, this is all happening in the middle of a pandemic where testing time in limited.
So, with being open to all forms of motorsports, Johnson found a ride in IMSA, which features somewhat similar characteristics to driving an INDYCAR. He’d get an opportunity to run in the 24 Hours of Daytona which Johnson felt like would help his INDYCAR dreams too.
That deal was announced on Dec. 4, 2020.
“We’ve been talking to Jimmie about running with us for many months,” said Gary Nelson, Action Express Racing’s team manager then. “It all came together in November with the support of Hendrick Motorsports and their tremendous partner, Ally. Jimmie has a lot of experience at Daytona, not only on the oval, but turning into the infield, as well.”
The last time prior to 2021 that Johnson raced in the Rolex 24 was in 2011 when he and his team placed 15th.
“The Rolex 24 at Daytona is one of the marquee races in the world,” Johnson said of the deal. “It’s such a challenging event for both team and driver and requires a high level of concentration throughout. It’s a fun and unique race to compete in. This will be the first time I’ve raced with Action Express and have been very impressed with the team and its preparation.
“I’m also excited to have Ally on board and to be co-driving with Simon, Kamui and Mike, who are three world-class drivers with experience in this race and the DPi Class. I’ve finished second in this event, so I’m looking forward to trying to get on the top step in 2021.”
A week later, Johnson was testing that IMSA car at Daytona.
“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 from Daytona on December 10. “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.”
This race was for learning more about his next adventure – INDYCAR. He’s taking this entire journey seriously. He has to. He knows the spotlight will be on him 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 on that day in Daytona.
See, between the Roar at Daytona and the announcement that he’d be in the NTT IndyCar Series on a part-time basis in 2021, he tested at the Barber Motorsports Park. Johnson, didn’t necessarily like where he was at then. He wanted 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 was 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 of 2020. “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 was 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 was 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. “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 then 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 of 2021, 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 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.”
See, the signs were there then that Johnson was going to focus on INDYCAR full-time eventually. Once he had that Indy test in July of 2020, he knew he wanted more. That Barber test brought the competitive juice out of him even more. He isn’t a racing legend for the hell of it. These guys are wired differently. They work so hard to get to that point and this challenge was ahead of him. He was taking it very seriously so he focused on INDYCAR and INDYCAR only even if it meant racing in other series’, it was for his INDYCAR betterment.
Still, at that time, he was non committal on an Indy 500 appearance.
“I think my journey for the 500 will really take place when I’m around Indy cars more,” Johnson said on the Indy 500 in December of 2020. “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 wasn’t saying yes, but he also wasn’t saying no either. We had to get to 2021 first.
May 2021 – Indianapolis
He was in learn mode early on in the season last year. Then we got to the Month of May. This was going to be the first true test on if Johnson got the itch to race on ovals now that he was here seeing these cars in what he described as their “native environment.”
“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.”
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.”
August 2021 – Texas Test
That month led to today. It not only sparked an even higher interest, it made him want more. Before he would fully commit, he needed that test. INDYCAR though doesn’t allow a first oval test to take place at Indy so he had to find somewhere else. First it was going to be Homestead but then Texas became available and this past summer, they made it work.
The test went well. Would he now be willing to run on ovals afterwards though was the next question?
“I’m definitely a step closer,” he mentioned on Aug. 31. “I think that there are more conversations to be had with family, team and sponsors, at least another test session ahead of me before I can really make a decision, but driving the car yesterday only piqued my interest more.”
Johnson added that the comfort is there. He circled the track at over 214 mph which would have ranked fourth in qualifying from the last time out. He said that the first couple of runs were a little sketchy and taking some time to get used to, but the third run on, it felt normal.
“The day went really well. I really enjoyed it,” said the seven-time Cup Series champion. “The first few outings. Was definitely quite different with the speed around the racetrack, the feel of the race car and how nimble and lightweight the car is.
“But as I worked through my second set of tires and on, the car started to feel much more like home and certainly the track and being on an oval felt like home. By the end of the test session itself, I felt very comfortable and in a very familiar place, which was nice.
“I would say the first two sets of tires was a pretty big adjustment process for me. Just trying to understand the lateral grip that the car had because it was so much more significant than what I felt in a Cup car.
“The bumps were a lot smaller in the INDYCAR, which was really surprising to me. I felt like at that speed and how rigid the cars are, the bumps would be more so. But I guess the downforce that the car has in it, and then also probably something relative to ride height, as well, played a role in that.
“I would say probably by the third set of tires I was feeling it and was really aggressive with the car. Turns 3 and 4 is pretty straightforward, but Turns 1 and 2 is quite tricky, and to get through there flat out was kind of the goal, and on the third set of tires to really be able to pull that off and do it consistently felt good.”
As far as the speed aspect?
“I mean, it was quite significant to start,” he said. “So low in the car, vision is somewhat limited. Just how quick the car responds to steering wheel input was pretty new and different for me, and then the line that you run is similar.
“I mean, there’s only so much you can do with an oval, but the awareness of the banking and how to support the INDYCAR with the banking was a little different for me, and my NASCAR line had me a little wide on corner entry and exit, and Dario and Scott, I got their attention a couple times with my wide entries and had to bring that in.
“But once I kind of understood what to look for and how quickly the car would turn, I got into the flow of it pretty easily.”
Still, he had a blast and said that there are some notable differences driving around Texas in an INDYCAR in comparison to a NASCAR, but he got used to them and feels like he’s there.
“It was a different experience. The faster you go, it’s almost the more stuck the cars are due to the downforce. That’s something that I really didn’t anticipate and felt the car would be maybe a little more lighter at the end of the straightaways and entering the corners and a little more uncomfortable, and the car was just stuck and planted. So that was an eye opener to me.
“Something else that was a little different was shifting mid-corner or shifting in the corners with ease as you do in an INDYCAR and the paddle shift that’s in there. So Turns 1 and 2 you go down a gear and then up a gear and kind of make your laps that way, and that was something new and different for me to get used to on an oval, and part of that stretching the legs. In an INDYCAR with a six-speed gearbox and the fact that you don’t lose any time with gear shifts, the gearing is much different, and those top three or four gears are very close together to help you with either a tow or wind direction, track conditions, and if you get in the mindset of how to use the right gear and the right time was new for me, as well.
That’s a far cry from where he felt like on a road/street course in the sense that there’s just so much to learn on these circuits.
“Nope, not in the game,” Johnson told me last month in Indy. “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.”
Ovals could be a spot that helps transform Johnson back up the grid in 2022.
“Ovals would definitely be an uptick in performance for me, I believe,” says Johnson.
Did he want that though? A test is one thing. The comfort is another. Remember, he has to be all in and so does his family to even kick this can further down the road. Was this in the best interest for the Johnson family?
“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. “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 yesterday, 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.”
October 2021 – Indianapolis Oval Test
Those conversations led to a test at Indy this past October to pass his Rookie Orientation Phases. Pass all three phases and you’re Indy 500 eligible. Romain 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 that test 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. October was that final step and I felt then that he’s there. He’s ready. The decision is going to come down to himself. Does he want to do this?
Today – Full Time INDYCAR Announcement
Wednesday’s announcement confirmed he did. Johnson, welcome to a full blown INDYCAR driver.