Jimmie Johnson didn’t venture from retirement from NASCAR to transition to an NTT INDYCAR Series driver just to ride around in the back. That’s not what he’s made of and not what he’s about. While he’ll tell you that he’s still having the time of his life being an open wheel driver, he’ll also tell you in the same breath that he wants more. He’s hungry but knows that it’s not quite realistic enough yet to expect wins even if the victory lane at this weekend’s site, the Texas Motor Speedway, is named after him.
“It does feel really good to come back to a familiar track, certainly a place I have so many great feelings for,” Johnson said on a media call on Wednesday morning.
For a driver that’s won 83 times in the pinnacle of NASCAR to go along with seven championships, being outside the top 15 in all 13 races that he’s run in INDYCAR isn’t what he envisioned when joining Chip Ganassi Racing in 2021.
“Certainly I’m a racer. I want to win. That’s ultimately why I’m out there. I’m just trying to be realistic with this journey, how different it is, how tough the competition is, all those elements that play into it.
“Ultimately that’s why I want to do this, I want to win. I want to be on the podium at a minimum, if not win. Know that ovals are the best opportunity for myself.”
Still, there’s no reason to be harsh on him. He’s his own toughest critic. Plus, he’s trying INDYCAR in a high speed midlife crisis. Also he’s doing so while in the midst of a global pandemic.
“I’m human. I don’t like negative feedback if it’s from one of my fans or a hater for that matter,” he said. “I’m human. I don’t care for that stuff.”
Johnson went on to say that he certainly hopes people can identify with where he is in life and what he’s also trying to do.
“If it’s a younger fan, maybe they haven’t been in their 40s yet, experienced one career, looking forward to a second career, something different,” he continued.
“But I do find that the majority of the people, including my partners that are involved, really do identify with the path and journey I’m on, are honored and happy to be a part of this journey and help tell the story and support this dream that I have to be an INDYCAR racer.”
Johnson though, has a pass. He hasn’t really been on any of these tracks before. The only ones he’s even seen before during last season was the Indy road course and Barber. Everything else was new. On top of that, he had to completely alter his driving style and break old natural habits that he formed in NASCAR. It’s not easy to break habits that span two decades.
In doing so, the on track activity was sparse compared to years past. A few short practice sessions, limited testing and just line up to qualify and race. That’s what he was thrown to and as the season progressed, he got faster and faster.
In saying that, the pressure was on for 2022. The free pass from a year ago is almost needing to be turned back in. The yellow rookie stripes are off in most places with the exception of the ovals. While he was going full-time, he also was seeing a lot of these tracks a second time too. In doing so with a Ganassi car and their resources at that, Johnson’s pace should get him inside the top 15 and even the top 10 in some instances.
As long as he keeps growing, learning and getting faster, he’s content.
But, his fellow rookie class from 2021 is off to a fast start. Romain Grosjean was quickest in the opening practice of the season in St. Pete. He grabbed a top five in the race. Scott McLaughlin won that same race after leading Saturday’s practice and taking the pole. Johnson? He was 23rd and spun multiple times that weekend.
Does that add pressure to Johnson now?
Does it add even more pressure that McLaughlin as a rookie last year in his first oval start finished runner-up. What’s the bar for Johnson?
“I looked at my rookie class coming in, Romain’s single seater experience certainly shined last year,” he told me. “Wow, another example of how when you grow up in a certain car, certain tracks, you’re more refined, you’re on point. He did a phenomenal job last year.
“I thought Scott did a great job, although I know he publicly mentioned he was frustrated with different elements of it. Certainly this year he’s come out and nailed it.
“I do have a chance obviously to look at the data from my teammates. For myself, living day to day with this journey and challenge I have of being an INDYCAR driver, that’s who I look at the most and study the most, try to close the gap to. I talk to my other three teammates, their engineers, try to refine my craft and be as good as I can.
“I do look around at others, but it’s easiest to look inside the team with the data, friendships and relationships I have with my teammates.”
The thing is, Johnson not only could have one shoulder feeling pressure, but the other feeling confident. While this is his first oval start in INDYCAR, it’s not like this is his first time seeing this oval either. Johnson, is very familiar with the Texas Motor Speedway.
This isn’t the first time that he’s seen this track before. He’s made career 35 Cup Series starts here before with 7 wins in them at that. In fact, he’s also seen Texas in an INDYCAR too. This was his first oval test last summer. He liked it so much he tested at Indy in October which played the key roles in him being a full-time driver now.
Johnson, admitted that he expects to be stronger on ovals.
“I really feel like I need to be further up in the field or would like to be further up in the field,” Johnson said of this weekend’s goals. “I certainly feel like qualifying, having the opportunity to qualify on the oval this weekend, in the equipment I’ll be in, I should be able to have a career-best starting position, then look forward from there, try to understand traffic, race my way into the top 10, top 5 if possible.”
Now’s the time to show it. I expect a career best result this weekend too. The thing is, how much does limited practice play a role in this? He only tested here. He’s not been around 20+ cars on an oval before. With two short sessions on Saturday, is the lack of track time going to be a factor?
He says that it sort of will but the main aspect that he’s missing is track time in traffic.
“We were supposed to test there a week or so ago, certainly wish we were able to get on track,” Johnson admitted. “Excited as I am to be on an oval, I still haven’t been in traffic in an INDYCAR. I still have plenty to learn coming to a track I know and love.
“I’m thankful for every lap that I have had so far, but I still have plenty to learn in single car running. I’ve still not been in traffic. These cars are much more sensitive in traffic than what I anticipated from watching. I’ve watched every video as humanly possible. I’m still surprised how big of a tow these cars receive exiting turn two to turn one, how much distance you can close. Working on the timing of that.
“It was something I was hopeful to experience at a test session, get a sense of closing rate, get a sense of how the turbulent air affects the car in turns one and two, how to set up a pass. I’ll have to use the two hours of practice we have to maximize that, get a sense of it, so I can have the best race craft possible heading into the event.”
What about the psyche coming into this. Ovals were the thing that kept Johnson away from INDYCAR for so long. The Aeroscreen changed the mindset of he and his family. Are the nerves higher this time around than any of his previous 13 races?
“Yeah, my excitement is definitely higher,” he noted. “That’s hard to say because I’ve been really excited about everything that I’ve done so far.
“Hopefully I can get in the car and have my experience on ovals carry over, make me more confident, be on pace sooner, just ride the wave of what being comfortable and confident in an INDYCAR can provide.
“Optimistic, excited. I guess I’m probably more optimistic, if I had to pick. Excitement has been really high being a competitor in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES. I think my optimism for my results are higher this weekend than I’ve experienced so far.”
On the flip side, is the preparation different? This time around, he does have experience here. He said a lot of what he learned in NASCAR can be used here in an INDYCAR.
“I think there’s a bit of both,” said Johnson. “I did find that the line is a little different in the INDYCAR. Just the potential of the car’s cornering ability allows you to run a little narrower entry and exit. With that you don’t have to flirt with the transitions of the corners in and off as much.
“Speed was up tremendously. Also a slight adjustment in my line. But as the test session went on, I was really excited to see how many similarities there were from my NASCAR driving experience and car setup to what we had going on with the INDYCAR.”
Does that mean he can dial this car in and have feedback before he even steps foot in the cockpit for practice and therefore get his car closer to race ready than chasing it from the beginning?
“Yeah, I think directionally ovals, this weekend, really works in my favor,” he also told me. “When you go to a road or street course and the track is so long, it takes a long time for rubber to go down, the grip level changes on the racetrack, the balance changes in the car. You have this moving target. Especially on a street course where you only race on it once a year from lap one to the last lap of the race, the track change so much. I don’t have any experience with that.
“When we unload with a setup, I form an opinion, that session is over, the next day we get one more session, the track has changed again, I’m trying to chase that target. It’s an environment that experience really does pay off in.
“I think there’s less of that on ovals. You’ll have all the cars on track straight away. It is a shorter lap, rubber goes down quicker. You create a more stable environment for me to learn in and adjust the race car to.”
Another advantage for him is the sense that ovals are really easier to figure out in the sense that there’s just four corners here compared to double digit turns on road/street courses.
“I really believe all tracks have their own rhythm to them,” he said. “Ovals are a little easier to find in some respects, maybe come quicker just because the lap is shorter. It’s easier to pick up the rhythm of a track with four corners versus one with 17 or something like that.
“There is a rhythm to Texas. It is much different than what I have felt in the Cup car. But where it is similar is just how aggressive you can be in turns three and four, then really how cautious you need to be turn one, kind of getting the car pointed and heading off the back straightaway for turn two.
“It’s a lap where you start tiptoeing, making sure you really hit your marks, to then really moving down the back straightaway and throwing all the aggression you can at turns three and four.”
The other advantage to him is that we’re running one single tire compound this week. This is the first time he’s had that luxury. In his other races, he’s had to balance learning the primary and alternate compound. This time around, they don’t do that on ovals.
“I would say certainly for qualifying it’s nice to have that variable out of the mix. This year the red is a little softer than it was last. At St. Pete I just did a poor job of challenging the tire and the grip level that I had. I was really disappointed with the qualifying effort I had there.
“To take that out is nice. It’s just one element, all the laps that you get in practice, directly correlate to qualifying in the race.
“What caught me out the most in St. Pete is when we put our reds on in practice, there ended up being a red flag on track. I never got a lap to sense or feel what that was like. Again, another variable that will be taken out this weekend, a more consistent environment for me.”