INDIANAPOLIS — While Jimmie Johnson got his feet wet at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in July of 2020, it wasn’t until October 2021 that he finally experienced that Indy is like in an INDYCAR on the oval.
That first test with Chip Ganassi Racing two summers ago was on the road course. It was enough to pique Johnson’s interest in making a move to the open wheel side. However, racing on ovals in an INDYCAR was at that point off limits at that point.
While he retired from NASCAR at the end of the 2020 season, his racing career was far from over. He was finding a new endeavor and that was racing in the NTT INDYCAR Series and competing on all road/street courses.
The thing is, with as much fun as he was having, he wanted to crack the door open on racing at Indy. Ganassi was more than willing to talk to Johnson about that move. But, before they could talk, Johnson first had to discuss this potential with his family.
For over a decade that door was bolted shut. It was a difficult conversation to approach to see that door could at the very least unlock.
The Aeroscreen and an up close look on how safe these cars truly are led the discussions to Johnson walking towards the door on the oval side. Not only was the door unlocked, it was up to Johnson if he now wanted to open it. At the end of the day, the final decision fell on his shoulders. Ganassi was wanting to chat, his family gave their blessing but it was Johnson who had to figure out if he truly wanted to go down this path.
That’s why the test at Texas occurred in late summer. If he felt comfort, the next step was Indy. If he felt comfort at Indy, then conversations needed to be had with Carvana.
Fast forward to now. On Wednesday, Johnson was at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as part of a full season campaign. He’s here to race. In fact, his main focus is now on May 29 and being a part of the 106th Running of the Indianapolis 500. So much so, he was willing to sit out the race he grew up going to at Long Beach to ensure his injured hand wouldn’t get worse and not allow him to race on Memorial Day weekend at the mecca of motorsports.
Johnson, turned 58 laps in the opening test day of the week with a top speed of 222.255 mph in his No. 48 Dallara-Honda. That was good enough for sixth in the first session but 25th in an abbreviated session No. 2.
How were his emotions and confidence being back here one month ahead of the Indy 500 and how did they compare to being here in October? On that October day, it was just he and Romain Grosjean. On Wednesday, he was 1 of 32 drivers taking laps.
“It’s so much higher,” Johnson told me on his confidence now here compared to when he came in his October test. “I still feel like this place commands a certain level of respect especially in an INDYCAR at these speeds so I’m trying to dance nicely with her. Confidence is so much higher than when I was here in October.”
Another reason for this confidence is the fact that he exceled at Texas last month. He finished in the top 10 that day. While some drivers say you can’t take much from Texas and apply to Indy, Johnson says for him, he can.
It’s the only other superspeedway on the schedule.
“I’m definitely taking lessons learned from Texas and bringing here,” he says.
As he should. He said that day that why not have a shot at winning Indy. That confidence never left. Plus, as he notes, there’s a lot of practice allotted at Indy. You get 2 test sessions this week. He has 5 days of practice in May as well as 2 qualifying days with practice mixed in that weekend as well. Those practice days last 6 hours.
“There’s a lot of practice here. I feel like I’ll have plenty of time,” Johnson said. “There should be any excuses come Memorial Day.”
He has the benefit of four teammates here too. All four qualified in the Fast Nine last year. With how well they looked in Texas with all four full-time drivers finishing in the top 7, his confidence is skyrocketing.
With that said, at what point does he inject his input in post practice debriefs? When there’s voices coming from Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan as well as the defending series champion and runner-up in last year’s Indy 500, Alex Palou, is the comfort there to speak what he needs or does he still sit back and learn?
“We all started on the same spot and all felt the same things when practice took off,” he told me. “It’s a little early for me in the game if they said to throw the 48 setup on the car. I’m definitely doing more listening right now. Our objective is leave the car alone and let me pound laps and let my teammates figure out some new stuff to add on to put some performance in the car. When we come back here in May we can get into more detailed changes.”
In saying that, he also said in the same breath that Ganassi did use Johnson’s setup from his Texas test on the cars when they came back last month so it goes to show that he’s doing it right still.
While the other results outside of Texas haven’t been ideal, Johnson is still learning. This is a humongous undertaking what he’s doing. Last year, he said he never really felt like an INDYCAR driver yet. What about now though?
“Going through this I do,” he told me. “I still feel like I have a light yellow rookie strap on my back. I’m so new to single seaters in open wheel racing. I’m probably the greenest rookie to step foot over here. I’m working through that. I’m looking forward to the day where I’m not thinking about it anymore where I can look forward and chase down who’s in front of me.”
He’s not wrong. Just look at the other 32 drivers here this weekend. Literally all came from an open wheel background before coming to INDYCAR. Johnson is the only one that didn’t. For the ones that didn’t come through the Road to Indy, they came from single seaters in Europe.
Johnson, came from cars with fenders. Everything he’s learned over two decades of being in NASCAR, he’s having to unlearn. An INDYCAR drivers completely different. That’s why it’s remarkable he’s as completive as he’s been.
Now, he has his eyes on Indy. He’s playing hurt right now but that’s not affecting him too much actually.
“There’s less weight on the wheel for the ovals,” he says. “Just in the mechanical setup in the car. It’s really honestly pretty easy. Pretty straight forward.”
Wednesday was straight forward for him on track. He’s ready to fight for a win here.