INDIANAPOLIS — Dream come true. Jimmie Johnson was on Cloud 9 following his two-day NTT INDYCAR Series test session at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Actually, he nearly completed the Indy 500 in this span. Johnson, circled the 2.5-mile track 196 times in a span of two days which is 10 miles shy of a full race distance here.
With that said, that amount of running has him as comfortable as he could ever be at this portion of his brief open wheel career for when he comes back here next month for the real thing.
“To have the afternoon be as warm as it was, the track be kind of worked in, be as friendly as it was that early, was great,” said Johnson after setting the 8th fastest lap of the entire test at 227.900 mph. “I got a lot of quality reps, certainly learned a ton today.
“Yeah, it was helpful. I really feel like the process, looking at it, it seems time consuming to go through the three phases, but I found it useful, helpful. Of course, the rain came, we didn’t get as many laps as we hoped.
“I felt much more comfortable with the controls of the car, the grip level as we showed up yesterday, got into that first session. Straightaway was up there in the top five, whatever it was, in speed. That was due to the ROP session, the laps that I got there.”
With being P8, how much does he fall back on the fact that he has that speed compared of just logging laps?
“I think we’re all paying attention to that pylon,” said Johnson. “We’re all trying. As long as the session is green, we’re all trying to be the fastest car out there. When any car was on new tires, people were trying to create a gap, trying to put up a fast lap time.
“I think our cars do have a lot of speed. For myself, it was really just trying to understand how to get that gap and pull up to the group in front of you, pop off a lap.
“Looks nice on the scoreboard, but there were a few cars that could really pass. I think that’s what we’re all deep down inside focused on, and going to debrief and work on, is to figure out how to get off of turns two and four and make better passes.”
As far as something that has stood out to him in the 196 laps of testing?
“I feel like flat out sixth gear on the rev limiter turning into turn one or three was really what I needed to do, get a good sense of that type of speed, that type of G force, trust the car, no driver lifts, really flat in those really fast situations,” he said.
“But I feel like race craft, when we’re in the pack, you have to worry about turbulent air, setting up a pass, the pace comes down so much that I feel much more comfortable in that environment.
“I think where I still have a lot of questions is when you trim out and you need to average 230 something for three laps around here. That’s the part that I’m still working towards.”
Johnson said it is that speed factor that is the other most eye opening endeavor at Indy in an INDYCAR. With so many years of experience here in a heavier stock car, he’s not used to be flat out entering the corners. He’s also trying to get used to making passes here too.
“You notice it,” he says. “It’s a very cool sensation. Now I understand why when I’ve asked any of these guys, any of my friends that are drivers here, what it’s like to go fast around here, they have a smile that I’ve always wondered what it’s like.
“I haven’t really been on the full boost, full power, qual trim setting yet. I’m starting to get that grin. I look forward to having that big smile that all these guys have experienced.
“I’m still flinching in turn one and turn three. It’s just a long-ass straightaway to talk to yourself and convince yourself to hold it wide open through one and three.”
Once he gets Turns 1 and 3 fully down, the other two are virtually the same thing he’s used to from the past.
“Ironically, two and four behave very much the same, regardless of the NASCAR vehicle or the INDYCAR vehicle. Turns two and four are (also) still the key to passing regardless of series. So I’m surprised how similar and how challenging two and four can be to set up a pass. I don’t think I made a pass today, like a true heads-up pass. I have some work to do to figure that out. Guys made mistakes in front of me, I was able to get them. I have some more to do to figure out passing.”
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. 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.
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.”
He’s ready to fight for a win here.