NEWTON, IA — Jimmie Johnson has always said that he has no regrets for how he chose his INDYCAR path. I mean you can’t pass up 7 Cup championships and 83 wins on the NASCAR side. You also can’t blame him for wanting to race on road/street courses only in 2021 either. For much of the last two decades, INDYCAR was off limits for him. The Aeroscreen which was adopted in 2020, opened the door for him, but the comfort for his family was for him to not race on ovals.
So you take what you can get.
But the more they saw, the more they were more open to ovals on this side. Johnson wanted to race the Indy 500 and if he was going to do that, why not do the full season in his 2nd year in the sport?
After 3 oval tracks (4 races) under his belt now, it’s clear that he’s at his most comfort on these tracks. I mean 82 of his 83 Cup wins came on ovals so it’s not shocking that he’s hit the ground running on them.
Johnson went from 18th to 6th in Texas. He qualified 12th in the Indy 500 and was in the top 10 for most of the month. In Iowa, he qualified 15th and 13th respectively but quickly charged hard each day.
He was 11th on Saturday and 5th on Sunday.
“I had so much fun out there today,” Johnson said after Saturday’s race. “Watched so many great races at this track. To be here in person, drive on it in an INDYCAR is such a rush.
“The first two-thirds of the race I really felt like we had a car competitive enough to win.”
That comfort is clear that he’s a threat on ovals and with 1 more left at World Wide Technology Raceway next month, you can’t count him out.
Still, this weekend was a rewarding weekend for him. On Saturday, he led his first laps. He paced the field for 19 of them. That came after he spun in bringing out the first yellow on Lap 17.
“I’ve had a lot of success in my Cup career, if you think of tracks like Atlanta or Richmond in the Cup cars, probably Kevin Harvick was one of the first ones to expose if you drive on the painted line, it will help turn the car and create some grip. I just tried it and it didn’t work,” Johnson said of the early race spin.
“I was running lower and lower in three and four. It was working well. I thought, Let me just put the left sides on the painted lines. I was backward instantly. It was just a mistake on my behalf.”
So, Johnson just moved up to find a new line that worked really well for him. He put his No. 48 Dallara-Honda up high and through the field he came.
“Yeah, the Cup car wasn’t the first one up top. I do have some experience and have run higher with success in my Cup career,” he said of working to find a new higher line around the track.
“I had a really good look at the line, could see where it was clean, where the marbles started. I tried it a few laps, just had my right sides up in that cleaner part of the track. 3 or 4/10ths a lap faster immediately. I kept working that.
“Word traveled fast and that line was kind of run off after a period of time. For a while it was working really well.”
Ironically enough, that early race incident kind of helped him. He was among 11 drivers to hit pit lane on Lap 19. Those 11 flew through the field on fresh tires including Johnson who by Lap 50 had worked his way into the top 5.
Then he went to 4th. Then 3rd. Then 2nd. Then…
Johnson inherited the lead when Will Power pit on Lap 60. The lead was his and he wasn’t wanting to give it up. He’d lead the next 19 laps before pitting on Lap 79. He’d still work his way back up to the top 5 before pitting with everyone under the caution for Felix Rosenqvist on Lap 111. Now, he was on the same strategy and with a car capable of a win.
From that point, the moves Johnson would make was vintage Johnson. His tired faded in the end in him going from 7th to 11th. This time though, he didn’t allow that to happen.
He started 13th but by the end of the 1st pit cycle, he was in the top 5. He’d stay around there for the rest of the race and even passed points leader and teammate Marcus Ericsson for 5th in the closing laps.
It was a battle that Johnson had fun doing and Ericsson respected back.
It was also his 1st INDYCAR top 5 finish on a track that suits him well.
“I think there are more similarities to driving an INDYCAR here than anywhere else I’ve been so far,” he says. “The inputs in the car are much more aggressive. There’s a just a lot more sign on the wheel, a lot more work with your feet, like what you would do in a Cup car on a short track as well.
“I felt like instinctively I could just drive the car and didn’t have to think about things so much. Texas and Indy, speed is higher, you’re more precise with your inputs. Here it was down and dirty, short track driving. Fits my style really well.
“Yesterday early in the race there was some clean spots on the track that people were afraid to get up there, tiptoe along the edge. That was just something I was comfortable with doing.
“It honestly reminded me a lot of running at Bristol, the way you just got to run right at the edge of the marbles, tip-toeing around that. And if you’re willing to get up that extra six or eight inches, it would pay off.
“Yesterday some other cars figured it out. They ran it off. Then today any time I caught someone, the driver would make that defensive move, take that spot. If they gave me a turn, ran the middle, I assume the spotter talked them into moving up. Next turn they were up higher. Really found some different lines.
“I think we had a little better handling car today. Made some adjustments overnight. Made us able to drive through the field.
“I mean, these cars really reward confidence. A Cup car, I think they reward patience and finesse. There’s a different skill set that goes with it. You’re going so damn fast in these things, the more downforce it creates, the confidence really rewards you.”
Reward it did.
“I’m understanding how these cars reward aggression, the confidence it takes to having yourself and the car that’s going to stick,” Johnson said. “The faster you go, the more downforce these cars create. It takes a lot of energy to turn these tires on and make them perform like they need to.
“I just think I’ve been on the soft side of this since I’ve ever sat in a car. The ovals feel more natural to me and I’m able to find my confidence, push the car, have the downforce and the tire work for me. But the street and road courses, I’m making gains. Unfortunately they’re not as obvious as what you can see here on the ovals. But I continue to make gains. Just enjoying driving these little rocket ships around. It’s a lot of fun. Every time I climb out, I just shake my head how hard you can drive these cars, the speed you can carry, the aggression you can drive with. They’re really fun cars to drive.”