The transition from the NASCAR Cup Series to the NTT IndyCar Series has been a challenging one for Jimmie Johnson.
However, there is an opportunity to be back in somewhat familiar territory with his oval debut in IndyCar looming with the XPEL 375 at Texas Motor Speedway on March 20.
The seven-time Cup champion opted for an introductory program into IndyCar last year consisting of only road and street circuits, but bolstered that schedule for 2022 by adding ovals to become a full-time participant in the series. Part of the preparation for that decision came following a single-car test at Texas last August.
On Monday, the 46-year-old from El Cajon, California, was set for his second trial around the 1.5-mile oval – this time with multiple cars as drivers from Ed Carpenter Racing and Team Penske, as well as teammates from his Chip Ganassi Racing stable. However, frigid temperatures overnight lingered and led to the postponement of the test.
Although it derailed an opportunity to gain more invaluable experience, Johnson shares the elevated expectations many have for his upcoming oval debut.
“In my test here in August, I felt more are comfortable on the second set of tires than I have period in an Indy car on a road or street course,” Johnson said, during media availability at TMS. “So, it was really surprising to me that there were similarities because on a road course, there are none between a NASCAR and an Indy car vehicle. Granted the pace is much quicker around here than a Cup car, tools are different, cars different, but I did find that some of the basic changes to the car crossed over from NASCAR. And then certainly, the way you generate lap time, the way you carry momentum, the way you set up passes, a lot of that is much more in my wheelhouse. So, my expectations parallel that – to what others think – and my expectations are much higher for myself on ovals.”
He later added, “I think realistically on street and road courses, I’m trying to battle for the middle of the pack. I don’t think it’s realistic to say I’m go up there and race for a win. I think on the ovals, that shifts further forward. I don’t have a really good sense of how far forward, but in my heart of heart hope that I can be in top five territory, if not better.”
Six-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon believes that competing on an oval in an Indy car for the first time will be more in the comfort zone for Johnson, his teammate at CGR, but will also still have its fair share of difficulties.
“Yeah, he definitely had a big smile on his face the first time here,” Dixon said, reflecting momentarily of the test in August. “So I expect that to be here. I think he’s bummed about not running here today, for sure. I think anybody seeing the transition that he made that this would be the most natural switch for him. Granted, it is still very much at the other ends of the spectrum again. I think for him it’ll be an eye-opener. Obviously, testing here and running laps by yourself is very different from running in traffic, depending on how the weather and all that kind of stuff comes, to whether it’ll be a close race and a lot of side-by-side and things like that. Again, it’s still a steep learning curve for him, but I feel like it would be somewhere where he feels much more natural, for sure.”
— Alex Palou Montalbo (@AlexPalou) March 7, 2022
While the chance to return to make up the weather-impacted test day prior the race is unknown, it leaves Johnson also thinking about some of the trouble spots on track, specifically Turn 2, which is notorious in both NASCAR and IndyCar for the difficult transition off the banking and onto the flat backstretch.
“The test I had here in August, the team had me so nervous about the transitions that I felt just like I was low,” Johnson said. “I don’t blame them for cautioning me like that. You just have such a smaller window to save one of these cars and in the Cup car, it was a big problem, going a lot slower and the car has a bigger window of of yaw being in a slide to catch it that you can manage it pretty well. So, that was something I was very hopeful to experience today, get in traffic and understand the car in dirty air and how it behaves, especially on the exit transitions because I think that’s where you can get in the most trouble.”
Texas became one of Johnson’s most successful tracks during his Cup career, racking up seven wins, 16 top fives, 22 top 10s, and two poles, while also leading 1,152 of 11,106 total laps in 35 races. It is perhaps the best place to gain experience ahead of making his maiden attempt at the Indianapolis 500 in May.
“I think it’s a really good situation for me,” said Johnson, driver of the No. 48 CGR Honda. “And then certainly, getting the experience here at speed will have me better prepared for going to Indy; granted a much different track, but starting off in a new environment in a comfortable track and then moving to a different situation at Indy, I think it works really well for me.”