The anticipation was building for Jimmie Johnson’s oval debut in the NTT IndyCar Series at Texas Motor Speedway.
It had been all off-season. After all, the 1.5-mile oval is the site for seven of his 84 NASCAR Cup Series victories.
On Sunday, the opportunity came and the 46-year-old from El Cajon, California delivered with an ever-growing performance that ended with a sixth-place finish. It marks his best result in IndyCar to date, shattering his previous-best of 17th (twice – WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, Grand Prix of Long Beach).
Johnson started 18th in the No. 48 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda and was forced to outlast some attrition by dodging a multi-car wreck that included Graham Rahal and Helio Castroneves. He hovered outside the top 10 for the majority of the opening 170 of the 248 laps. It wasn’t until after making his final pitstop on Lap 191 that the real charge began, out-dueling the likes of Rinus VeeKay and Simon Pagenaud.
Following the race, TobyChristie.com asked Johnson during the post-race press conference if the result provides validation for what has been a fun experiment transitioning to IndyCar.
Johnson responded, “In some respects there’s validation, in other respects there’s relief, in another respect there’s just plain old I like to go racing. It’s a bit of everything.
“I honestly don’t have anything to prove to anyone. I’m truly doing this because I want to race cars and I want to race in the IndyCar Series.
“Of course I’m a competitor, of course I knew that I should run better on ovals, and was able to do that this weekend. That feels good. I don’t have some axe to grind. I don’t have a point to prove. I’m just going racing. I’m just purely happy I had a great day in the race car.”
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Johnson made 21 on-track passes, with 17 for position. Additionally, seven of those passes were made in the top 10 and and two in the top five.
“Another 50 (laps) would have been awesome,” said Johnson, a seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion. “I would have really, really enjoyed that.
“Not only did I grow and improve, but through my growth I’ve been able to give better feedback to the team. Eric (Cowdin, race engineer) made some amazing adjustments to the car, really put it into its window for that last stint. It really showed.”
Overall, though, it was a day that has him leaving TMS smiling.
“Yes, absolutely I’m happy,” Johnson said. “With a couple (laps) to go I was in fifth. We were worried about fuel. We had an issue with the telemetry, didn’t know how much fuel I’ve had to save. I got a panicked fuel number. I could tell by the seriousness in their voice it was serious. I couldn’t brace for Scott and try to hold onto fifth.
“What a two-day adventure this has been. To be able to get enough laps in the race, to feel the tires from start to finish, green flag stops, being in dirty air, just how uncomfortable and treacherous that is. All of those little mistakes and little moments gave me a sense of the car and helped me feel really how to drive this car, how to create speed.
“Second half of the race I started working my way forward in that final stint, had a very competitive car. Wished that I had maybe started the race a little further forward. I think I could have finished a little further forward.”