Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Johnson ‘Starting to Get That Grin’ After Indy Open Test Experience

Jimmie Johnson at the Indy 500 Open Test at IMS.
Jimmie Johnson ended up eighth on the overall leaderboard on Thursday’s Open Test at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Image courtesy of James Black / Penske Entertainment

Ovals are synonymous with Jimmie Johnson’s racing skill. The experience gathered over the past two decades in stock cars puts the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion as a possible favorite heading into the 106th Indianapolis 500.

As testing continued on the second day at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in preparation for the Month of May, the No. 48 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda looked be on it with speed. The 46-year-old wrapped up eighth on Thursday’s four-hour session, logging 138 circuits around the 2.5-mile superspeedway with a best lap at 227.900 mph.

“I think our cars have a lot of speed,” Johnson said. “For myself, it was just trying to understand how to get that gap and pull up to the group in front of you (and) 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 2 and 4 and make better passes.”

Last season, Johnson made his first 12 starts in the NTT IndyCar Series on all road and street courses. With 2022 being a full-time effort, the Indy 500 is included and thus making it his first start in the race with little preparation on the ovals in an open-wheel car.

“I feel like flat out sixth gear on the rev limiter turning into Turn 1 or (Turn) 3 was really what I needed to do to get a sense of that type of speed, type of G-force,” he said. “I feel like race craft and when we’re in the pack and you have to worry about turbulent air or setting up a pass, the pace comes down so much that I feel much more comfortable in that environment.”

He isn’t walking into Indianapolis with zero relatability considering his 19-year career in the NASCAR Cup Series that includes four wins in the famed Brickyard 400. Comfortability with the Indy car is the key piece of Johnson’s puzzle, and an impressive sixth-place finish in his first oval race at Texas Motor Speedway last month, along with a rookie test completed, helps to solve it.

“It was helpful,” Johnson said regarding the ROP test. “I found it useful. Of course, the rain came and we didn’t get as many laps as we had hoped. I felt much more comfortable with the controls of the car and the grip level as we showed up yesterday and got into that first session.”

Since the start of his new journey to open-wheel racing, Johnson’s had to unlearn many old tricks with his stock car instincts. The polar opposite characteristics of both racing styles carry over to the oval, but aspects are similar.

“No, I’m still flinching in Turn 1 and Turn 3,” Johnson said. “It’s just a long ass straightaway to talk to yourself and convince yourself to hold it wide open in (Turns) 1 and 3. Ironically, (Turns) 2 and 4 behaves very much the same regardless of the NASCAR vehicle and the IndyCar vehicle.”

With this being Johnson’s debut at Indy with its home cars, speeds were reached that he never has gone near in his over 30 years of racing.

“You notice it,” Johnson said. “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, quallie [qualifying] trim setting yet. I’m starting to get that grin. I look forward to having that big smile that all these guys have experienced.”

One of the drivers that joined the post-session press conference was Johnson’s Chip Ganassi Racing teammate and 2013 Indy 500 winner, Tony Kanaan. He cherishes their friendship and the excitement to race against each other.

“It means so much to me to have Tony as a friend, as a teammate,” Johnson said. “I think it’s really cool to be competitors this year in the Indy 500. Our pit stalls, located on pit lane, he’s right behind us. Every time I pulled out and went around, I just smiled and thought how cool it is to share the track with one of my great friends, many of my friends that I’ve been able to share racing with over the last year, year and a half.

“Tony has been a huge part of this deal happening for me, the split season, then his willingness to allow me to race the ovals this year. He’s been a friend in so many ways. I know the general public hasn’t been able to see a lot of that, but I’m very thankful for our friendship, his understanding, and certainly look forward to racing hard with him.”

Matt Narváez
Matt Narváez
Matthew is a NASCAR contributor apart of the team. A fan of racing since 2011, he has had passion for sports journalism since 2015 and is a current Mass Communications student at the University of South Florida.

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