Jimmie Johnson is looking increasingly more comfortable with every lap around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway after three practice sessions are completed in preparation for the 106th Indianapolis 500.
There are further unknowns about who is fast and who is not as the NTT IndyCar Series is nearing qualifying weekend. The 46-year-old California native remains wary about much that lies ahead but being fifth fastest in overall speed on Thursday is promising.
Johnson is entering his first month of May as an entrant of the Indy 500 and it has been a lifelong dream for him to compete in the event. The prospect of a strong result in the sport’s most important race is possible and potentially probable.
In the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion’s oval debut, the No. 48 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda team accomplished a sixth-place finish at the Texas Motor Speedway. Johnson rallied from a starting position of 18th and made outside passes for positions in the top 10.
Despite earning a best career-best finish in the series, Johnson still has much to learn on a faster speedway.
“The first lesson that I was reminded of is just because you had a good setup on Tuesday doesn’t mean you’re going to have a good setup on Thursday,” Johnson said. “This track, in Cup car and certainly I’m learning in an Indy car, it’s very temperamental, and you’ve just got to be on top of it. You can’t put your guard down.
“Things change, and I’m trying to understand why there was a difference, because obviously race day when you go to race, you don’t get a practice session beforehand to see where your balance is. But all in all a great day. A lot of lessons learned, a lot of laps in the car, a lot of running in the pack, so just a successful day.
Wednesday’s rainout picked up the intensity for Thursday as teams look to switch to qualifying trim on Friday and setup their cars for the weekend.
“Yeah, I mean, every lap is just a great learning opportunity for myself,” he said. “(Thursday) we ran two full tire runs or ran it out of fuel just to let me feel what it was like to go from start to finish. Just logging those laps and being in the draft, some guys will come out on new tires, some guys will run old tires. Just getting a feel for all of it.
“I feel like today I kind of broke through to a new level of comfort in race trim. I still have no clue what it’s going to feel like to go 230 something around here when the boost goes up, but I’ll get into that tomorrow.
“But from a race standpoint, I think I covered a lot of territory today, and I’ll put that on the back shelf until we get to Monday and have a chance to get into this mindset again, and (Friday) is a really a new day starting with qually sims.”
It’s not that Johnson has no experience in Indy. The 2.5-mile speedway played host to 18 of his Cup career starts, capturing four checkered flags in the Brickyard 400.
There are of course large differences for a driver of Johnson’s tenure piloting a stock car, when comparing it to the open-wheel machine’s nature around Indy. The speed is the largest variable.
“Yeah, all of that,” said Johnson. “And then the only thing to add is the last time I was in qualifying trim here was in a Cup car, and we let off used little brake to get into Turn 1. So to feel the boost and the straightaway speed and look down at that 90-degree turn and think that I’ll hold it flat, it’s going to be an interesting conversation with my right foot.”
Aiding the CGR driver’s effort towards the 500-mile classic are the same support group that have been with Johnson since his career shift. Having the 2013 Indy 500 winner, Tony Kanaan and driver coach, Scott Pruett alongside.
The three and fellow teammate Scott Dixon went through detailed conversations during the Thursday’s running.
— Chip Ganassi Racing (@CGRTeams) May 19, 2022
He added more people who have been offering him advice including another multi-time winner of the event.
“For me, Chip has just been really adamant about knowing where the right rear tire is,” he said. “In a Cup car I feel like the advantage I had for so many years is I was willing to drive the car really loose, and it really benefitted the style of racing and the way the fuel burns off of those cars and protect the right front tire.
“Here you certainly need to have the car turning well, but you cannot slide it around like you do a Cup car. The advice Chip has given me and Dario (Franchitti) keeps hammering me on know is just know where that right rear is.”
There is still much left on the table for Johnson and the No. 48 Honda team, as the same goes for the entire grid of 33. However, the plan now will be putting the term, “Fast Friday” to good use.
“I don’t know yet,” Johnson said. “I really don’t. I have not made a Q (qualifying) sim run. I just have no idea what to expect. I feel like my experience in working the draft, understanding how to time a draft and a run and to post a fast lap time is one thing, but I don’t know what to expect for Q.”