NEWTON, Iowa — In what was perhaps his best IndyCar Series race to date, Jimmie Johnson scored a fifth place finish in Sunday’s Hy-Vee Salute to Farmers 300 at Iowa Speedway.
Johnson started 13th in the 26-car field and fell back in the field early in the 300-lap race around the .894 mile oval. However, the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion climbed up to the edge of the top-10 before pitting for the first time on Lap 58.
By being one of the first cars near the top-10 to pit, Johnson was able to run several laps on fresher tires while the frontrunners had worn tires. As a result, the No. 48 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda leapfrogged several cars to fourth place following the first pit sequence behind Will Power, Josef Newgarden and eventual race winner Pato O’Ward.
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Marcus Ericsson snatched fourth place from Johnson on Lap 98 and the Californian ran mostly in seventh and eighth place for the next third of the race until Josef Newgarden’s crash on Lap 234.
Johnson was in sixth place on the Lap 249 restart and got fifth place from Ericsson one lap later. The 2022 Indianapolis 500 winner passed Johnson for fifth place on Lap 273, but the 2022 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year passed Ericsson again on Lap 292, keeping fifth place for the final handful of laps.
It was the near-perfect end to an already great weekend for the second-year IndyCar driver. After an early spin in Saturday’s Hy-VeeDeals.com 250, Johnson led 19 laps en route to an 11th-place finish. Sunday was just another venue for Johnson to show his short-track racing skills to the world.
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Scott Dixon finished fourth, about 1.2 seconds in front of Johnson. Johnson nearly got by Dixon, but couldn’t pass the six-time IndyCar champion after getting into the tire debris on the very high side of the track. That allowed Ericsson to get by for fifth place late in the race.
“Once I caught Marcus, I had a good rhythm, knew where to place the car, was able to get by him,” Johnson said in the post-race press conference. “We did have a couple side-by-side battles. I was trying to be cautious along the inside and not overcook it on the bottom. It just wasn’t paying off. I had to use the line I was chasing Dixon and pulled it off.”
Johnson had a successful 20-year career in NASCAR, picking up 83 wins on numerous types of tracks. After racing in NASCAR, Johnson went to the IndyCar Series to race open wheel cars, fulfilling a dream of his after watching his childhood hero Rick Mears. Johnson skipped the ovals in the 2021 IndyCar season in order to learn how to drive open wheel cars on road and street courses first.
Texas Motor Speedway was where Johnson made his oval IndyCar debut, finishing sixth after running in fifth place in the closing laps of that race. Johnson has figured out how open wheel cars race on ovals and was looking forward to Iowa, which was designed as a larger clone of Richmond Raceway.
“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.”
Johnson is the road and street course outsider at Chip Ganassi Racing, with 16th place at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in July being his best result. However, Johnson is one of the oval masters at the four-car team with less-experienced oval drivers in Ericsson and 2021 IndyCar Series champion Alex Palou.
While it could be laughable to call an Indianapolis 500 winner inexperienced on ovals, Ericsson had only 17 oval starts prior to Sunday’s race. Johnson has a few more oval races under his belt and would use every trick possible to get by the No. 8 Honda. That experience gave Ericsson peace of mind when the pair were battling.
“I knew that it would be a clean fight and a hard fight,” Ericsson said in the post-race press conference. “I think that’s what we did for pretty much a long time there. He went up in the gray there once. I got the position back. Let’s go again. No, he was just a bit too strong for me today.”
The next IndyCar Series race is the Gallagher Grand Prix on Saturday, July 30th on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. The race will air live on NBC at noon, ET.