Jimmie Johnson aims to race IndyCars “for as long as Chip will have me”
The seven-time NASCAR Cup champion, watched over by his series veteran teammates Scott Dixon, Dario Franchitti and Tony Kanaan, tested at Texas Motor Speedway yesterday, turning a best lap that would have put him fourth on the grid for this year’s double-header there.
Johnson has raced the #48 Carvana / American Legion Ganassi entry on all the road and street courses this year but handed off to Tony Kanaan for the four oval races. Amid mounting speculation, and his own blooming enthusiasm for U.S. open-wheel, Johnson described himself as “definitely a step closer” to thinking in terms of making his oval IndyCar debut in 2022.
“There are more conversations to be had with family, team and sponsors and at least another test session ahead of me before I can really make a decision,” he said today. “But driving the car yesterday only piqued my interest more.”
Johnson expects to take part in the Indy Rookie Orientation Program at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in October.
“I feel like that orientation would be the next logical step on track,” he said, “and then following that would be more team/sponsor-related conversations – Are we able to do it? How would we do it? What would that look like? – and kind of use that second test as a real moment to send me on my path towards potentially running the 500…
“Certainly we have the relationship with Carvana. Are they willing to expand to an additional race, is that another partner, how do our existing partners work? We don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves. I first need to say, ‘Yeah, I’m in,” before we really get into the granular details to sort it out. I think another go in the car, especially on the track that would be the focal point, will really give me my decision and if it’s time to pursue all that.”
Asked by Motorsport.com how much closer he expected to be to the ultimate pace in IndyCar on road and street courses in 2022, he replied: “When you get into the details of my progression, there’s been a ton, and I know it’s hard for people to see, and I know that Indy [road course] was something that was a bit more visible for everyone to notice.
“But Brad Goldberg, the engineer on [teammate] Marcus Ericsson’s car, did a nice report that showed me my progress from the spring Indy GP race to where I was in the fall. I’m within a few tenths of a second of my teammates and within around a half of a second of pace to the outright winner of the race.
“To see that progression from being a second-plus [behind] to now inside of a half of a second is really encouraging. I know it’s hard for everyone to see out there, but those close see and feel and sense what’s going on. I’m working my way through these tracks for the first time, especially the tracks that are left on the schedule, so I have that as a part of my learning curve.
“But I really hope that I can run in the top 15 this year in one of the three events that we have remaining, and then use that as my building point moving into ’22.
“On road courses I feel like a realistic goal for me by the end of ’22 is to run in the top 10, qualify mid-pack to upper mid-pack and start running middle of the field if not forward on a more consistent basis.”
Johnson then admitted that if reality does match his ambition in terms of rate of progress, he intends to keep on going into 2023.
“I’m happy to go on the record and say I’ll run as many years in the NTT IndyCar Series that Chip will have me and I can find sponsorship. I am having such a good time, and every lap I get in the car, I’m only going to be better.
“If I were to come back in ’23, I think those expectations would rise up again, and my performance would be better yet. My intent is to stick around as long as I possibly can.”
Johnson hinted that running all the oval events next year – Indy 500, Texas, Iowa and Gateway – and thereby completing a full season, would be a separate decision beyond that of adding the Indy 500 to his list of races.
“Right now it’s really the pathway to Indy. There’s still so many hurdles between now and one event that to look at the others is tough at this point. But… I will need to face that decision and that opportunity in the somewhat near future, and we’ll just see how this next test session goes and really how everything aligns.
“There are a lot more important pieces to get right and put together than just my interest in all of this, so we’ll see what the future brings.”
The 45-year-old also tried to explain the mindset of his wife Chandra and their daughters Genevieve and Lydia while he considers entering IndyCar’s fastest events.
“They certainly do have a very big voice in all this, but my family is looking directly at me and my comfort,” he said. “The IndyCar that we have today versus where it was five years ago is just totally different, from the aeroscreen and all the safety it brings in so many different ways, to the fact that we don’t have pack racing any longer.
“My journey and my comfort in this is really what my family is looking at, and I’m trying to be systematic and work through. Yesterday went very well, and it’s only created more interest for me to check out the Brickyard, so that’s the next step.
“But yes, there will be conversations, and I guess ultimately I’m trying not to say that it’s on my family and the pressure that comes with that. But it’s my journey and my wife and kids support me in whatever I want to do.
“Certainly they have their concerns, and their concerns are mine. I share the same concerns. I try to be very systematic and methodical and make sure that I’m in a traditional ‘box’ of risk in getting into a racecar. We were all very comfortable with the risks associated to NASCAR, and through my experience this year in the IndyCar Series, and certainly being in the car yesterday, I feel that the IndyCar is now back in that same box.
“There are inherent risks when you’re driving a racecar, and I’m good with that, and I’m on this journey right now to prove to myself that the IndyCar is back in that inherent box of danger of driving a racecar.”
IndyCar vs. NASCAR on an oval
Johnson has won at Texas Motor Speedway seven times in his NASCAR Cup career and admitted that initially his focus was on simply adapting to the speed difference in an IndyCar.
“But as I worked through my second set of tires, the car started to feel much more like home,” he said, “and certainly the track and being on an oval felt like home. By the end of the test session itself, I felt very comfortable and in a very familiar place, which was nice.
“We were really conservative with our approach and just working into things. Running some laps, get out of the car, look at data, let it soak in, go again…
“I would say probably by the third set of tires I was feeling it and was really aggressive with the car. Turns 3 and 4 is pretty straightforward, but Turns 1 and 2 is quite tricky, and to get through there flat out was kind of the goal, and on the third set of tires to really be able to pull that off and do it consistently felt good.”
In terms of sensations transmitted to the driver, Johnson remarked, “The faster you go, it’s almost the more stuck the cars are due to the downforce. That’s something that I really didn’t anticipate and felt the car would be maybe a little lighter at the end of the straightaways and entering the corners and a little more uncomfortable. The car was just stuck and planted. So that was an eye-opener to me.
“Something else that was a little different was shifting [gears] mid-corner. So Turns 1 and 2 you go down a gear and then up a gear and kind of make your laps that way, and that was something new and different for me to get used to on an oval. In an IndyCar with a six-speed gearbox and the fact that you don’t lose any time with gear shifts, the gearing is much different, and those top three or four gears are very close together to help you with either a tow or wind direction, track conditions.”
As well as understanding the in-cockpit tools for adjusting the car mid-run, Johnson said he and race engineer Eric Cowdin had worked on “speaking the language” of IndyCar on ovals, so he knew what to ask for and when. But perhaps surprisingly, he also said there were some similarities to running ovals with a NASCAR Cup car.
“On a road course you worry about good [corner] exits in a NASCAR vehicle. And sure, exits matter in an IndyCar, but the magic is done when you hit the brakes, so your focal point is different on a road and street course in a NASCAR versus IndyCar.
“On the oval, I found out yesterday, it’s in the same place, and not only is it in the same place, the adjustments you make on the racecar are the same from a Cup car to an IndyCar. Granted, the car, the shape of the car is a little different and it seems that the ride height settings are different, but the mechanical piece to it – springs, shocks, crossweight, tows, cambers, all the things that we play with – it was the same school of thought.
“So I felt much more at home, not only from a driving standpoint and where to create speed but also how to help the team adjust the car and work on the racecar.”
Johnson was very encouraged by his pace on the IMS road course this month – and his significant gains since the May race on that track.
Photo by: Barry Cantrell / Motorsport Images