Chip Ganassi Racing is interested in signing Jimmie Johnson to race an IndyCar in the future, following a successful first test on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.
Johnson ran most of the day with the team on Tuesday, completing around 120 laps. He was coached by five-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon, who won at the track earlier this year, with team owner Chip Ganassi and managing director Mike Hull also in attendance.
Seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Johnson began in off-road trucks before getting his big break in NASCAR, but has always dreamed of racing in IndyCar despite his lack of single-seater experience.
With his full-time Cup career coming to an end at the conclusion of the 2020 season, the 44-year-old has made it clear that an IndyCar outing and a Le Mans 24 Hours entry are among his top priorities.
A first IndyCar test – set to be with Arrow McLaren SP following on from his McLaren Formula 1 ride-swap with Fernando Alonso in Bahrain in 2018 – was cancelled due to the coronavirus, although the team is still interested in testing Johnson in the future.
Instead Johnson – in a move that came as a surprise given his career-long Chevrolet relationship – arranged his first IndyCar test with Honda-powered Ganassi.
That test was then delayed due to Johnson contracting coronavirus, which also forced him to miss a Cup Series race.
However, Johnson finally got his first test yesterday and called it an “awesome experience” in a number of social media videos. He also called it a “very successful day”, the only blip being two spins while trying to find the limit of the car.
“I came from Colorado last night, and I had to take an Alka-Seltzer PM to put myself to sleep, because I literally feel like today is Christmas, and yesterday was Christmas eve!” said Johnson.
He added: “What a day. That’s a wrap on an awesome, awesome experience. Big thanks to Chip Ganassi Racing, Scott Dixon, Chip, everybody involved. That blew my mind. I had such an awesome experience today.”
With it being a private test, no timing was available, meaning whether Johnson had set a competitive pace remains a tantalising mystery.
“Comparable lap time wise we thought we were in the ballpark with him” :: Mike Hull
Johnson had said that this was as much a try-out for him as it was for the team he tested with. While any team that signs Johnson will benefit from his experience and the PR boost it will bring, Johnson wants to make sure he is competitive. This is no hobby plan for the twilight of his career.
“Well, if I’m four seconds off the pace, then that’s probably a quick sign that I don’t need to be one of those cars,” Johnson had said prior to the test, confirming this was much about proving his own pace as the team and series proving itself to him.
That’s something Johnson doesn’t need to worry about with Ganassi, which won the first four races of the season with Dixon and Felix Rosenqvist, Johnson driving the latter’s car while being coached by the former. The team’s ex-F1 third driver Marcus Ericsson is also on good form, with four straight top-10 finishes in recent races.
Speaking to the Trackside Podcast with Curt Cavin and Kevin Lee, Hull not only said that Johnson’s pace was in “the ballpark”, but that the team was interested in signing him up amid what he expects to be a race among IndyCar squads to secure Johnson for race outings.
Tonight on Trackside, Ganassi Racing's @IndyMHull joins @KevinLee23 and @curtcavin to talk about Jimmie Johnson's test with the team and prospects of racing in the future. Kevin and Curt talk Indy 500 news and the latest schedule change for Indy Car. https://t.co/NZe8soP3gK
— Brad Huber (@bhuber1070) July 29, 2020
“He did really well,” exclaimed Hull on the podcast.
“I think he did well enough now that he’s going to have to make a decision about what he wants to do. Maybe that’s the short answer.
“The track temperature out there today was over 130 degrees, and that didn’t stop us from running certainly, and we were on black [harder] tyres all day, which was good.
“Comparable lap time wise we thought we were in the ballpark with him, or we would be – there’s no rubber-up today.
“But he was respectable on black tyres. We thought we’ll go back and analyse the track temp and no rubber versus the race weekend and give him a real analysis of where he stands but if he were to run in October [in the next races at the track] – which I don’t think he’s going to but if he were to run in October – he would be very, very respectable there.”
Asked if Ganassi would have an interest in signing Johnson for next year, Hull added: “We would. There’s no question about that. I think that it’s fair to say that we would but we haven’t talked about it, really. What we talked about was just doing what we did today.”
It seems like a no brainer now. Johnson is good friends with Dixon and the team is on a high with its blend of youth and experience. Its competitiveness is out of the question, so now it’s going to come down to a matter of whether Johnson enjoyed working with the rest of the team, and just how competitive he actually was.
“Let’s face it, he’s made lots of money, he’s won lots of races, he’s won lots of championships, but this guy is all in” :: Mike Hull
Hull isn’t the sort of person to mislead about this kind of thing and is a well-respected figure in the industry.
The physicality of the car – which is significant given the g-forces involved and the fact IndyCar doesn’t have power steering – was also not a problem for Johnson.
Through his whole career, Johnson has pushed the importance of diet and exercise, mainly due to the fact that NASCAR drivers had a reputation for being out of shape, sometimes overweight.
Johnson is regularly out on a mountain bike in his home in Colorado, and competes in ironman events. If any NASCAR driver would be ready to jump into a single-seater with limited experience and without an intensive extra training programme, it’s Johnson.
Driver physicality is under the spotlight now more than ever in IndyCar, as the new aeroscreen canopy shuts out air and makes the cockpit extremely warm.
Ganassi was asked to test new items to help with the airflow in the cockpit in the future by IndyCar, with Hull saying a few of the options worked well.
He added that Johnson hadn’t made any complaints about the aeroscreen, and explained Johnson’s fitness in his own unique way.
“We’ve had guys that have got in our cars and have done tests, not too many lately but over the years,” said Hull.
“And when you’ve got a headset on and you’ve got the intercom by about noon, or right after lunch, you start to hear a lot of heavy breathing on the intercom when they’re sitting there in the cockpit!
“Those are the guys that aren’t physically prepared to drive an IndyCar without power steering with a lot of load side to side on their neck and shoulders.
“I never heard him [Johnson] breathe heavy all day long in the car on the intercom.
“I think I should move to Colorado and get on that mountain bike!
“He’s in pretty good shape. He may be a little sore tomorrow. But I think he’ll be able to hold his head up, I think he’ll be fine.”
“I was amazed at the technical depth that Jimmie possesses, how much he understands vehicle dynamics, and how he could apply it to an IndyCar” :: Mike Hull
Without any physical concerns, and the pace being in the region of competitiveness, it’s hard to see what would stop an IndyCar deal for Johnson now.
The only real question is, will it be with Ganassi? We’ve heard the CGR side of the story, now we’re waiting for Johnson’s. Either he’ll still want to test with Arrow McLaren SP, or the quality of the team he worked with yesterday may have swayed him.
There’s no doubt, Ganassi has a high opinion of Johnson and wants to sign him. The Dixon factor may just be the thing to get the deal over the line.
IndyCar points’ leader Dixon said of Johnson: “He did a fantastic job.
“The hardest part is knowing baselines [because] when you don’t have a team-mate with you during the day, you don’t know really where you stand.
“Honestly, he did a terrific job. He did a mega job.”
Hull was quick to point out how impressed he had been at Johnson’s feedback and how he worked closely with Dixon through the day.
“I was amazed when Scott and Jimmie were together up in the engineering office, at the technical depth that Jimmie Johnson possesses, and how he utilises the terminology, how much he understands vehicle dynamics, and how he could apply it to an IndyCar,” he said.
“From a distance, it’s hard to know the seriousness of an athlete like Jimmie in terms of what they’ve accomplished in their career, and what they still want to give to that career.
“Let’s face it, he’s made lots of money, he’s won lots of races, he’s won lots of championships, but this guy is all in.
“And that was really really fun to watch. And never having driven an IndyCar prior, having Dixon as a coach made it even better for him, I’m sure.”