Jimmie Johnson’s switch from NASCAR to IndyCar was one of the motorsport stories of 2020.
Whether he will start doing ovals and the Indy 500 – something he is yet to confirm – has caused similar interest this year in IndyCar circles.
Chip Ganassi Racing driver Johnson tested at Texas Motor Speedway on Monday, his first time on an oval in an IndyCar.
He had said he was “alarmed” at the fact that at times in the past speeds had been so high at the track that drivers had struggled to stay conscious, and this test was all part of his fact-finding mission to work out if he felt comfortable on an oval and that he didn’t feel it was something too dangerous for him to be doing.
After the test, Johnson addressed the media to update on his oval and Indy 500 plans. The Race has rounded up and answered some of the key questions answered.
Is Johnson going to do the Indy 500 now?
It seems unlikely Johnson would go through the trouble of asking his Chip Ganassi Racing team to organise an oval test if Johnson wasn’t serious about doing the Indy 500. It’s an event he’s wanted to do since childhood.
“I’m definitely a step closer,” Johnson said after his test.
“I think that there are more conversations to be had with family, team and sponsors, at least another test session ahead of me before I can really make a decision, but driving the car yesterday only piqued my interest more.”
There are more complicated things at play here. First off, Tony Kanaan – currently driving Johnson’s car on ovals – has a contract to do the same next year, so if Johnson wants to do the 500 it needs to be funded, Ganassi needs a new (fifth!) car and it needs the personnel to be able to run it.
Aside from that, Johnson needs to discuss with his family – who he says aren’t stopping him from doing things like these, but need Johnson to be comfortable with the risks – before he fully engages.
What happens next?
Johnson will go away and have those discussions with Ganassi and his sponsors as to whether the 500 is possible logistically.
He’ll test at the rookie orientation programme at Indianapolis in likely mid-October (date not confirmed) to ensure he’s ready, and then will make a final personal decision with his family, on whether he is willing to give it a go.
Johnson won’t test on an oval again before October, so we’re going to be waiting until at least then to get a firm answer on his plans.
“Eager to find out when that date in October would be for the rookie orientation,” adds Johnson.
“It looks like [Romain] Grosjean would normally be going through that, as well. A couple notable rookies going to the Brickyard and working through the orientation process.
“So that would be the next logical step for me in the car, and conversations are happening with my family.
“I feel like that orientation would be the next logical step on track, 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 session as a real moment to send me on my path towards potentially running the 500.”
What about the other ovals; Texas, Iowa, Gateway?
The Race asked Johnson – given all the talk of the Indy 500 – if he’s considering the other ovals and therefore a full IndyCar schedule in 2022.
“Right now it’s really the pathway to Indy,” he said.
“There’s still so many hurdles between now and one event that to look at the others is tough at this point.
“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.”
It’s a lukewarm answer at best. Maybe in the future when the funding and logistics have been arranged, Johnson will consider a full schedule. Even if a fifth Ganassi car can be arranged for the 500, running that car for three other ovals seems unlikely at least in 2022. Unless something changes.
The thing is, money isn’t the only factor. With top engineers and mechanics at a premium, you can’t magic them out of thin air and Ganassi and Johnson want to do this properly.
Does this mean he’s not doing any NASCAR, or Le Mans?
Since even before making the IndyCar move Johnson has remained stout in his interest in competing at the Le Mans 24 Hours and return to NASCAR for the odd event if the right deal came together.
The Race also asked Johnson if this was still the case or if the Indy 500 plan has took over his time and focus.
“I think right now, my priority first and foremost is the IndyCar programme,” he said.
“I’d say secondarily, the fun I’ve had in IMSA and how IMSA really helps me with the IndyCar programme, that’s probably my second priority.
“I’m running out of weekends, but I certainly will look at any real opportunity and consider it.
“But priority right now is much like it’s been in 2021.”
Will he still do road and street courses? And what about 2023 onwards?
“My obligations to run the road and street stuff would stay the same and we would add on [ovals] to that,” answered Johnson.
So the plan is, even if he does add ovals, not to make a pendulum swing to only doing ovals and not road courses, which would have suited him more given his lack of road racing experience and wealth of NASCAR oval wins.
Indeed, few drivers in history will have made a rookie test debut at a track where the victory lane is named after them, like the Texas one is for Johnson.
People who have become fans of Johnson will be glad to know that he is thinking about the championship as a long-term home despite signing a two-year deal initially.
“I’m happy to go on the record and say I’ll run as many years in the NTT IndyCar Series that Chip [Ganassi] will have me and I can find sponsorship,” Johnson said.
“I am having such a good time, and every rep 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’s current deal ends following the conclusion of the 2022 season, but it’s hard to imagine he wouldn’t be able to get the sponsorship to continue. The number of adverts Carvana uses him for in the States only backs that up…
How fast was Johnson at Texas?
Johnson recorded a lap just over 214mph, which would have put Johnson fourth in qualifying last year.
Obviously conditions are never going to be perfectly representative, but it was hot, which implies Johnson could have gone quicker. He was “far short” of the 50 laps per stint the team expected to get on the tyres because of the warm conditions, which meant the car moving around a more and that the track was a bit slower than it usually is on a race weekend.
That didn’t appear to slow Johnson though, who was very happy with his progress.
He had the support of six-time champion Scott Dixon – who arrived before Johnson and was inspecting the car at 5am – four-time champion and team driver coach Dario Franchitti and Tony Kanaan in the pit offering advice, and his engineer Eric Cowdin is extremely experienced.
“Mid-morning we were in excess of really any useful track temp for me to go out and push and to try to run fast laps,” adds Johnson. “At that point we decided to work through changes on the car to see if I could feel them, where I would feel them and how they would apply to maybe what Scott or one of my other team-mates, the data they had on those changes.
“To work through that was really fun for me and to understand spring split, rear spring, ride height, front wing, camber, tow and piecing that all together, just how familiar it was for me.”
Johnson added there was “more than just one” lap up near that 214mph mark, saying: “There was a couple on each set of tyres in that range.
“For myself to have that consistency at that high pace, very hot conditions, very low grip with it being a green racetrack, I think that was all just a really good sign of how comfortable I was and willing to push the car closer to its limits.”
Will he be better on IndyCar ovals than road, street courses?
“I think just looking at facts, I’m not sure we can pull a qualifying sheet from the year before and say I’d qualify fourth anywhere on a road or street course so far this year, so just that alone…” said Johnson.
“But yeah, I was able to feel the car, speak the language, work through adjustments in the car.
“I knew what to talk to Eric [Cowdin, engineer] about and knew where spring split worked, and I guess they call it, using the weight jacker button – ‘wedge’ is what we called it in NASCAR.
“Just the tools and the way you make a car go was so much more familiar, and I knew what I was feeling and I could be of help.
“Ovals would definitely be an uptick in performance for me, I believe.”
What does he make of his circuit racing progress?
It’s safe to say Johnson’s had a rocky introduction to IndyCar. Given his lack of open-wheel and circuit experience coming from a life in NASCAR, expectations had to be low.
But even so, there’s been a spin or a crash at most race weekends and sometimes progress has been hard to come by, as he lies 28th in points with a best finish of 19th, which came on his debut and has been matched but not bettered.
Still, just the level of bravery Johnson has displayed in putting himself through this journey has won him a lot of admirers, and while he’s been candid about his difficult adaptation, he sees progress in his recent performances.
“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, his joint-best result, last month] was something that was a bit more visible for everyone to notice.
“But Brad Goldberg, the engineer on 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 team-mates and within around a half a second of pace to the outright winner of the race. To see that progression from being a second plus [off] 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.”