It’s the off-again on-again romance of 2020. But finally – we hope – Jimmie Johnson is going to lower himself into the cockpit of an IndyCar at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Tuesday and try it out on the circuit’s road course.
This story is a complicated one. Johnson is set to retire from full-time NASCAR competition at the end of 2020 following seven titles (which he could yet add to) – the most of any active driver and tied for the most all time with Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty. At 44 years old, Johnson’s far from done with motorsport and a resurgent Cup Series performance year proves he still has something to offer.
In November 2018 Johnson completed a ride swap with Fernando Alonso, driving a McLaren Formula 1 car while Alonso experienced a Chevrolet stock car in Bahrain. That started a strong friendship between Johnson and McLaren chief Zak Brown.
Just under than a year after that ride-swap Brown inked a deal for McLaren to join Sam Schmidt’s team in 2020 for a full IndyCar programme – rebranding the team Arrow McLaren SP.
Johnson was a guest of that team at the Austin IndyCar test in February 2020 and soon after it was announced he would test with the team in April at Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama. Then the world fell apart amid the coronavirus pandemic and the test was postponed.
Then in June, the shock announcement came that Johnson would test for Chip Ganassi Racing instead. But shortly afterwards he tested positive for COVID-19 and the IndyCar outing was delayed once more as his glittering streak of 663 consecutive Cup Series races started also ended.
Now the NASCAR legend is hoping to test this week – providing he isn’t hit by an asteroid or eaten by a shark – with Ganassi once again.
The Ganassi announcement was so unexpected because Johnson has raced for Chevrolet squad Hendrick Motorsports all through his NASCAR career. Testing for Chevy-engined Arrow McLaren SP was logical. Testing for a Honda-propelled outfit such as Ganassi came as a shock. But it makes it clear Johnson isn’t pigeon-holed to run Chevy power in his next chapter.
“Everybody’s been super understanding that I just want to get on track and experience an IndyCar and see if it’s something that I want to do in the future,” said Johnson in a media teleconference following the June announcement of his Ganassi test.
“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” :: Jimmie Johnson
“I feel like it is. But my great relationship with Chevrolet, they were understanding that laps for me, any experience I can have in any IndyCar, is really the most important thing.
“And as we all know, I had a test scheduled for April 6 with the McLaren folks in a Chevrolet and I’m very, very hopeful to find a date with them and test in a Chevy McLaren.
“And honestly, any test that I can get, I want to take right now just to get every lap that I possibly can. So I’m thankful that things came together so quickly with CGR.
“And certainly there is the manufacturer conflict, but Chevrolet was very understanding of the situation. And we’ll see where this all leads in the future.”
That test with Arrow McLaren SP could still happen, but the team told The Race last month: “A lot has changed over the past few months, since we originally planned to test Jimmie.
“Our absolute focus for the time being has to be our two full-time drivers, Pato O’Ward and Oliver Askew, and preparing to run Fernando Alonso at the Indianapolis 500.
“We hope Jimmie enjoys his test here in Indianapolis.”
The Race then asked Brown if he still wanted Johnson in the car, to which he replied: “We don’t have any plans in place. Anytime you can put a seven-time champion of anything in your racing car, it’s always a lot of fun.
“He did a great job in our Formula 1 car so if schedules allow, timing allows, we’d love to have him have a go.
“But our priority right now is exclusively on Oliver and Pato so that’s all of our mind at the moment, but later in the year, end of the year, if it makes sense, it’d be great to see what he can do in an IndyCar.”
The general assumption when Johnson was initially slated to test for Arrow McLaren SP was that it was on pole to secure him for any IndyCar races he committed to. That may still be the case, but Johnson has been very up front and honest that he’ll take any opportunity he can get right now as he evaluates his next endeavour, which could include a Le Mans 24 Hours entry and select NASCAR returns.
Some of you may have a follow-up question at this point: is Johnson so confident he can be competitive in IndyCar despite his single-seater inexperience that he expects multiple teams to want to sign him?
After all, let’s take this at face value. Johnson’s road course record in NASCAR isn’t stellar, his average finish at Watkins Glen is one of his worse, around 17th, and only slightly better at Sonoma, around 16th, although he does have a win there (in 2010, pictured above).
He also comes from a Trophy Truck background, with little single-seater experience to call on from his formative career.
No one’s doubting Johnson’s career achievements here, just how relevant they might be to being competitive in IndyCar – a series that’s hard enough for rookies from 100% single-seater backgrounds to quickly get up to speed in.
But those who know Johnson won’t be surprised to hear that he has a selfless and pragmatic approach. He’s not actually expecting many IndyCar teams to fight for his services. Not yet anyway, he knows he has to bring something to the table.
When asked if the Ganassi run would be as much about the team trying him out as the other way around, he replied: “Yeah, absolutely. It’s a test, it’s a tryout. And it’s a two way street, a two way tryout for the team to look at me and for myself to look at a team.”
He was then asked what would help him decide whether IndyCar was the right move for him.
“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 replied matter-of-factly.
“So it’s really how I can feel the car, what my pace is like. Of course, it’s unrealistic to think that I’ll be in a race winning pace in the first test session.
“But if I’m within a certain amount of time, and I have a good feel of the car, then for me, I feel like that’s an important first step that I need to know that I could be competitive.
“I do not want to go race in any series and not be competitive.
“So, from my standpoint, that’s what I’m looking at.
“And on the team side, I would say it’s pretty similar. They might have a few more things that they’re looking at, but on my side, it’s really about competitiveness.”
Both Ganassi – which won the first four IndyCar races of the season – and Arrow McLaren SP, which has had a car fighting for the podium in most races this year, tick that competitiveness box. So now it’s up to Johnson to deliver at Indy on Tuesday.
“I hung on the fence at Long Beach a lot as a kid watching and dreaming” :: Jimmie Johnson
His approach of being completely self-aware that he may be off the pace and that he might not have enough to offer an IndyCar team is befitting of the professional Jimmie Johnson is. He’s the perfect ambassador for NASCAR as a sport, whether it’s his fitness regime proving NASCAR drivers aren’t the slobs some have stereotyped them as, to being one of the first to back Bubba Wallace in his push for equality.
Johnson does it all and will be a sore loss to NASCAR, but a massive gain to any other championship, and as per his words, if he’s coming to a new series, you can expect him to be on the pace – because he wouldn’t commit to it if he wasn’t certain that would be the case.
There’s also been another big shift recently in what to expect from Johnson. His decision to wind down his career has been partly been driven by wanting to spend more time at home with his family.
But his stance on completing a whole IndyCar road course season, and even doing an oval or two – which he point-blank ruled out earlier this year – appears to be changing
“For starters, I’m going to keep a close eye on things, their [IndyCar’s] safety on ovals is dramatically increased this year with the windscreen [aeroscreen] that they have,” said Johnson.
“So I’ll keep a close eye on things there and see how it’s done. See how the safety level looks.
“I’ve always wanted to race the [Indy] 500. I would have to do a lot of selling to my wife to get that hall pass to do it.
“But my true desire right now is just to run the road courses.
“And there are 12 on the schedule right now and I would be open to run all 12 if the right opportunity came along.
“But when I was a kid growing up the closest IndyCar racing for me was in Long Beach. So one of my hopes is that I am able to race at Long Beach.
“I hung on the fence a lot as a kid watching and dreaming, had a lot of meetings as my professional career developed at the Long Beach Grand Prix with Chevrolet thinking about what would be next for me transitioning from off-road trucks to asphalt.
“So, for me, there’s a lot of sentimental value with that race. And I hope to race there, but I’m open to all that when you think of COTA, Road America. There’s so many good ones to think about. Indy – obviously, I’m going to have a chance to test there.
“I’d be highly interested in every one that they have on the schedule right now.”
So while that’s a long way from a confirmed plan to enter the 2021 Indy 500, it’s a shift from a complete no to IndyCar on ovals, to a ‘persuade my wife to let me’ stance. I think motorsport fans everywhere will be hoping that’s one of the toughest career challenges Johnson can win!
In the meantime, he’ll get his first IndyCar test in what is the most competitive car right now. There’s plenty of comparative data as the series raced at the venue in June and won with five-time champion Scott Dixon, a good friend of Johnson’s, so he’ll be able to answer a lot of those burning questions he has.
Let’s hope he’s on the pace. Could Ganassi’s line up next year be ex-Formula 1 driver (Marcus Ericsson), multiple IndyCar champion (Dixon), European single-seater expert with wins in Formula E (Felix Rosenqvist), and a seven-time NASCAR champion?
Now that’s something we should all want to see.