until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League


The ambitions defying Johnson’s lack of ‘shortcut’ to experience

by Jack Benyon
9 min read

until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

IndyCar is back on an oval this weekend at Iowa, which should immediately excite any Jimmie Johnson fan.

The seven-time NASCAR champion has struggled to adapt to road and street course racing in the series given his lack of open-wheel and road course experience, but he was one of the most exciting and talked about drivers at the Indy 500 as his team-mates – count three winners among the four, with Alex Palou finishing second last year – marvelled at his car control.

That was especially the case on a wild qualifying run where he made it to the Fast 12 with the back end hanging out at 230mph-plus.

This weekend in Iowa is not totally dissimilar in its position in the championship to Indy, because with two races the Iowa weekend is almost the same distance as the Indy 500 and awards full points for each, so there’s almost as many points on offer as at the double-points blue riband Brickyard race.

“I think the industry looked at it that way, we were at a test session that had 20-something cars, basically an entire field,” Johnson says of Iowa in comparison to Indy, speaking to The Race in an exclusive interview.

“So everybody acknowledges the amount of points that are on the table, I certainly want to finish as high as I can in the points.

Jimmie Johnson Iowa Speedway Test By James Black Largeimagewithoutwatermark M62926

“I’m really looking forward to Iowa, I felt like I adapted to the car and the track really well.

“It’s my first time at that track, period. So another one of those learning moments for me.

“Going back and having a doubleheader weekend, I think, again, really helps someone like myself with limited experience on that track and in these cars.

“I certainly hope to qualify well on both, but learn everything that I can from day one and apply to day two, and hopefully get a career-best finish out of it.”

Johnson’s best finish so far came at Texas in April when he was sixth, so that gives you an idea of how high expectations are now given he wants a career-best run at Iowa.

That might have been brought about by the Iowa test he mentions. He’s already impressed at Texas and Indy but it seems Johnson is even more comfortable on the tricky short track that is Iowa.

“It’s the most familiar that I’ve felt in IndyCar compared to NASCAR, although it’s just so much different,” explains Johnson, who would likely be inside the top 20 in the points had he not crashed in the Indy 500, where the double points really would have helped him.

Jimmie Johnson Xpel 375 By Chris Owens Largeimagewithoutwatermark M52988

“But I did feel like adjustments, driver line, the way you create speed, the way you use your feet, to set the car and drive the car through the corner. There were crossover moments that were helpful for me.

“To shift, and then how many times you shift on a lap, especially on older tyres, was quite impressive to me.

“Three down for each turn and three up for each straight. So I know it’s a pretty busy lap and then you’re trying to adjust your cockpit tools.

“It’s a hectic lap which I now see and understand why the IndyCar field loves to compete on that track because it’s just really busy.”

Jimmie Johnson And Scott Pruett By Chris Jones Largeimagewithoutwatermark M53092

A strong result would certainly help quieten the noise around Johnson’s switch. It’s unlikely he cares what anybody thinks but this transition has been tough, going from seven-time champion Johnson to fighting to even be on the pace at the back.

It must be hard when there’s some really critical people out there.

Perhaps as important Iowa is from the potential to score points, it might help Johnson decide how much IndyCar racing he wants to do next year.

Ultimately, despite adding the ovals to his calendar this year, his average start and finish is relatively similar. But don’t forget, the rest of the grid is and should be making improvements year on year, and Johnson’s got a bigger gap to close down in a bid to match his rivals.

“I definitely know that I have improved, more than I have shown,” he says.

“Racing happens and I’m sure every driver in the field looks back on a couple of races and sees where things didn’t go their way and wishes that they could have come back. And I certainly have that situation, as well.

“At Mid-Ohio, I think we’re able to show pace and raceability and finish where I think I’ve been capable of finishing [16th].

“So I hope that I have a lot of this unfortunate racing luck behind me and I’m able to capitalise on the back half of the season. Certainly on street and road courses, my goal is to be in the teens. I think when we get to the ovals, the expectations go up.”

Jimmie Johnson Honda Indy Toronto By Chris Jones Largeimagewithoutwatermark M63975

It’s so hard to analyse Johnson’s development. He’s drawn comparisons to Scott McLaughlin, who came from Australian Supercars and has won two races this year in his second season with Team Penske, but he raced in a road course-only championship whereas Johnson has come from two road courses a year in NASCAR.

For every race you look and feel impressed with Johnson, for example being 1.4 seconds off the best time and 20th of 26 cars in the Detroit race, there’s a Road America where he was 2.9 seconds off. Admittedly, Road America is a very long lap and a phenomenally difficult circuit to master.

He’s brought about nine red flags in practice this year, but has made significant steps forward. At Mid-Ohio he had his best road course finish in 16th.

Sure, people look at a seven-time champion and want to see better results. But Johnson is learning so much more than any other driver in the series.

I just can’t shortcut the road to experience. At times I wonder if I should be out there pounding laps in the Indy Lights car to speed up this process :: Jimmie Johnson

While Johnson’s rivals know what the car is going to do in almost any situation, and can switch the brake bias and settings on the steering wheel without even thinking about it, Johnson’s still trying to remember and adapt to everything that’s going on in the cockpit.

“I feel like the pace of the IndyCar, the structure of a weekend, getting a better sense of track evolution, a better sense of the tyre and how to turn the tyre on and how to feel the peak grip of a tyre [are the things I’m adapting to],” he says.

“There are a lot of things that I’m spending less energy on and just feeling and adapting to. And then that opens up my ability to focus on set-up changes and other things that are where the majority of the field is spending their time thinking.

“They’re more reacting to these more simple items, and thinking about big-picture items, where I’ve had to think about everything.

“So I do feel like I’m evolving on that really well. And I just cannot express enough how different the worlds are between NASCAR and IndyCar, they’re just totally different animals.

“Not spending any time in junior formula cars, the basics, unfortunately I’m learning the basics in the premier form of road racing, I would argue in the world.

“So with no limited junior open wheel experience, and learning these tracks, everywhere I turn there’s something new to absorb and to spend some energy on and time and energy on.”

One thing for certain is he’s in the right place. Even if there’s no ‘How do you help a NASCAR champion adapt to IndyCar despite having no single-seater experience?’ guide book, if any team can overcome those challenges it’s Ganassi.

Last weekend at Toronto was a perfect example of its resolve and ability to shut out noise. It started the week with another team claiming to sign its driver for next year despite having him under contract, and finished the event winning and putting two other cars in the top six, one of them from 21st on the grid.

It has a working practice that other teams would dream of. All four cars work together for the good of the team and even in such a competitive championship you get the feeling everyone has bought into this way of working.

“I feel like with the relationships I have a Chip Ganassi Racing, I’m starting with Chip down through team-mates and Dario [Franchitti], even some of the executive group I’ve worked with in my previous life at Hendrick Motorsports,” says Johnson.

“So I really do feel like I’m surrounded by people that want to see me succeed and are willing to take the extra steps to help me understand, process, develop, mature, grow as a driver, so they’ve done a phenomenal job.

Jimmie Johnson Honda Indy Toronto By Joe Skibinski Largeimagewithoutwatermark M64367

“I just can’t shortcut the road to experience and the laps on these tracks and the laps in a single-seater, at times I often wonder if I should be out there pounding laps in the Indy Lights car every weekend, just to kind of speed up this process too.

“But as far as inside the team, and the support, the tools, the resources. Speaking of resources, I think of Honda and how willing they have been to help me with extra sim time. Everyone has really been been amazing and helping me with this, helping me grow in this environment.”

Chip Ganassi told Racer magazine he expects his line-up to stay the same next year, but Johnson says nothing is finalised on his IndyCar future.

“I think all of it’s on the table from a decision-making standpoint,” adds Johnson, when asked if his preference is to stay full-time or switch to a partial programme of races.

Jimmie Johnson Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix By James Black Largeimagewithoutwatermark M61761

“I’m having the time of my life driving these cars, and being a part of the industry and being on the grid. I certainly would love to continue on.

“But I hope the next short period of time, I’m able to come to grips with my intentions, team, sponsor, all those little pieces that we need to put together.

“But I think I’ve been on the record a few times before just saying how much fun I’ve had and how much I’ve enjoyed this and would love to continue on.”

It’s crucial that Johnson is still enjoying himself, but along with IndyCar, IMSA, racing at Goodwood later this year, and a spoken about desire to do the Le Mans 24 Hours, there’s a lot of calendar puzzle pieces and ultimately he can pick and choose what he wants to do.

Jimmie Johnson Iowa Speedway Test By James Black Largeimagewithoutwatermark M62993

A new project launched by NASCAR team Trackhouse to field an extra car – like it will next month for Kimi Raikkonen at Watkins Glen – seems like a perfect opportunity for Johnson, but while he repeated “I certainly would look at opportunities in NASCAR”, he also said it “would be really difficult” to race for another team other than with Hendrick Motorsports, where he spent his entire NASCAR career.

We’ll see how far Johnson has grown this weekend since leaving Hendrick. He was right on the pace of his Ganassi team-mates at Texas and Indy and, while Iowa is a very different type of oval, his feeling of familiarity at the test bodes well.

Ultimately, you’d like to see him do better on the road and street courses, but as he rightly points out he’s doing the learning others have done in junior formulae in an elite series.

Don’t write off Johnson just yet. And even if you have done, it’s unlikely he cares. He’s enjoying himself and he has his own set of expectations. He doesn’t need anybody else to tell him what those should be.

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