Jimmie Johnson’s Hall of Fame NASCAR career may be over, but the seven-time Cup Series champion is far from retired.
His career has simply taken a new direction with the NTT IndyCar Series his new focus. Johnson will drive the No. 48 Carvana/American Legion Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing in 13 road course races this season.
“This has been the busiest offseason I’ve ever had,” Johnson said. “I was in the Indy car immediately following the last NASCAR race at Phoenix. The IndyCar team at Chip Ganassi Racing and then the IMSA prototype, there is a sim for both cars, there are seat fittings for each car, getting to learn the names of crew members, teams and systems, it has been by far the busiest winter.
“Chani (Johnson’s wife) and I joke all the time, here I thought I was slowing down, but it’s been way busier than any offseason I’ve ever been a part of.”
Johnson started his first NASCAR Cup Series season by winning the pole for the 2002 Daytona 500 and won three races before the end of the year.
Nineteen years later, Johnson is a rookie again, this time in IndyCar as he gets to compete in the series that fueled his interest in racing when he and his family attended the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach.
“The Long Beach Grand Prix as a kid, just the anticipation and excitement from the parking lot all the way into wherever you are watching the race from, watching the cars go by was exciting,” Johnson recalled. “There’s such a neat environment that’s involved.
“I remember parking our car, hearing the engines running, the shifts, the rev limiters, just all the sounds you have at a street circuit race. My heart would start racing, excitement to catch a glimpse of a car going by, crossing over a pedestrian bridge, hearing them scream underneath you, would just get your adrenaline pumping.
“When I went to St. Pete last October, it was funny how familiar that was, how similar it was when I was a kid going to the Long Beach Grand Prix.”
Tony Kanaan, the 2004 IndyCar Series champion and 2013 Indianapolis 500 winner, will drive the No. 48 car in the four oval races on the schedule.
Johnson’s new challenge has reinvigorated a driver who is easily one of the greatest stock car drivers of all-time.
With 83 Cup Series victories, Johnson is the only driver in NASCAR history to win five straight (2006-’10) championships.
“Emotionally, I’m really excited for the experiences ahead and being able to run in a series I dreamed of running in as a kid is a really special opportunity for me,” Johnson said. “But at the same time, it’s not going to be easy. I’m not going to look very good for a while, so I know I have a lot of work ahead of myself, but I’m really enjoying the process and enjoying this journey.”
As a 45-year-old IndyCar Series rookie, Johnson is realistic in his approach to the new series. He got his first real taste of Indy car racing during tests at Sebring (Fla.) Int’l Raceway in January and California’s WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca in early February.
“There are so many things that are foreign to me, working through a lot of those little technicalities with the car, with the cockpit, procedures, then trying to get some laps in there as well,” Johnson said. “There were so many cars here. To get out on the track, find a clean spot to run and take my time getting up to speed has been a bit challenging with the heavy traffic and how fast these guys are.”
During the Sebring test, Johnson turned a session-high 160 laps with a fast time of 53.691 seconds. His CGR teammate, six-time IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon, was the fastest with a 52.350-second lap.
“They handed me a sheet that compared me to Dixon,” Johnson explained. “The slow-speed stuff I was really trending well, didn’t have a lot to work on there. It was the high-speed corners, the flat-out corners where you have to trust the vehicle, trust the downforce that the vehicle provides. That’s where I had my biggest gap. I assume that’s still the case. I look forward to more reps really to help close that gap.”
Johnson’s lap times improved by nearly three seconds a lap during that test, but that still left him seventh of the seven drivers participating.
“To have all the resources, drivers, all four cars on the track to rubber it in, that was a good test,” Johnson said. “Barber, last fall, every car in the series was there and that was another great data point. Every lap counts right now.
“Even though I’m a 45-year-old rookie, being a rookie in today’s style of racing with less practice and restrictions, it’s tough to be a rookie, no matter what series you are in.
“I’m really just trying to understand how to slow the car down and maximize the car in the braking zones. My teammates have been great, working really well with me helping me get up to speed.
“I’m having a ton of fun.”
Johnson has had to learn a completely new cockpit environment from that of his familiar No. 48 stock car.
“There are many driver aids built into the car and the steering wheel,” Johnson explained. “On the IndyCar side, the steering wheel is very complex and the anti-roll bar adjustments are there and the brake bias, but the straightaways are so short at those speeds and the way the gearbox lays out on the straights, I’m so impressed how these guys can make quick adjustments, shift gears and not lose any lap time. That is something I will have to work on in an Indy car.
“The biggest thing is the amount of lap time created by the brakes in an Indy car or a sports car compared to a NASCAR vehicle. The brakes are really the weakest link on a NASCAR vehicle,” Johnson noted. “We won’t have a lot of downforce and you can make the brakes real hot, real fast. You create lap time exiting the turn in a NASCAR vehicle. With the lighter downforce on a NASCAR vehicle, on the straightaways the gains you make on power really multiply quickly. It’s more center of the corner out.”
There is also a dramatic difference between the low-downforce, high-horsepower NASCAR machine and the high-downforce, lightning-quick Indy car.
“The downforce world is the other way around,” Johnson continued. “The downforce cars hit terminal velocity very quickly so your opportunity to gain lap time on a straightaway is a much more condensed period of time. You hit a wall in terms of terminal velocity. The technique of applying the brakes, how to trail off them and throw the car into a turn is where the magic is.
“That is easier said than done. With data, you go out and apply what you think is taking place then you come in and look at the data and realize you aren’t quite there. You go through that process, make the senses and feelings of the car match what the data is showing with the more experienced drivers.
“I’ve closed the gap a considerable amount on the IndyCar side,” Johnson added. “I’m still not where I want to be, but I think I’m on target for my progress on the limited days I’ve had in the Indy car. I’ve been in an F-3 car quite a bit and that has been helpful. My senses are in-tune trying to figure out how to exploit the most out of each car. It’s something I’ve been learning. Each car is quite a bit different.”
Few champions have been able to move from one racing discipline to another with success. Tony Stewart is the only driver to win an IndyCar Series title (1997) and a NASCAR Cup Series championship (2002, ’05 and ’11).
Johnson wants to keep his expectations realistic.
“I’m definitely excited,” he said. “With that excitement comes some anxiety as well. I’m jumping into the deep end of the pool. When I’m in the Indy car, just how special the technique is in those cars and the amount of aggression it takes to drive those cars.”
Johnson is relishing his chance to learn a new trade, while essentially learning his way again.
“Someday, I won’t have that opportunity, but I’m not ready to walk away from that now and I really do like being uncomfortable in how it makes me feel and how it holds me accountable.
“I’ve jumped into the deep end of the pool with weights around my ankles here for ’21 and ’22, but it just makes me feel more alive than I have in quite some time.”
Spoken like a true racer.