Stock car great Johnson tries to get groove in IndyCar
Now considered one of the greatest stock car drivers ever, Jimmie Johnson grew up in Southern California and wanted to be an IndyCar driver.
It wasn't until he turned 16, signed on with sponsor Chevrolet and excelled in other forms of racing — such as offroad — that Johnson left his dream behind and chased NASCAR Cup Series stardom.
He reached stardom with seven NASCAR Cup championships, tying him with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for most ever, and 83 race wins and 222 top-five finishes.
Having departed NASCAR after the 2020 season, the 45-year-old Johnson has lived out his dream, thanks to a deal with Chip Ganassi Racing. He's racing this year and presumably next for Ganassi in the IndyCar Series, alongside six-time IndyCar Series champ Scott Dixon and teammates Alex Palou and Marcus Ericsson.
Johnson has competed in seven races in a Honda with his familiar No. 48, and he'll be entered in the Grand Prix of Portland in September at Portland International Raceway. Johnson hasn't finished in the top 10, yet, but he has finished six of seven races. He's improving in piloting an open-wheel car.
Johnson and other IndyCar drivers will be testing Friday at PIR. He hadn't driven the PIR road course before.
It's been a steep learning curve for Johnson in IndyCar.
"But, I didn't think the curve would be as steep as it is. It's tough to be a rookie," Johnson said. "I sympathize with rookies all ages."
While teams tested as much as they wanted in NASCAR, the IndyCar teams rarely test on tracks anymore. It's too expensive. Johnson estimates he has been in his IndyCar ride about 15 times.
"It's much more specialized than I gave it credit for going in," said Johnson, who has a two-year contract with Ganassi. "With all that said, I'm having a blast. These cars are so much dang fun. I like the tracks, the culture, the vibe of IndyCar.
"I'll do it at least a couple years. If I get people to support me from a sponsorship standpoint, I'd do it for a long time. It took me five years to convert from offroad racing to the stock car, and I'm assuming there will be a similar journey (with IndyCar). Hopefully it won't be that long."
Not only has Johnson had to get used to turning more left and right on road courses and street circuits, rather than just left on NASCAR ovals, it takes opposite driving techniques in IndyCar from his days in a stock car.
"Where lap time is made is braking," he said. "It's about releasing the brake early enough to carry (the car) through the corner and let the downforce work. I'm getting better with the brake hit.
"The biggest thing with a NASCAR vehicle is you can't live on the brakes at every corner or on every lap, because you're still using steel brakes and rotors; they would melt off. They're using carbon brakes in IndyCar, and you can't hurt them."
In IndyCar as a driver, "You start smart and continue to pour on effort."
He finished well in some NASCAR Cup road course races, winning once. "It's a daunting challenge," he said, of road course/street course racing. "I'm definitely challenging myself."
There have been rumors of Johnson seeking a return to NASCAR Cup Series. Well, he said, there has to be a job available, and "I'm really focused here. This challenge, I want to see it through and do the best I can."
Ganassi is leaving NASCAR Cup Series after 2021 and Johnson's former team, Hendrick Motorsports, has a full lineup of drivers.
"I don't see a pathway back to a quality opportunity in NASCAR right now," Johnson said.
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