The buzz is back for Jimmie Johnson as his IndyCar and IMSA seasons take flight
The buzz goes beyond the boot cut these days for Jimmie Johnson, which is good for a freshly minted IndyCar driver who spent a few years on the margins.
The seven-time Cup Series champion endured a muted ending to his illustrious NASCAR career with three winless seasons and two consecutive playoff misses. Yet since hanging up his Hendrick Motorsports helmet, Johnson seems to be making headlines again more than ever -- but now he’s being thrust into the center of positive narratives.
The most recent example is a runner-up finish in the Rolex 24 at Daytona, which was so well-received that Johnson knew within hours that it would lead to more IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship races (starting with the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring later this month).
Viewership for the Rolex 24, which also included Cup champion Chase Elliott, spiked 19 percent.
“All the amazing exposure that all four drivers received, Action Express Racing, Ally, Mr. Hendrick, everybody involved was like, ‘We’ve got to do this again,’ ” Johnson said Thursday at the preseason NTT IndyCar Series Content Day. “Literally by Monday morning after car dropoff at 8:00 for my kids, I had a pretty good sense that it was going to happen. There was just that much excitement immediately following the race and the morning after.”
With a carefully cultivated and strategic approach to social media, along with a sterling reputation as all-around good guy, Johnson, 45, has built one of the most appealing driver brands in motorsports – which has positioned him well for calling the shots on the pet projects in his career post-NASCAR.
When he wanted to run the Rolex 24 for the first time in 10 years, he brokered a deal through team owner Rick Hendrick with Ally, which sponsored his Cup car the past two seasons. Deciding he wanted to sign a two-year deal with Chip Ganassi Racing’s IndyCar team, Johnson and his team wooed Carvana, which is a new sponsor to auto racing.
But it’s not all corporate for the El Cajon, California, native, whose fun-loving side always has come across better on social media. That’s been evident in the Boot Cut vs. Cuff “controversy” that has dominated NASCAR Twitter for the past week and reaffirmed what a bridge Johnson can be between many series.
His social engagement and page view numbers have his sponsors and IndyCar taking notice that he can move the needle as well as any of the series’ established stars.
“I do realize that my decision to go INDYCAR racing, my sports car racing and the Rolex 24, I can see, and we can all see that I’ve had some effect in growing, helping,” Johnson said. “There’s been a nice effect of me participating in these things. It’s great to know.
“I kind of talked some sponsors into being involved with me because I felt like I could do that. So to have that taking place has been really good. Certainly the last two years in NASCAR were trying for a lot of reasons, but I think a lot of people can identify with my desire to try something new, my desire to be uncomfortable and kind of chase a childhood dream of mine.
“And then I think from the sports car side, I’ve always let it be known that I’ve had a great interest in it. I raced in the early 2000s quite a bit with GAINSCO team and with Bill Riley and the Crawford group, as well. So it’s really kind of coming around and I’m really happy to see that it’s being received well, and it is fun to have that connection back to my NASCAR buddies. Believe me, there’s a lot of them asking questions about these cars and what it’s like to drive them and how much fun I’m having. I think a lot of people are feeling inspired to maybe get uncomfortable and try to drive other vehicles.”
If a wave of stock-car crossovers were to follow Johnson’s path, it would spark another round of debate over boot cut vs. cuffed. Johnson inadvertently stirred up the lighthearted tempest when he posted a photo of his pleated new uniform last Friday, drawing playful derisive comments from Chase Elliott, Clint Bowyer and Kyle Busch (all of whom prefer NASCAR’s baggier style).
“I think it’s hilarious,” Johnson said. “I didn’t expect it to do all that, but what is funny is I remember racing forever with the peg leg-style pant, and then when I went to NASCAR I had the bootcut and I thought that was so cool.
“So I can identify with what they’re saying and have a good laugh from it.”
Everything else about IndyCar has been all serious for Johnson, who has gone to the lengths of logging laps with teenagers in grassroots formula cars at several tracks (testing restrictions limit his practice time in an IndyCar).
In a recent interview with Motorsport.com, Johnson said he was roughly 60 percent of the way toward full acclimation to IndyCar.
How long will it take to reach 100 percent immersion, and can it happen this season?
“I can say that the last 10 or 15 percent is going to be the hardest,” he said. “I’ve made some great strides. I’m going in the right direction. I’m within a second of my teammates now, which has really been my goal out of the box was to try to be within a second of them.
“But that last little bit, that’s what the elite guys are so good at and chase their whole career. I don’t know if I’ll get to 100 percent with the amount of years that I have to give this a try, but there’s still so many things I haven’t even experienced yet. I’ve never been on a red tire (which is softer and faster). I’ve just recently had a chance to drive a street circuit tire and understand how much more grip it has versus a traditional road course tire. When you look at the street course tracks, I won’t even be able to drive on one until the practice, the opening practice session that we have prior to qualifying.
“I feel like my best chance, though, with all that being said, is later in the year when we get to Laguna Seca. I’ve been able to test there twice. I will have a large part of a season under my belt, and I think that’s probably a track that I should be in there racing with the guys. Or I hope to be.”
In the meantime, Johnson plans to keep grinding away on learning his No. 48 Dallara-Honda. With help from teammate Scott Dixon and Ganassi driving coach and three-time Indy 500 winner Dario Franchitti, he has been poring through the reams of testing data.
“I’ve been really surprised how much time is required,” Johnson said. “It’s a lot more work than what I experienced on a weekly basis in the NASCAR side of things.
“And then the intensity of driving that car. It’s a monster. That’s the best way I can put it. There’s so much power, so much downforce, so much grip. It’s wild to drive.”