Jimmie Johnson begins ‘very steep learning curve’ of getting comfortable in IndyCar
The decals and colors have been applied to his No. 48 Dallara-Honda. His Chip Ganassi Racing team’s timing stand is done for the 13 races next season. He’s working with the team members setting up his new ride.
It’s looking a lot more like Jimmie Johnson, NTT IndyCar Series driver, is a reality.
But when will it feel that way for the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion?
“I’m not sure when that will be,” Johnson said with a chuckle Monday after turning laps with 20 other drivers at Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama. “It feels pretty far away right now. I have a great camaraderie with everyone in the paddock. And I feel like that will be a much shorter time from the ‘how I feel’ standpoint.
“But what matters is how I feel on the track. That’s just going to take some time. I have a very steep learning curve with myself without a lot of seat time or practice available for rookie drivers these days. It’s going to take the better part of the year to get really comfortable in 2021 in the car on the tracks.”
Johnson, who previously had tested July 28 in a single-car session with Ganassi at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, spent the first few hours of the one-day test, getting acclimated to the cockpit (a much tighter squeeze than a Cup car and the aeroscreen adds a wrinkle), procedures (drivers are buckled in by a crew member instead of fastening their own belts in NASCAR) and myriad knobs and levers used for handling adjustments and starting the car.
He spoke with reporters after turning about 30 laps in a morning session at Barber, where he said he was shaving “seconds” off his time every lap but still was “a ways off” the pace on a 17-turn, 2.38-mile road course that “rewards bravery and aggression, and that’s just not what I have yet.
“I just want to be courteous on track and not be the rookie that makes mistakes,” Johnson said. “I feel I’ve probably been a bit too worried about my mirrors and making sure I let guys by, but now that I’m closer on pace, it takes them a lot longer to get to me and catch me, and they can pass me in a more traditional braking area.
“Just everything is sped up. It’s so much quicker from the car speed itself, closing rate, braking distance, all those things just compound, and things happen a lot quicker. Each time I go on track, things just slow down a bit more for me, and I’m able to work my way through all that stuff to get faster and more comfortable.”
Johnson hadn’t had the chance to benchmark his lap speeds against the field (which included six-time champion teammate Scott Dixon, two-time series champion Josef Newgarden, 2019 Indianapolis 500 winner Simon Pagenaud, 2018 Indy 500 winner Will Power and other notables).
According to a tweet of session speeds by Indianapolis Star reporter Nathan Brown, Johnson’s fastest lap was nearly 3 seconds off IndyCar rookie of the year Rinus VeeKay.
Final (yet unofficial) best lap times from the 21 drivers at the @IndyCar offseason test today at Barber.— Nathan Brown (@By_NathanBrown) November 3, 2020
-Man, these young guns are fast
-Jimmie’s got a ways to go and time to get there
-Impressive showing from da Costa
-Strong lap from Conor pic.twitter.com/d9wCVOq8WG
Johnson said he’d have been pleased to get within a second of the fastest drivers (a 24-driver field can be separated by less than a second in qualifying as at the St. Petersburg finale last week). He was “trending well” in low-speed corners when matched against Dixon. Finding the edge on Barber’s uphill climbs into turns was more difficult.
“It was the high-speed, flat-out corners where you really have to trust the vehicle and trust the downforce that the vehicle provides, where I had my biggest gap,” Johnson said. “I’m assuming that’s still the case and look forward to more reps to close that gap.
“This track, there is really no runoff. If you do go off, you’re in the grass and into a barrier. More than anything today for me is logging every lap that I can just because I’m starting at ground zero, so I feel like that’s more important than anything, although I’m eager to go look at the sheet and see how far I’m off and see how much ground I need to make up, and I’ll keep a close eye on that.”
There’ll be one more IndyCar test this year Nov. 10 at WeatherTech Laguna Seca Raceway for Johnson, who will wrap up his full-time NASCAR career Sunday at Phoenix Raceway.
Then there’s an annual preseason session at Sebring International Raceway in January and a few other sessions before he will make his IndyCar debut March 7 on the streets of St. Petersburg (where he also just announced his sponsorship with Carvana last month).
“I think seven (tests) from now until the end of next season,” said Johnson, who has a two-year sponsor deal at Ganassi. “It’s not a lot. Then the weekend schedules are getting more condensed. So it’s a bad time to be a rookie. Even a 45-year-old rookie with all the years I have in racing, to learn these cars and tracks. It’s going to be a real steep learning curve for me.”