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Jimmie Johnson’s Indy 500 Rookie of the Year experience: ‘The biggest rush of all time’

Jimmie Johnson's Indy 500 debut was cut short when he spun and crashed into the wall with just a few laps remaining.

INDIANAPOLIS – From the moment he first watched the world’s biggest race on TV with his grandfather and father in El Cajon, California, Jimmie Johnson dreamed of racing in the Indy 500, long before becoming its 2022 rookie of the year.

At 46, he got to live his childhood dream in the 106th Indy 500 and despite finishing 28th after crashing hard into the Turn 2 wall with five laps to go, the experience greatly exceeded Johnson’s expectations.

That’s remarkable considering Johnson is a seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion who won 83 races in NASCAR.

“The experience was amazing,” Johnson told NBC Sports before the Indianapolis 500 Victory Celebration that was held Monday night at the JW Marriott in downtown Indianapolis. “I’m so thankful to have had this opportunity. I wish I had performed better in the race and had a better result, but that’s racing. I learned a ton. If I have a chance to come back and do it again, I’ll be a lot smarter when I come back.”

Johnson was among the fastest drivers in nearly every practice session and made the Fast 12 round of qualifications. He started 12th and quickly realized the race itself is completely different than running in large packs in traffic.

He lost four positions on the first lap and dropped to 16th. It would get more challenging from there.

Bruce JJ II

Jimmie Johnson and his wife, Chandra, attended Monday’s Indy 500 victory presentation (Bruce Martin).

“I really feel like track position was my biggest issue,” Johnson said. “I was a little cautious at the start of the race and lost a couple of positions. Ultimately, the caution flag coming out when it did and putting us at the tail end of the field, I couldn’t recover from that.

“I simply could not figure out how to pass cars and get around anybody.”

In the back of the field with all of the turbulence from the other race cars, Johnson’s No. 48 Carvana/American Legion Dallara-Honda was running in the center of the tornado.

“I enjoyed it, I had a lot of fun, but I was frustrated that I couldn’t pass anyone,” Johnson said. “That long line of cars, the air was so turbulent, nobody could really pass. Up front for the lead, cars could race for the lead but once you got from fourth on back, it was really single file. We stayed in a single-car line all the way around the track, and it was hard to pass.”

Johnson’s favorite Indianapolis 500 experience was standing on the starting grid with his family next to his race car taking in the prerace ceremony that is one of the great traditions of this race.

“It’s hard to pick one, but the prerace ceremonies standing on the grid with my family hearing ‘Back Home Again in Indiana’ was pretty awesome,” Johnson said.

When NASCAR driver Kurt Busch finished sixth in the 2014 Indy 500, he said the race “will blow you away.”

“Without a doubt,” Johnson said. “Not only race day, but the two weeks that we’ve been here. To experience the fan interaction and the track, it really is a special event.

“The family loved it. They had a great time.”

Johnson loved the experience but also realized said “it was a challenge” unlike anything he had experienced in racing.

“I really thought we were going to be better in traffic than that,” Johnson said. “Unfortunately, we weren’t as good as we could be. In my aggression going forward, I made mistakes trying to get past and really just had a hell of a time advancing.”

It didn’t diminish his enjoyment of the event. “It’s amazing,” he said. “It’s the Indianapolis 500. I loved it. I had a great time. Without a doubt, it exceeded my expectations.

“I want to come back next year, absolutely.”

Johnson said there is no date on having an agreement for 2023 in place with Chip Ganassi Racing. He hopes to have an “understanding” by fall.

“I definitely know that I would approach things differently if I have a chance to come back,” Johnson said. “Reps are reps and always help, and I know I would do better.”

Johnson injured his hands from the hard crash into the Turn 2 wall. X-rays were negative, but his hands were scraped up from the knobs on the wheel with some superficial cuts.

“I lost the car out of the short chute into Turn 2, and it might have been a wind gust because I had not had an issue over there all month.”

Johnson does not believe he will have any issues heading into this weekend’s Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix. It will be the final time the contest is held on Detroit’s Belle Isle, as it moves to downtown Detroit beginning in 2023.

Because of his disappointing finish, Johnson was surprised when he was named the winner of the Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year Award during the Victory Celebration.

The award is based on this criteria: “The Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year Award should be presented to the driver who has performed with the most distinction among first-year drivers in the Indianapolis 500. Criteria includes on-track performance in practice, qualifying and the race, media and fan interaction, sportsmanship, and positive influence on the Indy 500.”

Johnson was competing against a rookie field that included: Devlin DeFrancesco, Romain Grosjean, Callum Ilott, Kyle Kirkwood, Christian Lundgaard, David Malukas, who was the highest-finishing rookie in 16th.

Johnson did manage to be the second-highest qualifying rookie and posted strong lap speeds in practice. He also led Laps 188-189 before making his final pit stop and cycling back in the field. A few laps later, he lost control and crashed after a low entry to the corner.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Doug Boles explained voters’ mindsets when presenting Johnson with the honor.
“It’s based upon practice, qualifying and race performance as well as fan and media interaction as well as elevating the sport of IndyCar and the Indianapolis 500,” Boles said. “Certainly, you have helped us elevate the sport and brought along a lot of folks that may not have paid attention to INDYCAR as you have made the transition from NASCAR to the NTT IndyCar Series and this year to the Indianapolis 500.

“Although you weren’t the highest finishing rookie, the votes came in and Jimmie Johnson you are the 2022 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year.”

Said Johnson: “What an honor. I didn’t really prepare an acceptance speech because I didn’t think I would be getting this award.

“I want to thank Carvana and The American Legion for their support. To be 46 and leaving with the Rookie of the Year trophy is quite humbling, but I’ll take it.”

Johnson had many great memories throughout the month and summed up his race day experience.

“The racer in me wishes I had a more competitive day and wished I hadn’t crashed at the end and brought out the red flag and put the 8 team (Indy 500 winner Marcus Ericsson) through all of that,” Johnson said. “I’m letting in as much as I can, but I will forever have these memories of how special it is to be on that grid, be part of the opening ceremonies, turning down Turn 4 and see that tunnel of all the fans. It’s a sea of people with all the color, then the next time you come through there you are going 230 mph.

“It’s the biggest rush of all time.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500