Jimmie Johnson’s Indy 500 journey gathers speed with fastest lap of his storied career
INDIANAPOLIS – Jimmie Johnson has legendary accomplishments in racing, from seven NASCAR Cup Series championships to 83 career victories that include two Daytona 500s and four Brickyard 400s.
But during Thursday’s second day of the Indy 500 Open Test, Johnson ran the fastest lap of his life.
He turned 138 laps around the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway during a frantic four-hour test session (which started four hours late and was shortened by two hours).
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It often was busy enough to seem as if it were race day for the Indianapolis 500. On Lap 129, Johnson’s No. 48 Carvana/American Legion Dallara-Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing went 227.900 mph -- the fastest lap of his storied career.
“Man, that’s really boogieing,” Johnson told NBCSports.com after practice. “This is the reason why wanted to become an IndyCar driver.
“I wanted to experience driving a really fast race car really fast.”
Johnson got his wish Thursday as one of 31 drivers testing at IMS for the 106th Indy 500 on May 29 (11 a.m. ET, NBC). At one point in the first hour of testing, Johnson was the fastest driver.
He stayed in the top three as the final test session entered “Happy Hour” – the final hour when conditions are ideal for running fast laps.
He would finish the day as the eighth-fastest driver but was very impressive on the IMS oval and further established himself as a potential contender to win the Indy 500 in his debut.
When Johnson was asked about the fastest lap of his life, a big smile came across this face.
“You notice it,” he said. “It’s a very cool sensation. Now I understand why when I’ve asked any of these guys, any of my friends that are drivers here, what it’s like to go fast around here, they have a smile that I’ve always wondered what it’s like.
“I haven’t really been on the full boost, full power, qualifying trim setting yet. I’m starting to get that grin. I look forward to having that big smile that all these guys have experienced.”
Thursday is a major reason why Johnson decided to take the leap and make a drastic career change in 2020. He announced in November 2019 that the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season would be his last, but he was open to competing in other forms of racing, including sports cars and IndyCar.
He tested with Chip Ganassi Racing late in the summer of 2020 and announced a 2021 street and road course schedule in IndyCar.
It was not an easy transition. He started the season way off the pace of IndyCar’s top drivers. Instead of running at the front of the field, Johnson had to learn from the back of the pack.
But each race, Johnson was significantly better than before. By the end of the season, he actually was racing against -- and passing -- some big IndyCar names.
Johnson went full time this year, adding ovals and the biggest race in the world, the Indianapolis 500. He proved he remains a fantastic oval racer with his IndyCar career-best sixth-place finish in the XPEL 375 at Texas Motor Speedway on March 20. That race boosted his confidence and made others realize that he could be a legitimate contender in the Indy 500.
But three weeks later on the streets of Long Beach, California, Johnson crashed in the opening practice for the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach and broke his right hand near his little finger.
He was able to complete the race weekend with a specially designed splint and had surgery by Dr. Glenn Gaston in Charlotte, North Carolina, the day after the race. (Johnson got his stitches out this week and drove without a splint Thursday with “great strength in my hands.”)
A long titanium screw also was put into Johnson’s hand, and he was good to go for this week’s two-day Indy 500 Open Test, which got off to a muted start for the field with pit lane problems Wednesday.
That limited track time for Johnson, and the tension level increased when Thursday’s test session was delayed because of heavy rains overnight. It finally started at 2:30 p.m. ET.
Over the next hours, 31 drivers ran a total of 3,267 laps around the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The only driver missing from the 32 entered for the 33 starting positions in the Indy 500 was four-time and defending race winner Helio Castroneves, who crashed his 2021-winning car when he lost control on the pit warmup lane and slammed into the Turn 2 wall on Wednesday. The No. 06 Meyer Shank Racing Honda was sent back to the team’s shop in Pataskala, Ohio, for repairs.
Team Penske driver Josef Newgarden would end the two-day test as the fastest driver with a top speed of 229.519 mph in the No. 2 Chevrolet. He ran 119 laps.
“Once we got into the swing of it, we were really making a lot of progress on our race car specifically, which I was happy about,” said Newgarden, who is seeking his first Indy 500 win in his 11th attempt. “I really wanted to get into some race work this afternoon. We spent a lot of the time doing that, probably the majority of it.
“It was a positive test for us. We try to divide and conquer on Team Penske, get through as much as we could with all three cars.
“I’m happy about it. The weather conditions turned pretty beautiful there at the end. It was just about perfect. So pleased. Happy to be here with Team Penske as always. I like the new Shell car this year with the extra gold, I think it looks pretty racy. I think Team Chevy has done their homework, too.
“We’ve been feeling positive to start this year. Big thing for us is to carry that into the month of May.”
Two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Takuma Sato was second fastest in the No. 51 Dale Coyne Racing with RWR Honda with a fast lap at 229.427 mph over 84 laps. Tony Kanaan, Johnson’s Chip Ganassi Racing teammate who drove the No. 48 on ovals last year, was third at 228.767 mph over 72 laps in the No. 1 American Legion Honda.
“Nothing has changed,” said Kanaan, who will make his only 2022 IndyCar start in Ganassi’s fifth car at IMS. “The cars are prepped the same. Chip Ganassi wouldn’t field me a car just because he wanted to do me a favor. The car is the same prep as the other ones.
“The team, it’s a bunch of good guys. I think as a team we’re competitive. As a team we’ve been working really hard. There is no doubt that we’ll do everything we can to win this race.
“Today we did quite a bit actually. We have the advantage; we have five cars in the team. We’re sharing a bunch of things. Everybody had a list. Everybody went through it.
“If you look at the results, draft, no draft, still we had five cars in the top 10. That’s a pretty good day for us.”
Said Johnson: “It means so much to me to have Tony as a friend, as a teammate,” Johnson said. “I think it’s really cool to be competitors this year in the Indy 500. Our pit stalls, located on pit lane, he’s right behind us. Every time I pulled out and went around, I just smiled and thought how cool it is to share the track with one of my great friends, many of my friends that I’ve been able to share racing with over the last year, year, and a half.
“Tony has been a huge part of this deal happening for me, the split season, then his willingness to allow me to race the ovals this year. He’s been a friend in so many ways. I know the general public hasn’t been able to see a lot of that, but I’m very thankful for our friendship, his understanding, and certainly look forward to racing hard with him.”
Another Chip Ganassi Racing driver, six-time NTT IndyCar Series champion and 2008 Indy 500 winner Scott Dixon was fourth at 228.689 mph in the No. 9 PNC Bank Honda. Team Penske driver Scott McLaughlin rounded out the top five at 228.397 mph.
“It was a real good day,” Johnson said. “Yesterday, I was a little disappointed not to get more laps. I think we all kind of were. Weather conditions didn’t really help either. So, to have the afternoon be as warm as it was, the track be kind of worked in, be as friendly as it was that early, was great. I got a lot of quality reps, certainly learned a ton today.”
All five Chip Ganassi Racing drivers were in the top 10 with Marcus Ericsson 10th at 227.785 mph and with the most laps (148, one more than Palou).
“I think we’re all paying attention to that scoring pylon,” Johnson said. “We’re all trying. As long as the session is green, we’re all trying to be the fastest car out there. When any car was on new tires, people were trying to create a gap, trying to put up a fast lap time.
“I think our cars do have a lot of speed. For myself, it was really just trying to understand how to get that gap and pull up to the group in front of you, pop off a lap.
“It looks nice on the scoreboard, but there were a few cars that could really pass. I think that’s what we’re all deep down inside focused on, and going to debrief and work on, is to figure out how to get off of turns two and four and make better passes.”
In the Indy 500 test, Jimmie Johnson also was becoming a quick learner at how the Indy car handles differently in traffic than the No. 48 Chevrolet NASCAR Cup stock car that made him a racing legend earlier in his career.
For instance, Johnson noticed there is no “side draft” off the Indy car, but it’s a useful aerodynamic tool in NASCAR Cup racing.
“I feel like flat out sixth gear on the rev limiter turning into Turn 1 or 3 was really what I needed to do, get a good sense of that type of speed, that type of G force, trust the car, no driver lifts, really flat in those really fast situations,” Johnson explained. “But I feel like racecraft, when we’re in the pack, you have to worry about turbulent air, setting up a pass, the pace comes down so much that I feel much more comfortable in that environment.
“I think where I still have a lot of questions is when you trim out and you need to average 230 something for three laps around here. That’s the part that I’m still working towards.”
When Johnson drove the No. 48 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports in the Brickyard 400, NASCAR drivers often had to lift past the finish line before entering Turn 1 and also lift on the backstretch entering Turn 3. In an Indy car, race drivers don’t lift in the turns.
“I’m still flinching in Turn 1 and Turn 3,” Johnson said. “It’s just a long-ass straightaway to talk to yourself and convince yourself to hold it wide open through one and three.
“Ironically, Turns 2 and 4 behave very much the same, regardless of the NASCAR vehicle or the IndyCar vehicle.
“There are differences. Turns 2 and 4 are still the key to passing regardless of series. So, I’m surprised how similar and how challenging 2 and 4 can be to set up a pass. I don’t think I made a pass today, like a true heads-up pass. I have some work to do to figure that out. Guys made mistakes in front of me, I was able to get them. I have some more to do to figure out passing.”
Johnson understands that a successful race driver often has to experience by placing the car in areas on the track that might be risky. That’s one way to learn what the car is capable of and also what to avoid.
“That’s the name of the game,” Johnson said. “We’ve been as smart as we can with the balance of the car, kind of backing me into the sweet spot of the window of the car. We had some reps at Texas to kind of work through that. I learned a lot in traffic.
“It’s a different racetrack here, so there are different things to take into consideration. Today was really full of that. I think yesterday afternoon, the afternoon session, we went too far in some areas. I’m glad we went through that, and I was able to understand what that felt like. Made a lot of changes on the car today and understood the balance of clean air versus in traffic.
“That’s really the name of the game in racing, but we are trying to be a bit smarter in it, not put me in a dangerous positions and end up with a torn-up race car.”
Though he was part of IndyCar last season, Johnson experienced his first 500 while working for NBC Sports with analyst Steve Letarte atop the Peacock Pit Box. Though witnessing Indy from up close spurred him to race the event this year, Johnson demurred when asked if he wished he had raced ovals last year.
“I’ve been on my journey,” Johnson said. “I had to come to grips with things in my own fashion, gain the comfort and desire to do it. I can say sitting here and watching the Indy 500 last year, working in television really kicked things into overdrive for me.
“Watching and being a fan of the sport for so many years, TV does a great job of showing what it’s like. To actually be here in person took it to the next level for me. That’s when I started pursuing to find a way to at least be here, then it turned into the full season.”
At 46, Johnson has been very deliberate on his journey, but as his first Indy 500 looms on the horizon, it’s a journey well taken for one of the greatest race drivers of his era.
With his fast lap in Thursday’s Indy 500 Open Test, Johnson’s journey is gaining speed.