‘He’s going to get there': An inside look at Jimmie Johnson’s rookie season in IndyCar
Jimmie Johnson knew his rookie season in the NTT IndyCar Series would be a doctorate-level crash course in race car driving.
But as with any devoted pupil frustrated by the sporadic bursts of eureka, he yearns to change the narrative from process to progress.
“I’ve just even told my social team, ‘Look, we’ve got to stop talking about learning and all this stuff,’ because it’s getting a little old just having that same messaging,” Johnson, 45, told NBC Sports. “But sadly, it is so true. That it’s such a learning curve for me. And then each week, I go back to a new track and have to start all over from a venue standpoint.”
The learning will start anew Sunday at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, where Johnson will make his seventh of 12 starts this year in search of his first lead-lap finish. There have been signs of improvement, especially since the June addition of coach Scott Pruett.
Johnson cut massive chunks off his lap times overnight in Detroit and was on pace for a season best at Road America before sliding off course on cold tires. Mike Hull, managing director for Chip Ganassi Racing, believes Johnson would have finished 10th to 12th without the incident.
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“He’s going to get there,” Hull told NBC Sports. “Everybody is looking at the experience that he’s had, not the experience level he’s working on or with. These cars are not easy to drive; they’re on the edge all the time. He’s racing against people throughout the field that have, by comparison, the same experience he raced against in the Cup Series.
“It’s really easy for people from the distance to not understand the process. We’re process people. The process is taking one step at a time with any driver in our system and be very patient with them. And approaching racing with Jimmie is no different than Zanardi, Vasser, Montoya or Dixon or Dario or Wheldon or anybody else.
“If Jimmie Johnson can look at the end of the day or season knowing he got the most out of it, we’ve been successful. Some years, the success turns into wins, championships and winning big events. Other times, you work hard, and it doesn’t come, but you know it will. That’s how I look at it with Jimmie. It’s going to come, and when it does, it’s going to be great. And he’ll exhale then.”
In the meantime, it’s been a lot of exasperation for a driver accustomed to perfection.
Road America was the fifth caution flag caused by Johnson in six races. He made similar mistakes as a rookie in the Xfinity and Cup Series, but the difference is that he entered IndyCar with a Hall of Fame resume of 83 victories and seven championships in NASCAR’s premier series. Now he is being judged by those lofty results – however unfair the comparisons might be.
For his part, Johnson doesn’t pay attention to external negativity, though he can respect it as a harsh self-critic.
“I’m annoyed for my own reasons, for making mistakes,” Johnson said. “I’m definitely annoyed at myself for the issues. When I look back at my (Xfinity) and Cup career, I did a lot of spinning, and I was able to find my limits in doing so. So within the frustration, I also know it’s part of my process. I’m trying to learn from those lessons of the past and from the mistakes I’ve recently made. And I sure as hell don’t want to do that, but it’s part of the journey.
“So trying to be as open and honest as I can is more important to me now than it’s ever been. And I think that helps tell the story of this 2.0 journey of what I’m going through. It’s not easy. And I don’t want it to sound like I’m ever giving excuses and at the same time, I want to be as transparent as possible.”
Even despite a lack of on-track preparation (because of restrictive IndyCar testing policies, he was allowed only three preseason tests and took to practicing in lower formula cars just to learn some racetracks), the progress has been slower than expected for Johnson. But he at least has pressed beyond the limits of his No. 48 Dallara-Honda the last two races after leaving too much speed on the table in the first two events.
He felt his best race was the second at Belle Isle in Detroit, where he “was really racing and not thinking about braking points, apexes and throttle. I made my first official passes and used overtake on in/out laps and was doing stuff I really need to be working on, and then I spun (with 16 laps to go), and it’s like, ‘Damn it.’ ”
“After six races, I’m now where I thought I’d be at Race 1,” Johnson said. “I just keep getting more aggressive every session, and I need to be more strategic about practice and qualifying being the peak of my aggression. The race, I need to pull it back because there are so few cautions. You don’t have stage breaks. A mistake hurts you so bad. Spinning is fine in qualifying and practice, but I need to be a bit more measured with finding the edge in the race.
“The potential these cars have is just so much higher. To challenge yourself on the brakes, to challenge yourself through the center of the turn, let alone these high-speed turns that I look at and think, ‘There is no (expletive) way I can run wide open through that turn.’ And when you do, it drives better. If you lift, the thing’s a total handful, but if you commit to running it flat, the sucker sticks, and you’re good. So I’m making these huge gains.”
Some of his peers took notice at Detroit. Simon Pagenaud, his teammate in IMSA and a longtime family friend, counseled Johnson on race management while praising his pace. “(Pagenaud) followed me for a long time at Detroit, came out on new tires and couldn’t catch me or pass me,” Johnson said. “And then I caught and almost passed him at the end of the race at Road America. He’s like, ‘Dude, you’re flying. You’re doing a great job.’ ”
Johnson also got an out-of-the-blue supportive phone call from Alexander Rossi, who delivered a pep talk after following Johnson for several laps at Detroit. The 2016 Indy 500 winner praised Johnson last week on his “Off Track” podcast with James Hinchcliffe.
“I was like, ‘This is going to take three corners,’ ” to pass Johnson, Rossi said. “Quite honestly, I couldn’t pass him. I was really impressed with his progression. He was driving his ass off and using up all the track, braking late. He was getting a lot out of the car.
“There was one comment that really pissed me off that if anyone else were having that performance in a Ganassi car, they’d be fired. Well first of all, no. He has a pretty good sponsor with Carvana bringing a lot to the sport and investing a lot in IndyCar.
“No one in IndyCar, and I’m sure the CGR organization, expected that Jimmie was going to do more than this. And he’s improving every single session. He is trying to adapt at (45) years old to a car that is vastly different than anything he’s ever driven in the most competitive and challenging times that IndyCar has ever had. So I think he’s doing a pretty good job.”
With nearly all of IndyCar’s practices running less than an hour, Hinchcliffe said Johnson was “he’s doing a phenomenal job” with having less than 20 laps heading into most qualifying sessions.
“The gap of Jimmie to first place is shrinking percentage-wise every weekend,” Hinchcliffe said. “Think back to when Michael Jordan decided to play baseball, he could go to a batting cage for 8 hours a day 7 days a week and practice. Going from basketball to baseball is almost as different of racing Indy cars to stock cars.
“It’s been incredible from the fact he’s already a Hall of Famer, is busting ass and putting the work in to try to be better. It’s flat-out inspiring. Still got a smile on his face.”
Said Johnson, who also has heard encouragement from Will Power: “The thing that’s been the most meaningful for me are the competitors that have gone out of their way to talk to me, and give me some pointers and some confirmation on the progress I’ve made. And all that has been unsolicited.”
Another big positive has been Pruett, who was recruited by Hull to put his life as a winemaker (he owns a vineyard in Auburn, California), driving instructor and Lexus band ambassador temporarily on hold to rejoin the racing circus.
He plunged in head-first, taking a redeye flight from Los Angeles (and an all-day Lexus commercial shoot) to Indianapolis on the Friday before Indy 500. After a two-day integration with Ganassi (a team he won more than 40 sports car races for from 2004-13), he flew after the race Sunday night with Johnson to Charlotte, where they spent a day and a half upgrading his simulation programs and optimizing his training regimen.
On Tuesday, Johnson and Pruett flew to Wisconsin for a Road America test Wednesday and a week later, they were back in Detroit for a doubleheader weekend.
“It was intense, but that’s what you have to do,” Pruett, 61, told NBC Sports. “I know how passionate everybody is on the Ganassi side, all the guys on that team and Jimmie. When I committed, it was 110 percent. If it wasn’t for Ganassi and Jimmie Johnson, I don’t particularly think I would have taken on something new. I’m not going to do it halfway.”
There were many reasons Hull wooed Pruett, who took on a mentor role to younger teammates at Ganassi and also was adept at strategy.
“He and Jimmie have a lot of things in common,” Hull said. “When Scott Pruett came to work for us, we literally had to give him a key to the trailer. Because when we came to the track first thing in the morning, the coffee was on, and Scott was there waiting for us. That’s how Jimmie approaches what goes on. He’s thinking about it 24/7, and that’s the way Pruett thought.
“Scott being the versatile driver he was, starts all over again every morning. He starts anew, he figures it out. He’s fastidious in how he approaches what the driver needs. It’s a great tandem. It’s like both of them are driving the car when they talk to each other.”
Said Johnson: “I wish I could have had Scott in November when I started last year. He’s emerged as a natural leader within the team. He’s really assumed probably four or five roles for us.”
Pruett, a fellow Californian who casually knew Johnson beforehand, also can relate to the transition, having raced the 2000 Cup season after winning twice in a 10-year career in CART (a predecessor to IndyCar).
“Without a doubt, we both look at things the same way,” Pruett said. “I made that transition from IndyCar to NASCAR and I can speak to what he’s going through and can help him. Because obviously, him being a seven-time champion and me a 12-time champion, you’re your toughest critic.
“You beat yourself up more than anyone else, really. Knowing what that transition is like going from something IndyCar to NASCAR or vice versa, the challenges are the same. Great drivers will figure out how to drive any car fast. It’s just a matter of time and a very steep learning curve.
“That’s what Jimmie is going through, and being able to help him on that yeah, you’re going to be frustrated. Yeah, it’s going to be difficult. I did it. I was there. I know exactly what you’re going through, and you just have to keep your head down, learn from every moment and apply all that moving forward.”
In what he calls “a full-service arrangement,” Pruett will call races as Johnson’s strategist while also helping engineer Eric Cowdin choose tire options and fine-tune setups in situations such as the opening Friday practice at Detroit when Johnson was nearly 5 seconds off the pace. After a bevy of overnight changes, Johnson cut the gap within a second for Saturday’s race.
“We have to be critical of doing things that make sense for Jimmie and his driving style and his evolution of where he’s at, because you can’t just take a setup on (Scott) Dixon’s car, and expect Jimmie to drive it,” Pruett said. “Dixon’s done it successfully so many years. He knows what he wants -- exactly, critically, acutely. Jimmie isn’t there yet in his evolution. We have to be very mindful to give Jimmie the car that is telling his ass that he can drive it harder and hustle it and find that sweet spot and continue to get closer to that razor’s edge of where you need to drive these cars.
“On Friday at Detroit, there was something in the car telling him I can’t drive it any faster (or) I’m going to crash. We moved the setup in a direction that could give him some feedback to do what he needs to pick up more lap time. It’s taking a step backward to take a bigger step forward, but we can’t get him there without having a car that translates to him that he can do it.
“Eventually his setup will be more in line with (Alex) Palou, (Marcus) Ericsson and Dixon, but we need to take a half-step backward because Jimmie in open wheel doesn’t have all the experience that those guys do.”
Johnson said he is “80 percent there” to driving a car like Ganassi teammates Palou, Dixon and Ericsson, who each have won this season.
“The cars are just a little too edgy, and the window of peak grip is a little too narrow for me to manage,” Johnson said. “With the spins I’ve had, we’ve had to open that grip up and do a few things differently for me. It is great to know the team has that performance, but we’re really trying to build my confidence and find the adjustments to make me comfortable.”
Though the other three cars set a high benchmark, Hull said it’s also a validating confidence-booster “because Jimmie sees there are three different drive styles that have won a race. What’s in common is the pool of knowledge there. You can jump in the pool and learn an awful lot which helps you.
“Jimmie has access to all that at the right time. What’s terrific is the way he shows up for work is the way we do. He’s first in, and there is nobody on the team who doesn’t value how hard he works because it matches what they do. I get up pretty early in the morning, and invariably, I’ve got a text from Jimmie saying, ‘Good morning!’ Which means I better give him a call. He fits us well. We had a lot of work to do, and he’s working hard on his end to make it happen.”
In addition to the homework of poring over Ganassi-supplied data and video, Johnson also has taken advantage of three hours of preparation for every race on the Honda Performance Development simulator (which is of higher fidelity than his home sims). Because of its Indianapolis location, Johnson spends more time commuting than driving in the sim, “but I’ll take everything I can get,” Johnson said with a laugh.
He put in the time Thursday ahead of Mid-Ohio, where he will try to avoid the 0.8 seconds he lost in qualifying at Road America because of two mistakes. He also lost time because his car’s positioning left him unable to make a third lap on the faster red tires.
“Everyone else picked up almost a second on their third lap when the tires were in, so I end up with this double whammy,” Johnson said. “Unless you’re there living it, it’s hard to see, and then I’m sure as hell not going to go on social media and try to explain it, because it sounds like sour grapes.”
Pruett’s advice has been simple.
“Don’t get discouraged,” he said. “That’s the biggest thing. This is part of the journey.”