‘More ovals, please': Jimmie Johnson hoping to make another big splash at Gateway
For both the good of the NTT IndyCar Series and his future of continuing to race the circuit, Jimmie Johnson left Iowa Speedway last month with a simple request.
“More ovals, please,” Johnson said with a smile. “Especially what I experienced in Iowa on a short oval, I’m just much more in my element and less thinking and more reacting. And it put on a great show. So I’m fired up for St. Louis.”
Saturday’s race (6 p.m. ET, USA) at World Wide Technology Raceway Gateway (which is located just outside of St. Louis in Madison, Illinois) will mark the last oval of the 2022 season and one of only four that played host to five of 17 races this season.
INDYCAR AT WWTR GATEWAY: Details, schedules, start times for this weekend
Though the 2023 schedule is expected to be unchanged, there is speculation about the future of Texas Motor Speedway (both with IndyCar and its surface), and there remains hope the season eventually will be reimagined with more equal weight given to ovals, which comprised nearly half the schedule as recently as seven years ago.
A rebalanced slate also might help shore up the chances of keeping Johnson in the No. 48 Dallara-Honda.
After running part time as a rookie on street and road courses, Johnson moved full time this year and wants to return in IndyCar for 2023 depending on sponsorship (primary backer Carvana likely will wait until the end of summer to decide on its funding for next year).
“Still actively selling,” Johnson said. “Still out there working. I haven’t heard, ‘No,’ yet, so that’s a good sign.”
Given his success at exclusively turning left this year – a career-best fifth in the second race at Iowa Speedway, a sixth at Texas and a solid May at Indianapolis Motor Speedway before a late crash in the Indy 500 – more ovals could be a positive for securing his spot at Chip Ganassi Racing.
“It might be from a selling standpoint,” Johnson said. “I never thought I’d say it, but I’m in favor of more short ovals. I just think that they put on such a great show. And with my own personal frustration of Indy and trying to pass and what I’ve been able to see at Iowa in those two races, to my surprise, these cars really perform well on a short oval.”
The 1.25-mile oval at Gateway could be a tougher test Saturday than Iowa’s 0.8-mile oval, where Johnson explored myriad lines over a doubleheader race weekend.
Gateway traditionally has been a one-groove track. IndyCar has scheduled a special 30-minute practice Friday devoted to working in the outside lane.
Johnson, who had 82 oval victories in NASCAR’s premier series as a seven-time Cup Series champion, is optimistic about being able to find an outside groove the way that Romain Grosjean did in his oval debut at Gateway last year.
“I look at Indy and being a single-groove track, I just couldn’t find my rhythm, couldn’t go,” said Johnson, who made three Xfinity Series starts at Gateway from 1998-2001. “I know Romain made it interesting on restarts when the track was clean and was able to work different lanes. I hope that I’ll have that opportunity. I hope to keep the track cleaned off up top.
“That was something I recognized I needed to do at Iowa, and why I continued to run up high even by myself. These cars, it’s harder to dust off the outside lane and to push up the lane. The marbles are so much larger than a Cup car marble for whatever reason that when it sticks to your tire, you just lose control of your car. So if you can keep it clean, you just need a chance to have a second lane. Hopefully, I can help inspire others to keep it clean and have more racing.”
He certainly impressed the field at Iowa, racing notably hard with Ganassi teammate Marcus Ericsson and Rinus VeeKay, who finished fourth in the first race after several laps of battling inches apart with Johnson (who led 19 laps after an early spin).
“(Johnson) was amazing in the high line,” VeeKay told NBC Sports a week later. “He kept coming back, went second groove, and he went third groove. He definitely knows his way around an oval. It was fun racing, and it was fair racing, too. We left each other just enough space.
“I’m still talking about it with my spotter. I was in the second groove and can hear my spotter like, ‘Outside, still there.’ I’m like, ‘What?’ It’s crazy. He has balls of steel. But he knows what he’s doing. He definitely used the experience from stock cars.”
Though the tracks have little in common, Johnson said he drove Iowa’s mostly flat asphalt like the high-bank concrete of Bristol Motor Speedway, aggressively relying on off-throttle time to chase the limits of traction.
The results opened many eyes from an IndyCar paddock that had grown accustomed to watching Johnson work hard just to maintain lead-lap pace at road and street courses. On ovals, the speed has seemed much more effortless, drawing compliments from veterans such as Simon Pagenaud and six-time series champion Scott Dixon (who said “maybe I need to do more of that” after watching Johnson constantly trying new lines at Iowa).
“Yeah, I got plenty of feedback, and everybody thought I was possessed or crazy or something in between,” Johnson said. “To me it was just normal oval racing. It just kind of showed me how aggressive I need to get comfortable with on the road and street courses.
“If I was to measure the way I felt in the car and how much more aggression I brought at Iowa, it was double the aggression I’ve ever had on a road or street course, so I just need to trust the car and let it do its work. Learning to trust the downforce has been more of a challenge than I anticipated.”