Any questions about Jimmie Johnson’s commitment to the NTT INDYCAR SERIES were answered Tuesday when he said, a day following his first oval-track test, that he will continue in the series so long as Chip Ganassi Racing and their sponsors “will have me.”
Which is to say, the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion enjoyed Monday’s test at Texas Motor Speedway, where he used the support and advice of former INDYCAR champions Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan and Dario Franchitti to turn competitive laps where INDYCAR has annually staged races since 1997.
“I am having such a good time, and every rep I get in the car, I’m only going to get better,” Johnson said. “My intent is to stick around (INDYCAR) as long as I possibly can.”
It was fascinating to listen to Johnson, who turns 46 on Sept. 17, break down the nuances of learning to drive an INDYCAR SERIES car on a track where he has made 37 starts in a stock car (with seven Cup wins). How the shifting is quicker, the turning more precise, the low-sitting view limited, the lateral G-forces more demanding, the awareness of the track’s banking important and, of course, the raw speed of the car, which is upward of 25 mph quicker at TMS than the stock car he drove.
Everything, it seemed, had a different feel to it, and he said that provided the joy in it.
Foremost, Johnson said he had to shake off perceptions he had about driving the different types of cars on the racetrack he knows so well.
“In NASCAR, you go fast by being on the ragged edge and having the car sideways, and I’m quickly learning and understanding that in an Indy car you can’t drive it and you don’t set the car up to drive it to (the ragged edge),” he said. “Sure, you end up there in some moments, but it’s not where you live.
“That’s been a pretty big eye opener for me – on road, street and then just this one oval test that I’ve done.
“Being on track and really being able to understand, I guess, more specifically to the car, how much you need to sense through the weight of the steering wheel. I’m used to being sideways in a Cup car and people can see … the car is loose. I have oversteer, I need to work on the car. If you’re at that point in an Indy car, it’s all over, and you’re crashing.
“So, that really kind of changed my mindset and the weight of the steering wheel – that’s the part that really talks to you about the grip level of the car. The lighter the wheel, nine times out of 10, the more oversteer you have in the car and that means pit. Don’t wait until it slides. You’re probably not going to catch it; come in and let’s work on it.”
Monday’s session began as something of an INDYCAR orientation for the series rookie, with Dixon prepping the car beginning under the lights at 5 a.m. at TMS – Johnson had a late-afternoon commitment in Phoenix – and the guest of honor hopping in the car around 6, an hour before sunrise. The runs with the first two sets of tires gave Johnson the chance to learn his surroundings and gain confidence in the car’s grip.
Weeks ago, when the 1.5-mile Texas track was selected as the site of his first INDYCAR oval test, Johnson had reservations, thinking it might be better to first try a less-challenging oval. But the more he thought about it, knowing the track as he does, he realized the lack of grip from being the only car on the track in the heat of the summer with high tire degradation would offer him a good, stern test.
“As I got closer to the test date, (I realized) it would be a proper test,” he said. “Worst-case scenario, worst-case conditions.”
The Ganassi team went with a conservative chassis setup for the No. 48 Carvana/The American Legion Honda and brought Johnson along slowly. He would run a few laps, pit, get out of the car to review data, let the data soak in, then work on the next big thing. Once they got to the third set of tires, Johnson felt comfortable enough to begin challenging himself, the car and the track, and it felt “so much more familiar to me.”
“I would even say by the end of the day I was more in tune with the car than I’ve been on a road or street course so far,” he said of his nine starts this season. “The second half of the test session was very comfortable for me and felt much more like home.
“Now looking back at having (Texas) as my first oval test, since I’ve had so many reps there in a stock car, it really, really turned out to be the right place … the perfect storm for me to evaluate an oval in an Indy car.”
Of course, there were a few moments of concern, such as when Johnson “got the attention” of Franchitti and Dixon with wide corner entry.
“Had to bring it in,” he said, laughing.
Mastering shifting was also a work in progress, he said.
“Shifting mid-corner,” he said. “Turns 1 and 2 you go down a gear and then up a gear and kind of make your laps that way, and that was something new and different to me to get used to on an oval, and part of that stretching the legs (of the car). With a six-speed gearbox and the fact that you don’t lose any time with gear shifts, the gearing is much different and those top three or four gears are very close together to help you with either a tow or wind direction, track conditions.
“You have to get in the mindset of how to use the right gear at the right time, and that’s new for me, as well.”
Johnson said he had several laps in the 214-mph bracket, but he was more proud of being able to contribute to the effort for one of the few times in his first INDYCAR season.
“I was able to feel the car, speak the language, work through adjustments in the car, (and) I knew what to talk to Eric (Cowdin, the car’s veteran engineer) about,” he said. “I knew where the spring split worked – I guess they call it using the weight jacker button, which was cross-weight wedge is what we call it in NASCAR – just using the tools and the way you make a car go was so much more familiar.
“I knew what I was feeling, and I could be of help.”
Johnson returns to competition with next weekend’s Grand Prix of Portland at Portland International Raceway, the first of three consecutive events to end the INDYCAR season. He has tested at Portland and at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, site of the second race in the sequence Sept. 19.
He said the next opportunity to test on an oval will come in October at IMS. Johnson didn’t commit to participating or taking his rookie test there, but he didn’t say he wouldn’t, either.
“I’m definitely a step closer,” he said about oval-track racing in INDYCAR. “I think that there are more conversations to be had with family, team and sponsors (and) at least another test session ahead of me before I can really make a decision.
“But driving the car yesterday only piqued my interest more.”