It’s likely Jimmie Johnson hasn’t had many more adventurous 24-hour stretches than what he completed Saturday afternoon at the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach.
The rough-and-tumble weekend at his hometown event began Friday afternoon with a nose-first entry into the tire barrier in Turn 5, with the steering wheel whipping around and hitting his right hand. An examination revealed a small fracture in a bone on the outside of that hand.
Johnson’s availability for the rest of the event was in question overnight as Chip Ganassi Racing worked to give him the best opportunity to return to the No. 48 Carvana Honda. Longtime crew member Ricky Davis, who specializes in carbon fiber work, created a brace that Johnson could try during Saturday morning’s 45-minute practice.
Meanwhile, Johnson taped his right pinky finger, which was impacted by the break, to the adjacent finger, leaving only two strong fingers to steer with as the first finger works the shifter. That’s significant in a car that does not have power steering.
Johnson said the hand felt fine and wasn’t a factor when he overshot Turn 1 during practice this morning, slamming into the tires. This time, his hands avoided the recoil of the steering wheel, but the damaged car meant more work for the crew.
“Damn it, damn it, damn it, damn it,” Johnson said on the radio as the car sat helpless in the tires, one lap after turning a personal-best time.
But Johnson was not deterred. His car was ready for the afternoon qualifying session, and he was, too. After all, he was preparing at 6 a.m. to do his part.
Qualifying didn’t go his way, either. Johnson was flagged with interference on Graham Rahal (No. 15 Quartz Engine Oil Honda) in the first qualifying group, prohibiting him from advancing to the second round. Johnson will start 25th in the 26-car field.
“(I) made some mistakes certainly trying … to get better in a certain part of the braking zone of the corner,” seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Johnson said. “Made two mistakes in the process, so I’m just trying to reel it back in and drive laps that I knew I was capable of in qualifying and build on that for the race.”
Johnson said all decisions related to the hand were based on being ready for the oval activities at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, including the Open Test April 20-21 and the official practice and qualifying days leading up to the 106th Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge on Sunday, May 29.
“I’ve talked to many specialists on the West Coast and the East Coast about my hand and the damage that can be done and the options that I might have,” he said. “(I’m) more focused on Indy. As much as I want to be here, if I had to give this one up to make sure that I’m ready for (the Barber Motorsports Park race May 1), the (Indy) test in two weeks or the ‘500’, I was willing to forgo this.
“But this morning things started to improve (with the hand) as I worked in the cockpit, worked on the splint, and I’ve ended up in a really good spot with it.”
As for Johnson’s interference, Rahal said he expected the second-year INDYCAR SERIES driver to stay out of his way with a slowing car, but Rahal refused to throw down on him.
“Look, he’s going through enough this weekend,” Rahal said.
Trammell, Olvey Recognized
In addition to the Ganassi crew, Johnson credited Dr. Terry Trammell, whose longtime dedication to helping injured race car drivers was recognized Saturday with inclusion in the 2023 class for the Motorsports Hall of Fame, with advising the splint preparation.
“We don’t have a full grip going, but Terry Trammell is amazing,” Johnson said. “He knew exactly what to build, how to build, where it needed to be positioned. We’ve been in great communication with him working on the splint.
“In fact, the bone displacement is better aligned now after wearing the splint driving the race car than it was (Friday). Turns out the man knows what he is doing.”
Dr. Steve Olvey, like Trammell a stalwart of the INDYCAR SERIES medical team, is also part of the nine-member 2023 class to be inducted in the Motorsports Hall of Fame.
Henry Banks, a former driver and longtime USAC official who hired a young Donald Davidson in 1964, is another member of the class. Banks competed in five Indianapolis 500s, finishing sixth in 1951. As USAC’s competition director, he helped introduce several safety advances, including roll bars, fuel cells, fire-retardant uniforms and driver restraint systems.
Drivers Irritated amid Track Congestion
The end of the second qualifying session saw a congested track as drivers sought distance between themselves, drivers upset with one another, and Race Control left to sort it out. In the end, the order didn’t change, with Andretti Autosport’s Romain Grosjean (No. 28 DHL Honda) edging Team Penske’s Will Power (No. 12 Verizon 5G Chevrolet) for the final spot in the Firestone Fast Six by .0001 of a second.
Series leader Team Penske’s Scott McLaughlin (No. 3 Snap-On Chevrolet) and Chip Ganassi Racing’s Marcus Ericsson (No. 8 Huski Chocolate Honda) were the most upset with one another.
Said Ericsson: “I was on a hot lap, and (McLaughlin) was on a prep lap, and he backed me up into Turn 9. I had to abort that lap and try another lap, and he tried to overtake me in (Turn 11).”
McLaughlin saw it differently, calling the traffic “a cluster out there.”
“I don’t know what Marcus was doing,” he said. “He came at me on a fast lap (and) I tried to do the right thing and pull out of the way -- and he just stops, and it (backed) the whole thing up for everyone behind us.
“We’re trying to find gaps out there, but you think a guy is on a fast lap, you make a gap for him, and he stops right next to you and won’t let you back through. It is what it is.”
Ericsson will start Sunday’s race from the eighth position, with McLaughlin starting ninth.
Overall, Power said the traffic on the 11-turn, 1.968-mile street circuit was “frustrating.”
“Man, everyone backs up (to get a clean lap) so much,” he said, noting he got held up at the track’s famous hairpin corner. “It’s accordion effect, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
“When they do (seek a gap) on the backstretch you know you’re going to have to abort that lap, but when you get all the way to the hairpin (the final corner) … it ruins that lap and the next lap after that.”
McLaughlin sounded ready for a run at his third consecutive top-two finish to open the season.
“It’s going to be fun, and it’s going to be exciting,” McLaughlin said. “Lick the stamp and send it.”
Odds and Ends
- The Lombardi Trophy won by the Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams is scheduled to be at the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach on Sunday. Rams safety Nick Scott will exchange jerseys with Pato O’Ward (No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet) in the Arrow McLaren SP tent. O’Ward is getting quite the friend group with NFL safeties. He is pals with Colts safety Kenny Moore.
- E. McHale, the longtime Honda communications executive who lost a quiet battle with colon cancer in December, was honored Saturday with the Allen Wolfe Grand Prix Spirit Award. Many INDYCAR SERIES drivers credited McHale with assisting their careers with Honda.
- NBC’s broadcast of the 85-lap race begins at 3 p.m. (ET) with a simulstream on Peacock Premium, NBC Sports’ live streaming service. The INDYCAR Radio Network also will have the call on the network affiliates, SiriusXM 160, racecontrol.indycar.com and the INDYCAR App powered by NTT DATA. The green flag will come at approximately 3:45 p.m.