Jimmie Johnson’s NTT INDYCAR SERIES career is officially underway with his first full day of on-track action Saturday at Barber Motorsports Park complete.
It wasn’t the easiest day for the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion, which is expected from the driver who spent nearly two decades driving stock cars. Johnson, 45, was last in the day’s two practice sessions, posting a best lap of 1 minute, 7.9509 seconds in first session and 1:07.8821 in the second.
Johnson ranged from 1.5 to two seconds behind first place in both sessions in the No. 48 Carvana Chip Ganassi Racing Honda.
In qualifying, Johnson posted a lap time of 1:07.7092, good enough for the 21st starting position – accomplishing his tongue-in-cheek goal of not being last in the starting lineup for Sunday’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama presented by AmFirst (Live coverage starts at 3 p.m. ET on NBC and INDYCAR Radio Network).
It may not be the performance or mentality you would expect from a driver of Johnson’s caliber, but he is taking it in stride. Johnson knows how challenging this series is, and he knows he will not dominate open-wheel cars from day one. With that in mind, Johnson said after qualifying, “The smile’s not going to go away.”
“What an amazing day. Didn’t qualify last, so that was a really good thing, a small victory for me in this journey. Today was full of firsts – red tires (Firestone alternates), qualifying session, race weekend, the different layers that exist. I survived the day, had a lot of fun, and I’m really excited for my first practice tomorrow.
“Just kind of building my way into things,” he said. “What a rush, though. These cars are so physical, so demanding. It’s not two or three laps in, and my tongue is hanging out, panting, just wrestling this monster around the racetrack.
“The fun meter is pegged, to say the least, and I’m very excited to have this opportunity in the Carvana Chip Ganassi Racing Indy car."
Fellow driver Conor Daly saw Johnson after his first practice session and asked how it went. Johnson let out a “Yee-haw!” as he motored by on his scooter.
For Johnson, the day was a dream come true as he pursues his goal of racing in INDYCAR, which dates back to his childhood as he followed his hero, four-time Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge winner Rick Mears. He even got some pointers from the legend today.
Grosjean, McLaughlin Impress as Rookie Campaign Begins
The other INDYCAR newcomers got off to even better starts Saturday.
Romain Grosjean just missed earning a spot in the Firestone Fast Six in his NTT INDYCAR SERIES debut – on his 35th birthday, no less -- and will start seventh in the No. 51 Dale Coyne Racing with RWR Honda.
The veteran of 10 Formula One seasons last started this high in the penultimate race of the 2019 Grand Prix season (at the Interlagos circuit in Sao Paolo, Brazil).
“What a day, seventh in qualifying, that’s clearly above expectations,” Grosjean said. “But being so close to the Fast Six, obviously, I was really hoping we would get in, but it’s still really great.
“We have 90 laps of racing to do, (and) I need to learn tire degradation, fuel saving, refueling, pit stops, how an INDYCAR race goes! So, still a lot to learn tomorrow, but I’m really happy with today.”
Although Grosjean’s family is not on hand, he is wearing a helmet his three children designed.
Scott McLaughlin got his first full INDYCAR season off to a strong start by advancing to the second road of qualifying before settling for the 12th starting position.
The three-time champion of Australia’s V8 Supercars series used two sets of Firestone’s alternate red tires, which are typically faster than the black tires, to advance to the second round. Also a benefit was the helping hand his No. 3 PPG Chevrolet got from the No. 20 crew of Ed Carpenter Racing. When Team Penske’s engine starter didn’t work, ECR offered its equipment to get the car rolling in the final minutes of first-round qualifying.
McLaughlin also has done a lot to help himself, losing 35 pounds in the offseason to become more fit. He entered this weekend’s season-opening event at 180 pounds.
Palou, Ericsson Show Speed in Fast Six
Think it was good to hitch a ride with Chip Ganassi Racing, which last season won its 13th INDYCAR championship with lead driver Scott Dixon capturing his sixth season title? Alex Palou and Marcus Ericsson certainly think so.
Palou, a newcomer to the Indianapolis-based team, and Ericsson, in his second year as a Ganassi driver, joined Dixon in Saturday’s Firestone Fast Six.
Palou will start third in Sunday’s race in the No. 10 NTT DATA Honda. Ericsson will be sixth in the No. 8 Huski Chocolate Honda with Dixon in between them (in fifth in the No. 9 PNC Bank Honda).
Palou’s position was especially impressive given this is first event at Barber Motorsports Park. As an INDYCAR rookie last year, the Spaniard improved his qualifying position in five of the six second chances at a track. At Road America, for example, he qualified 14th for the first race, third in the second race. At the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, he was 20th on the first try, fourth on the second.
Ericsson reached the Firestone Fast Six round – used in road course and street circuit events -- for the first time in his still-young INDYCAR career. His best qualifying effort in this series was fourth at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway, a short oval.
Other Saturday Notes:
- Felix Rosenqvist got off to a rough start with new team Arrow McLaren SP. Near the end of first practice, the Swedish driver attempted to turn on his pit speed limiter while making the left turn onto pit lane and lost control of the car, hitting the outside guardrail. The driver of the No. 7 Vuse Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet said the steering wheel flipped out of his hands, calling it a “really awkward, stupid mistake. It is what it is. It wasn’t really a matter of trying to push it or anything. Just the heaviness of the steering in these cars. Sometimes you kind of hold one hand on the wheel without losing it, but once I lost it, I couldn’t get it back.”
- Team Penske took no chances with qualifying for this Barber race. In 2019, its highest-qualifying car here was Will Power in seventh. Simon Pagenaud started 14th and Josef Newgarden 16th, and none of them led a lap in the 90-lap race. This time, the team used two of its four offseason test days here, and the results in qualifying suggest it was a good decision. Power, ever the qualifying master, made the Firestone Fast Six and qualified fourth. Newgarden will line up eighth, McLaughlin 12th and Pagenaud 18th.
- Alexander Rossi ended the 2020 season with four podiums in the final five races and was a strong contender in the season finale in St. Petersburg. He kept that speed going by posting the best lap in Practice 2 in the No. 27 NAPA AUTO PARTS / AutoNation Honda at 1:06.0797. He also qualified second for Sunday’s race.
- The Road to Indy ladder system was in full force today at Barber Motorsports Park. Linus Lundqvist won the opening Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires race, Braden Eves won the Indy Pro 2000 event, and Yuven Sundaramoorthy won the first USF2000 competition of the day. The second USF2000 race was postponed to later in the evening due to a power outage.
- Two-time NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion Josef Newgarden started Practice 2 with a steering wheel issue – it popped off shortly after he took to the track. Newgarden got the wheel reattached in time and returned to pit lane to ensure everything was good. Later in the session, he had a boost issue coming out of Turn 17 and lost control of the No. 2 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet, going off course and then coasting down the frontstretch.
- Since the last time the NTT INDYCAR SERIES hit the road at Barber Motorsports Park, the 2.38-mile facility has undergone a full repave, and the speeds are sky high. In the first practice, the top four drivers were under Sebastein Bourdais’ 2016 track-record speed. In second practice, the top 10 drivers were all under Bourdais’ 1:06.6001 lap time. Fourteen drivers broke the track record speed in qualifying, including Pato O’Ward, who now holds the record at 1:05.5019 seconds. Not to mention, the whole field is separated by less than two seconds.
- The last time INDYCAR raced at this track, Takuma Sato won from the pole and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing teammate Graham Rahal started second before incurring throttle issues. That was 2019; this is now. Rahal will start 19th in Sunday’s race; Sato will roll off from the 18th position in a 24-car field. Both drivers were hard at work with their engineers trying to find more speed for morning warmup Sunday (11:30 a.m. ET, Peacock).
- For the first time in forever … well, not forever, but 16 years! -- Marco Andretti tweeted Saturday afternoon as he was watching Practice 2 on Peacock that it was “weird” watching the first INDYCAR SERIES practice sessions he has not been a part of since 2005. But he doesn’t have long to wait. The first day of Indianapolis 500 practice, where Andretti will attempt to qualify in the No. 98, is nearly one month away: Tuesday, May 18. Tony Kanaan agrees.
- Sure, Helio Castroneves has signed on with Meyer Shank Racing to compete in six races this season in the No. 06, starting with the 105th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge on Sunday, May 30, but he is already getting started with the team this weekend at Barber Motorsports Park. Castroneves is in the team’s pit box this weekend and acclimating himself with the organization for May. It’s also fair to assume Castroneves, who won the first NTT INDYCAR SERIES race at Barber in 2010, is offering driving tips for teammate Jack Harvey and helping MSR continue to flourish as an organization.
- Pato O’Ward put on a thrilling show during qualifying on his way to winning the NTT P1 Award. The driver of the No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet was in group two of the first round of qualifying. On his flying lap near the end of the session, O’Ward lost control of his car coming to the timing line to complete his lap, performed an incredible save and still managed to post the fastest lap of the session with a time of 1:06.0696.
- Sage Karam teased an upcoming announcement on social media, presumably centering on participation in next month’s Indianapolis 500. He recently tested with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing in the Indy 500 Open Test and has driven for the Indianapolis-based team in each of the past five “500s.” But Karam, a seven-time Indy starter, tweeted Friday that his announcement was “postponed due to the unfortunate events in Indy last night. Prayers to all the families involved in this horrible situation.”