Two motorsports legends are pairing up in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES starting at this weekend’s Chevrolet Dual in Detroit.
Chip Ganassi Racing has hired renowned racer Scott Pruett as strategist for NTT INDYCAR SERIES rookie Jimmie Johnson in the No. 48 Carvana Chip Ganassi Racing Honda. Pruett is joining seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Johnson after fielding a call from Chip Ganassi Racing managing director Mike Hull.
“It’s great to be here,” Pruett said. “This is a new adventure, for sure. With as many years as I spent at Ganassi and all the stuff I’ve done over the years with teammates, bringing them along and helping them as much as I could, it seemed like a good opportunity.”
If anyone can help Johnson transition from two decades of stock car racing to open-wheel racing, it’s Pruett. The Sacramento, California, native has a diverse background in racing, having competed in INDYCAR, NASCAR and sports cars. His most fruitful years in sports cars came while driving for Chip Ganassi Racing.
Pruett is one of North American sports car racing’s all-time greats. He’s second on the all-time IMSA WeatherTech Sports Car Championship wins list with 60. He scored 44 of those with Ganassi in the iconic blue-and-white No. 01 Daytona Prototype. He is tied with Hurley Haywood for the most wins in the prestigious Rolex 24 at Daytona with five victories.
Outside of sports cars, Pruett has two INDYCAR SERIES wins, at Michigan International Speedway and Surfers Paradise in Australia. He was also 1989 Indianapolis 500 Co-Rookie of the Year alongside Bernard Jourdain.
Pruett knows first-hand the transition Johnson is making from NASCAR, as he also competed in the NASCAR Cup Series with Ganassi. He scored three top-five finishes in 40 starts, with a best finish of second in 2003 at Watkins Glen.
Outside of calling strategy during NTT INDYCAR SERIES races this season, Pruett said he will work alongside four-time INDYCAR SERIES champion Dario Franchitti, who also took a turn racing in NASCAR, to mentor Johnson in his new racing adventure.
“Working together with Dario Franchitti, he’s been doing a great job with these guys and a lot of talented teammates,” Pruett said. “This is a big ask. When you’re going from NASCAR to INDYCAR, having the feel and what it’s going to take, it’s a lot to learn in a short period of time. Jimmie is doing a great job getting rolling.”
Johnson was 25th in Friday’s practice session, with a best lap of 1 minute, 22.7353 seconds.
This Is No Drive in the Park
Friday’s NTT INDYCAR SERIES practice at The Raceway at Belle Isle, the only practice of the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix doubleheader weekend, spanned 75 minutes. Rookies and other newcomers to the physically demanding street circuit sought to use every last minute of it.
Seven of the 25 drivers (28 percent) participating this weekend have never raced in the INDYCAR SERIES on the 14-turn, 2.35-mile course, the highest figure since the event resumed in 2012 following a four-year absence.
Scott McLaughlin is one of the series’ rookies, and he completed only five laps – all early in the session – before driving his No. 3 PPG Team Penske Chevrolet into the tire barrier at Turn 5.
“I got a little bit too excited,” he told NBC Sports on Peacock, NBC’s streaming service carrying all practice and NTT P1 Award qualifying sessions this season. “The car was feeling pretty solid, and I went into Turn 5 and just lost the rear on (corner) entry. Pretty silly mistake on my part. Completely my fault. I tested the limits on a track that’s very hot.”
McLaughlin noted it was time lost “that we really need,” as the team was unable to repair the front wing and suspension damage before the end of the session.
“I made the mistake, and I’m going to have to own that and move on,” he said.
McLaughlin and the rest of the field must “move on” quickly. NTT P1 Award qualifying for the first race is Saturday at 11 a.m. ET (NBCSN). The first of the two 70-lap races is at 2 p.m. ET (NBC).
Another series rookie, Johnson, also had an issue early in the practice, costing him valuable time to learn the circuit. The driver of the No. 48 Carvana Chip Ganassi Racing Honda spun in Turn 3 but didn’t hit anything. However, like McLaughlin, Johnson was assessed a five-minute penalty for causing a red flag.
This weekend’s other newcomers include series rookies Romain Grosjean (No. 51 NURTEC ODT Honda) and Dalton Kellett (No. 4 K-Line Insulators/AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet) plus three drivers who have never raced in Detroit. Remember, last year’s event wasn’t held due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Those making their Detroit debuts include Alex Palou (No. 10 The American League Honda), Jack Harvey (No. 60 AutoNation SiriusXM Honda) and Rinus VeeKay (No. 21 Sonax/Autogeek Chevrolet).
Grosjean had a spin that effectively avoided contact with a tire barrier. The rear wing only grazed the cover of the barrier, and the incident did not interrupt the practice. He finished with the 13th-quickest lap.
VeeKay finished with the best lap of the newcomers in ninth, but he had a wild ride through the grass in Turn 1, narrowly missing the wall on his left side. He was able to return to the pits without further incident. Other newcomers were deeper in the field: Palou 15th, Harvey 21st, Kellett 23rd, McLaughlin 24th and Johnson 25th.
Since 2012, only three INDYCAR drivers have earned podium finishes in their Detroit debuts. Conor Daly (2016) and Marcus Ericsson (2019) finished second while Simon Pagenaud (2012) finished third. However, Pagenaud had previously raced on the circuit in sports cars, finishing third in an American Le Mans Series race in 2008.
One aspect working in the favor of these Motown newcomers: Using the aeroscreen on this circuit is a first for everyone. The aeroscreen debuted in 2020.
Keeping Drivers Cool
Palou and Daly (No. 20 U.S. Air Force Chevrolet) experimented Friday with “cool” suits that work to combat the high temperatures and humidity. The reason why everyone isn’t using one: The suit is believed to add at least 2 to 3 pounds to the overall weight of the car, and there could be a change in weather Saturday with rain potentially in the forecast.
Santino Ferrucci used a tinted aeroscreen to combat the warm conditions.
For this event, INDYCAR mandated the use of an air scoop to funnel air to the cockpit. The scoops were not required to be used in practice or qualifying, but all cars must be fitted with them in the 70-lap races.
“It’s hot, really hot,” said Alexander Rossi, driver of the No. 27 AutoNation/NAPA AUTO PARTS Honda of Andretti Autosport. “But it’s the same for everyone.”
Palou Not Concerned about Penalty
Palou, who was 15th in Friday’s practice, will look to finish as high on the time sheet as possible in Saturday morning’s NTT P1 Award qualifying session.
Palou must start the first race of this doubleheader six positions deeper in the field than he qualifies due to an unapproved engine change in his No. 10 Chip Ganassi Racing entry before the 105th Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Palou hasn’t been overly concerned about the penalty, in part because the race winner’s average start is 7.2 in the event’s doubleheader era (2013-19). Four of those race winners started 10th or lower, with Carlos Munoz winning from the 20th position in 2015 and Will Power winning from the 16th position in 2014.
Additionally, Chip Ganassi’s organization has historically been one of the best in Detroit, with Scott Dixon (No. 9 PNC Bank Grow Up Great Honda) the winner of the most recent race, in 2019, and a three-time event winner overall.
“The team had really good results the past years, so I know that Scott is going to be fast, (and) Marcus (Ericsson) got his first (INDYCAR SERIES) podium there in 2019, so he’s going to be really fast,” Palou said. “Yeah, I’ll be able to learn from all of them.”
Championship leader Palou enters the season’s seventh race with a 36-point edge over Dixon. Pato O’Ward (No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet) is one point behind Dixon.
Odds and Ends:
- Qualifying will have a unique format for both races of the Chevrolet Dual at Detroit. The field will be split in two groups, with the fastest six cars from each group advancing to the Firestone Fast 12 to set the order for the first six rows. The rest of the cars will complete the starting lineup. The same procedure will be in place for Sunday’s qualifying session, set for 9 a.m. ET. Both sessions can be seen live on NBCSN.
- Andretti Autosport’s Kyle Kirkwood scored the pole position today for the first of two Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires races this weekend at Belle Isle. Kirkwood will lead the field to green at 12:10 p.m. ET Saturday.
- Firestone Racing is supplying more than 2,000 race tires for the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit. Each team is allotted eight sets of primary “black” tires, five sets of alternate “red” tires and seven sets of rain “gray” tires. Firestone has brought the same tire compound and construction it used at this year’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.