Seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson is set to embark on his second season in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES, this time as a full-time driver for Chip Ganassi Racing.
Johnson, 46, has heard the “critiques” of his first season as an open-wheel driver in the No. 48 Carvana Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, a season which ended with no top-15 finishes, no qualifying performance in the top half of the field and, therefore, no chance at a race victory for the first time in his decorated career.
But as he recently said, the chatter about his results is simply outside noise.
“It seems many people say I’ve lost it and not cut out to drive a race car anymore,” he said. “Thankfully, I’m thick-skinned (to criticism) after years of experience, and I don’t care, honestly.
“I joke with friends that my ‘give-a-sh*t’ meter broke. (Competing in INDYCAR) isn’t about anyone else but myself. What I’m doing now, I feel so free. It’s odd because it’s very much like my teenage years where I was just racing because I wanted to race. I’m doing it my way and doing what the heck I want to do.”
Johnson acknowledges that the freedom to choose a life pursuit is a rare gift, and he is grateful for his ability to do so.
“That’s what I’m trying to convey,” he said. “I’m (in INDYCAR) because I want to be here, because (racing) is what I love to do. Of course, I want to be competitive; of course, I want to do well. But we’ll see what happens.
“This is a huge challenge, (and) I didn’t realize how different it is to my lifetime in NASCAR. But I’m here for the purest of reasons and loving every minute of it.”
Johnson has been scrutinized since the day Jeff Gordon hand-picked him to join Hendrick Motorsports for the 2002 NASCAR Cup Series season, so he is skilled at keeping it from being a distraction. People have said he didn’t deserve the opportunity, that he always had a silver spoon in his mouth. The latter makes him laugh.
“Because it’s so far from the truth,” he said.
Yes, Johnson was raised in the San Diego area of desirable Southern California, but for years the family’s address was an El Cajon trailer park. Even when they moved to a house, Johnson remembers thinking they had taken a step back in terms of property.
But what he and his brother, Jarit, had was a commitment from their parents – Gary, a Vietnam War veteran, started as a heavy equipment operator who found his way to motorsports through his parents’ motorcycle store while Catherine drove a school bus for additional cash -- to provide every opportunity to excel in motorsports, initially on motorbikes.
“We had new bikes, we raced at the local track (Barona Oaks Motocross Facility in Lakeside, California),” Johnson said. “We raced the regional events, and if we qualified for national events, we packed for the summer and drove our 1979 Econoline van with a 10-foot enclosed trailer behind it across the country.
“They spent every single dime on me and Jarit on racing … and they were paying plenty of hospital bills because I was accident-prone.”
Johnson said one of the best pieces of advice he has received in his life came from Herb Fishel, the former executive director of General Motors’ racing division, who was one of Johnson’s earliest advocates. Fishel frequently told Johnson to “be patient” even as it is counterintuitive to a race car driver’s mentality. Johnson is applying that to his INDYCAR pursuit, which this year includes five oval races, including the 106th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge on Sunday, May 29. Johnson won four Cup races at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
“I’m trying to be realistic with my excitement for ovals,” he said. “I naturally think ovals are my bread and butter – I won 82 NASCAR oval races and one road course race – (so) my opportunity to win in INDYCAR on ovals is far higher than what I would expect on a street circuit or road course.
“I’m trying to be measured, but I know my expectations are much higher. I hope top-five (finishes) are realistic, I hope podium (finishes) are realistic, and given the right opportunity I want to believe I can win. That’s my wiring, that’s who I am.”
The 2022 NTT INDYCAR SERIES season begins with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg presented by RP Funding on Sunday, Feb. 27, live at noon (ET) on NBC and the INDYCAR Radio Network. Johnson’s first oval race in INDYCAR will be Sunday, March 20 in the XPEL 375 at Texas Motor Speedway, where victory lane is named in his honor for winning seven Cup races at the track.