Jimmie Johnson has been uncomfortable over the last year, competing in a new race car on new racetracks that feature a new racing style.
But Johnson is about to re-enter his comfort zone when the NTT INDYCAR SERIES hits its first oval race of the year on the 1.5-mile Texas Motor Speedway oval for the XPEL 375 next Sunday, March 20 (12:30 p.m. ET, live on NBC and INDYCAR Radio Network). And he’s ready to show why he’s one of racing’s greatest drivers.
After a rookie season that only featured road and street courses, Johnson agreed to compete in the entire 2022 NTT INDYCAR SERIES season in the No. 48 Carvana Chip Ganassi Racing Honda. That includes five oval races.
His best series finish to date is a pair of 17th-place finishes that ended the 2021 season at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca and on the Streets of Long Beach. It shows how challenging North America’s premier open-wheel series for all drivers, even a seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion like Johnson.
But Johnson expects ovals to be a different story. He spent most of his career racing ovals in NASCAR, and 82 of his 83 career Cup wins came on ovals (he scored one road course win in 2010 at Sonoma). Johnson’s last oval race came Nov. 8, 2020, at Phoenix Raceway.
A pair of tests at Texas and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2021 showed impressive speed and has made Johnson eager for his oval debut next week.
“I enjoyed watching as a fan, but then in August I was able to come and drive one myself, and I’m excited to get on the track and feel the speed,” Johnson said. “I certainly have an opinion of how to get around here in a Cup car, and then to drive in an NTT INDYCAR SERIES car, there’s just subtle differences that make it really entertaining and fun to drive. I’m looking forward to my first race here.”
Texas was a good place for Johnson in his NASCAR Cup Series career, scoring seven wins on the track, giving him a 20 percent winning percentage.
He was planning to increase his comfort level even more with a Chip Ganassi Racing team test Monday, March 7 in Texas alongside his teammates Marcus Ericsson, Scott Dixon and Alex Palou. But cold weather, sleet and rain prevented them from getting on track.
Still, Johnson will enter next weekend’s race with a level of comfort he didn’t have last year in INDYCAR: previous experience. Johnson had never competed on any of the tracks he raced on in 2021, which added an extra layer to his learning curve.
Now having been to most racetracks on the schedule at least once, he is feeling a larger sense of optimism about the 2022 season. He made his first return to a racetrack in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg presented by RP Funding. And while the 23rd-place finish didn’t show it, Johnson was proud of his performance.
“The results at St. Pete don’t show the competitiveness and progress that I’ve made,” he said. “We had an issue with a set of tires that really cost me a chance to run up in the high teens, where I think I would have finished.
“So, for my own standpoint and the confidence and comfort I have in the car, knowing the tracks and coming back a second time to most tracks, I feel like I’m in such a better spot this year than where I was last year starting off.”
Johnson’s teammate Dixon, a six-time INDYCAR SERIES champion, has been coaching him throughout his transition from stock cars. Based on his level of excitement after his first oval test at Texas last summer, Dixon thinks Johnson will fit in just fine.
“He definitely had a big smile on his face the first time here,” Dixon said. “I expect that to be the case again. I think anybody seeing the transition that he made knows that this would be the most natural switch for him. Granted, it’s still at the other end of the spectrum. It’s still a steep learning curve for him, but I feel like it will be somewhere where he feels much more natural, for sure.”
While Johnson announced last December he was running the entire 17-race schedule, he admitted his full-time run begins now as he prepares for an all-new twist in his racing career.
“I haven’t noticed a change yet,” he said. “(Monday) was supposed to be the day to really step in that direction toward running full time. Delaying my true introduction into full time, but I’m very excited for it and very optimistic about my performance for the ovals.”