Seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson will be a center of attention this weekend at Texas Motor Speedway, where he will make his NTT INDYCAR SERIES oval racing debut in the XPEL 375 on Sunday (12:30 p.m. ET, NBC and INDYCAR Radio Network).
Johnson decided to compete in all five oval races this season in the No. 48 Carvana Chip Ganassi Racing Honda after racing only in street and road course events in 2021.
As this big moment in his legendary career approaches, Johnson shared some thoughts about his first open-wheel race on a circle track and how it may help to prepare him for his first Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge this May.
Question: The anticipation is building. How are you handling the countdown for the week, especially at a track where you’ve won in NASCAR and where Victory Lane is named after you?
Jimmie Johnson: Excited for it. I do feel a little ... we were supposed to test there a week or so ago, certainly wish we were able to get on track. (Cold temperatures forced the cancellation of the test.) Excited as I am to be on an oval, I still haven't been in traffic in an Indy car. I still have plenty to learn coming to a track I know and love. Really excited to get there and work. It does feel really good to come back to a familiar track, certainly a place I have so many great feelings for.
Q: Oval racing is a rhythm exercise that the driver gets to feel, is it more of an entry and exit issue? If not, how have the entry points and exit points changed in the faster car than the way they felt in the heavy stock car?
Johnson: I really believe all tracks have their own rhythm to them. Ovals are a little easier to find in some respects, maybe come quicker just because the lap is shorter. It's easier to pick up the rhythm of a track with four corners versus one with 17 or something like that. There is a rhythm to Texas. It is much different than what I have felt in the Cup car. But where it is similar is just how aggressive you can be in Turns 3 and 4, then really how cautious you need to be Turn 1, kind of getting the car pointed and heading off the back straightaway for Turn 2. It's a lap where you start tiptoeing, making sure you really hit your marks, to then really moving down the back straightaway and throwing all the aggression you can at Turns 3 and 4.
Q: What is your expectation level for this weekend?
Johnson: I really feel like I need to be further up in the field or would like to be further up in the field. I certainly feel like qualifying, having the opportunity to qualify on the oval this weekend, in the equipment I'll be in, I should be able to have a career-best starting position, then look forward from there, try to understand traffic, race my way into the top 10, top five, if possible.
Q: No matter how the results are on the track, how is this chapter of your racing career? What has it been like to share with your wife and daughters the environment of INDYCAR?
Johnson: We've really enjoyed it. We had an amazing experience and time in NASCAR, met so many great people. It's not that we're saying this is better than or taking anything away from that experience. But it is nice to have new experiences. I do feel like the fewer races in the INDYCAR SERIES creates a little more casual environment. It is neat to go to all these new racetracks, especially the street circuits, stay in a hotel down the street, walk with my family on the crossover bridge to a practice or race. We are really enjoying it. Big thanks to the INDYCAR community in welcoming myself and my family. The paddock is full of a bunch of wonderful people, and we've really enjoyed our experience.
Q: Do you think this weekend will give you an idea of where you stand in the pecking order coming into Indy, whether you'll be at the front, mid-pack or having to fight your way on Bump Day?
Johnson: Yeah, I think it will. I'm not sure it will have a lot to do with Bump Day. I think that's more team focused. I do feel like my racecraft this weekend will give us all a good indication of what might be in May.