Jimmie Johnson is now, officially, ready for the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge, and based on what happened Sunday in the first NTT INDYCAR SERIES oval race of his career, he might just win it.
Johnson drove a conservative but often-racy event, impressing even himself with a sixth-place finish. But it was what his engineer, Eric Cowdin, said on the team’s two-way radio that pumped him up.
“Let’s go win Indy,” Cowdin said.
After climbing out of the No. 48 Carvana Honda of Chip Ganassi Racing, Johnson was asked if we’re now talking about the possibility of winning at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where he won four NASCAR Cup Series Brickyard 400 races.
“I feel like that’s an aggressive statement, for sure,” he said. “But why not? Why can’t we?
“The ‘500’ is a special race, and we’ve seen favorites win. We’ve seen the race won by strategy and first-time winners and a variety of different things that have taken place. Helio (Castroneves) is like ages older than me, and he won last year. So, I mean really, anything is possible.
“If I had a poor running today and or didn’t feel the car (or) get a sense of the car, I would think the hill to climb during the Month of May would be much steeper. Learning what I did today, I’m going to start at a much better spot, and if (Sunday’s) race was 50 laps longer I think I would have finished further forward. Heck, if I would have started the race in 10th (instead of 18th), I think the way the track position played out my result would have been better yet than sixth.
“So, why not (win Indy)? Let’s dream big.”
Johnson described a feeling of dreaming on several occasions in Sunday’s 248-lap race, narrowly missing a pair of accidents in front of him – the single-car crash of Kyle Kirkwood in Turn 4 and later the shunt in Turn 3 that involved rookie Devlin DeFrancesco, Graham Rahal and Castroneves.
Then, there was the moment when Johnson passed the No. 9 PNC Bank Honda of six-time INDYCAR SERIES champion Scott Dixon.
“I had to look two or three times to make sure it really was (Dixon) and not another blue car with an orange half,” he said. “I thought, ‘I have caught Scott Dixon; this is good.’”
In the final laps, Dixon passed Johnson back to claim the fifth finishing position, but Johnson said he was battling an inconclusive reading on his fuel gauge, forcing him to be more conservative than he wanted. But it wasn’t lost on him that Dixon wasn’t the only former “500” winner he passed for position late in the race; he also passed 2019 champion Simon Pagenaud of Meyer Shank Racing.
Johnson sounded more like a happy rookie than a seven-time Cup Series champion.
“There were a few moments (of pride), but they quickly vanished because things are coming at you so fast in these cars,” he said. “But when I was racing with Dixie at the end, I thought that was pretty cool and pretty fun.
“I had a little trouble with the telemetry and didn’t know how much fuel I had saved, so I really to go into fuel save mode at the end and could fight for that top five. What a special day.”
Dixon called that sequence with Johnson “pretty exciting.”
Said Johnson: “I hoped to have qualified in the top 10 and raced in the top 10, (but) I missed the qualifying mark by a bit. But once we hit the halfway point in the race I could really sense and feel the car. It became second nature, and off I went.”
Johnson’s excitement for the 106th Running of the Indianapolis 500 in May, Johnson first has to navigate another street-course race – the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach on April 10 – and a return to Barber Motorsports Park for the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama presented by AmFirst on May 1 and the GMR Grand Prix on the IMS road course on May 14. But he said Sunday’s performance gives him the confidence that he can be more competitive in those races.
“I think that going this fast and being on the ragged edge in a car -- the repetitions of being in a car on the ragged edge -- will carry over,” he said. “(Team owners Chip Ganassi) has been saying it all along, and I’ve kind of doubted it, (saying) the radius of the turns are so different, speeds are so different. But there’s something I’ve experienced in my career when I got into a faster vehicle or rode a faster dirt bike, when I got back onto my primary speed vehicle it slowed things down for me and it was easier to feel it and sense it.
“I am hopeful and curious (for improvement). … I really hope it slows things down for me, gives me more comfort to run on the ragged edge so I can run faster on the street and road courses.”
But Indy will be on his mind, especially after hearing Cowdin’s words.
“Yeah, no pressure,” he said before acknowledging what a boost this race gave him. “This is a huge step in having a successful month of May at the Brickyard. Granted it’s going to be a new track and a whole new learning curve, but all of the laps I’ve logged in the past two days are going to be so helpful heading to the Indy 500.”