Two Indianapolis 500 rookies. Two decorated race car drivers. Two memorable runs in PPG Presents Armed Forces Qualifying.
During Top 12 qualifying at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the 106th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge (Sunday, May 29 at 11 a.m. ET, live on NBC, Telemundo Deports on Universo) that set the first four rows of the starting field, including the NTT P1 Award for pole, Romain Grosjean and Jimmie Johnson showed why their “rookie” status is simply just a label.
Formula One veteran Grosjean earned the distinction as the highest-starting rookie in this year’s field, putting together a four-lap average speed of 231.999 mph in the No. 28 DHL Honda. It was good enough to start ninth.
He’s also the fastest “500” rookie in the field and the highest-starting rookie in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” since Rinus VeeKay started fourth in his first race in 2020.
It was the fastest Grosjean had ever driven in his professional driving career. He said his team might have adjusted too far to try to compensate for the changing track conditions. After stepping out of his red-and-yellow Andretti Autosport Honda on pit lane, he admitted his run created a feeling that many race car drivers don’t express.
“That was scary,” Grosjean said. “The track conditions changed a lot from the morning. We tried everything we had to go fast and get some speed in the car, but it was definitely nerve-wracking. It wasn’t easy. I used all the tools in the car. I’m glad it’s behind me, but I’m proud of what we’ve done so far.”
Grosjean has had several moments on the edge in the last week as he practiced for the Indianapolis 500. Many times, he came close to hitting the wall in practice, and he also had a dicey moment off Turn 1 in his qualifying run when he narrowly avoided touching the wall. Still, Grosjean leads the five-car Andretti Autosport organization in the starting grid.
He wasn’t the only one on the edge of glory in Indy 500 qualifying – a four-lap, 10-mile run that is one of the most daunting challenges in motorsports. Seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Johnson had a highlight reel moment that will be played for years to come when he perhaps made contact with the Turn 2 wall on Lap 1 of his four-lap run.
On a flying lap heading into Turn 1 of the 2.5-mile IMS oval, Johnson bobbled. Exiting the corner, he slid toward the wall on the south short chute that separates Turns 1-2. With a last-minute thrust of the steering wheel to the left, Johnson still may have slightly scrubbed the wall yet miraculously avoided crashing his blue-and-yellow Honda.
He will start 12th next weekend, landing the final spot of the top 12 drivers that advanced from Saturday’s Indy 500 qualifying session that locked positions 13-33 into the field. He put together a four-lap average speed of 231.264 in the No. 48 Carvana Chip Ganassi Racing Honda.
“(It was) inexperience, I think, ultimately,” Johnson said. “The sunlight and the track temp went up with these conditions. I was just trying to find that right balance in the race car. These guys are so good at what they do. In these trickier conditions, I just need a bit more experience.”
Johnson said as he started his four-lap run and entered the corner, he was focused on adjusting the tools inside his car. That change in focus forced him to miss his mark ever so slightly, which in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES can be detrimental.
But the Indy 500 rookie was sure of one thing even before his bobble: He wasn’t lifting in Turn 1.
“We were certainly trying for it,” he said. “That’s the most effort in the setup of the car and trim settings that we’ve had. I was committed to running Turn 1 flat, and it was so light on top of the track. I was so wide and trying to keep it off the fence at that point.”
Johnson’s four Chip Ganassi Racing teammates all advanced to the Firestone Fast Six to compete for the Indy 500 pole, with teammate Scott Dixon earning the NTT P1 Award in the No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda. Alex Palou will line up second in the No. 10 NTT DATA Chip Ganassi Racing Honda.
The NTT INDYCAR SERIES action at the Racing Capital of the World continues tomorrow with a two-hour practice session from 1-3 p.m. (ET). The session, which will air live on Peacock Premium, will be the first chance to see how the Field of 33 will race come Sunday.