A year ago, seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson sat in NBC’s Peacock pit box at the south end of Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s pit road and watched the first NTT INDYCAR SERIES car dart into Turn 1 at speed. Johnson’s longtime friend Steve Letarte, who worked with him at Hendrick Motorsports, nudged him. Go for it, Letarte said.
Letarte wasn’t the only one encouraging Johnson to pursue the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge. Two-time “500” winner Juan Pablo Montoya, who spent seven-plus seasons in NASCAR competing against Johnson, was, too.
“I said it’s crazy with your background that you’ve decided not to do these ovals because it’s the place where you did well,” Montoya said. “This is his nature. He runs smart.”
Knowing the aeroscreen was in place to protect NTT INDYCAR SERIES drivers, Johnson decided to give the “500” a go, and he’s adapted well to this side of the sport. Sunday, the 46-year-old stock car legend will take the green flag from the 12th starting position, and an argument can be made that he has a faster car than some of the drivers lined up ahead of him.
Johnson is one of Chip Ganassi Racing’s five drivers, entered by Chip Ganassi alongside pole sitter Scott Dixon (No. 9 PNC Bank Honda), No. 2 starter Alex Palou (No. 10 NTT DATA Honda), No. 5 starter Marcus Ericsson (No. 8 Huski Chocolate Honda) and No. 6 starter Tony Kanaan (No. 1 The American Legion Honda). Kanaan and Dixon are former “500 winners, and Palou is the reigning NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion. Johnson’s teammates have combined to win 73 series races and eight season championships, a figure which speaks to the experience they continue to share with him.
Johnson, who drives the No. 48 Carvana Honda, has been as high as third on the speed chart in practice this month, and he might have earned a place in the Firestone Fast Six qualifying round had his car not wiggled big on the first lap of his four-lap run in last weekend’s PPG presents Armed Forces Qualifying.
Still, Johnson was impressive in qualifying, and he should be Sunday, as well.
“He’s going to do well, for sure,” Montoya said. “In NASCAR, you’ve really got to position the car in the right place to get runs on people and pass them. Jimmie is very good at that; that’s why he won at everything he won at. (Ovals) are his baby.
“You saw at (Texas Motor Speedway in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES’ March 20 race) that he was patient, and he understands long races. Indy is not kid’s stuff, but these kids we have in this race are used to running road course races where it’s flat chat (on the throttle) the whole time. They don’t understand this is an endurance race.
“Indy is different, and Jimmie understands that as well as anyone.”
Johnson finished sixth in his only other NTT INDYCAR SERIES race on an oval, in March at Texas Motor Speedway. He was running fifth until the last lap when Dixon passed him as he was conserving fuel.
Stock car racing is certainly a different challenge that what Johnson faces here, but ovals are still ovals and 82 of his 83 Cup Series victories came on such tracks. He has competed in 661 points-paying oval races in NASCAR’s top division alone and to Montoya’s point, most NASCAR races last as long, if not longer, as the “500,” which means Johnson has the training to focus at the necessary level.
Ganassi, who has owned five cars to have won the “500,” has judged Johnson by his calm, confident voice, and that tells him that he is ready for the task at hand and to deliver when victory demands it.
“You can tell by talking to Jimmie at the end of the day that he seems to be very comfortable in the car and (has) no surprises,” Ganassi said. “I think that’s the best any car owner could ask for … that when you’re talking to your drivers at the end of the day, they’re not amped up or nervous or talking in a high tone of voice or talking real quickly or down and out or something.
“They seem very comfortable and calm. That’s Jimmie.”
Johnson has been comfortable in his IMS skin since he took to the track. A four-time Brickyard 400 winner here, Johnson was up to speed in his Ganassi car only minutes into his testing debut in October. When last month’s two-day Open Test was held at IMS, Johnson, with the Texas race under his belt, posted the eighth-fastest lap.
In May, there has been no sign of trouble, save the Turn 1 bobble in qualifying.
“I just feel like I’m getting more reps, more quality reps, understanding how to use my tools,” he said. “I have felt some lower drag settings, which I have never felt before.
“I’m still playing with mechanical grip and things like that, but I’m (getting better). We’ll see what happens when it comes time.”
That time comes Sunday at 12:45 p.m. when 33 cars, including Johnson, roar toward Turn 1.
Johnson will drive toward a place in history. Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt are the only two drivers to have won the Indianapolis 500 and the Daytona 500. Johnson won the latter twice.
Can he win? He certainly can if in the late going he’s not up against someone with significantly more experience, and there aren’t many of those in this field.
“Look, that’s how (Helio) Castroneves beat Palou last year – having more experience – but if Jimmie’s in the hunt with a couple of laps to go, he’ll have a really good chance,” Montoya said. “If it comes down to that, it’s probably going to take someone special to beat him because he’s learned a lot about this race.”