Excuse Jimmie Johnson if he has forgotten a few races in his decorated motorsports career. He has recorded more than 800 starts in a stock car and now 26 in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES.
So as the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion rolled into World Wide Technology Raceway for this weekend’s Bommarito Automotive Group 500 presented by Axalta and Valvoline, he couldn’t remember how many times he had raced here. He thought the answer was once, but he was told that was incorrect.
“I was in an argument with my social media team,” Johnson said. “(They said), ‘We have these stats that show you have been here three times.’”
All three were in NASCAR’s Xfinity Series, with records showing finishes of 15th in 1998 with Tad Geschickter’s team and finishes of 13th and 14th in 2000 and 2001, respectively, with Herzog Motorsports.
“I do remember my first race here in, I think, ’98 or ’99 in the (No.) 59 Busch car, (but) I do not remember being here the other two times, in the Herzog (No.) 92 car, which is kind of weird,” Johnson said. “I remember the 59 car because myself, Ryan Newman and Adam Petty were all fighting for that seat. Adam Petty was sitting in the stands watching me.”
Johnson also tested a Cup Series car just before the track was repaved, and he has been in a simulator trying the 1.25-mile oval in NTT INDYCAR SERIES configuration.
Friday, Johnson qualified 21st of 26 for Saturday’s 260-lap race. Live coverage starts at 6 p.m. ET on USA Network, Peacock Premium and the INDYCAR Radio Network.
Johnson has posted his best NTT INDYCAR SERIES results on oval tracks – he was sixth at Texas Motor Speedway and 11th and fifth in the two races at Iowa Speedway – but this track might not suit him as well as those.
“When I look at my oval performances (in this series), if there are multiple lanes I seem to run well,” he said. “Indy is a single-file track, (and) I wasn’t able to pass and use my experience like I had hoped to.
“Last year’s race (at WWTR) looked like there were about 10 or 15 laps where there were a couple of lanes, then it quickly went to single file. Until I get out there (for Saturday’s race), it’s hard to say.”
As part of post-qualifying practice, nine drivers invested 30 minutes driving in the track’s high lane to add track rubber to help develop the second groove. A similar session was offered at Texas Motor Speedway to reasonable reviews, and there were 284 passes for position.
Johnson also noted he tested at Iowa Speedway in advance of the doubleheader; this event afforded him no such luxury.
“Here I think I’m up to 50 laps,” he said after qualifying. “Just need more laps to find my groove around here.”
New Contract, New Day for Castroneves
As the NTT INDYCAR SERIES resumes action with this weekend’s Bommarito Automotive Group 500 presented by Axalta and Valvoline, it would be wise to remember which driver knows World Wide Technology Raceway as well as anyone. His name is Helio Castroneves.
From an on-track perspective, the 47-year-old Brazilian hasn’t been heard from much this season at Meyer Shank Racing, with his No. 06 AutoNation/SiriusXM Honda deeper in the standings than he’d like – he’s 18th after 14 of the 17 races. But this is a track where Castroneves has often excelled, winning the 2003 race and twice finishing second. In six starts at the 1.25-mile track in Madison, Illinois, he has never finished outside the top 10, and that’s with three different teams.
And ovals have been his thing over his long career, too, with 16 of his 31 victories coming on such tracks.
“Very nice,” Castroneves said of being reminded of those facts. “I really appreciate that.”
With contract extension in hand for 2023, Castroneves is hoping for a smoother Saturday night than he experienced in his victory 20 years ago. In that race with Team Penske, his car was plagued with an assortment of dash issues – “no information on my dash, to be honest, absolutely blanked” – and yet he still delivered.
“Technology sometimes helps, but that particular day technology did nothing for me,” he said, laughing. “I remember even upshifting the lights weren’t working. I had to do everything by timing – literally old school.”
Castroneves laid this season’s difficulties to the challenge of building a foundation for the team that has grown to two full-time cars this season. Yes, he has had to adjust to the downforce changes created by the installation of the aeroscreen since he last drove at some of these tracks in 2017, the last time he competed in all of the series races. Consider, too, that this weekend’s event at WWTR is only his second at the track since 2003.
But Castroneves believes MSR is building something special with he and 2019 series champion Simon Pagenaud, his former running mate at Team Penske.
“Look, I’m just going to put it this way,” he said. “When you start a company, (and) learned a little bit with Roger (Penske) in this place, sometimes you’re making a (car) dealership (and) the first year you lose money. It’s pretty much like this in the racing team.
“Sometimes you put a team together (and) even though the team has experience or is sharing information with another group, it takes time to follow the process, to put everything in place. Some people coming and going, so it takes time. You’ve just got to trust the process.
“I’m confident that we will get our deserved result, and hopefully this weekend we’ll break through.”
‘The Wall of Smack’
WWTR officials have decorated the Turn 2 wall, labeling it “The Wall of Smack.”
Several NTT INDYCAR SERIES drivers have hit it over the years, including Alexander Rossi last year in the No. 27 NAPA AUTO PARTS/AutoNation Honda of Andretti Autosport.
Rossi was asked about the sign and at first tried to downplay it. But he confessed.
“I probably know more about it because I’ve crashed there,” he said.
Felix Rosenqvist (No. 7 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet) spun close to it in NTT P1 Award qualifying but avoided it.
Said Josef Newgarden (No. 2 PPG Team Penske Chevrolet) of the signage: “I love it. It could provide an incredibly ironic spot to have a wreck. I’ll try not to hit it, (but) I’m sure people would love that if I did.”
Odds and Ends
- Graham Rahal was the fastest driver overall in the final practice Friday evening, turning a top lap of 177.728 mph in the No. 15 iPacket Honda. Rahal will start 13th Saturday. Johnson spun entering the pits with about one minute remaining in the practice, brushing the wall with his nosecone.
- Newgarden, who will start third, is going for a third consecutive victory at this track. The last time an INDYCAR driver won three in succession at one of the tracks on the 2022 schedule was Sebastien Bourdais at Long Beach (2005-07). Colton Herta will have a chance to win three in a row at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca with the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey on Sept. 11.
- The top seven drivers in the standings earned the top seven positions for Saturday’s race, and fittingly, series points leader Will Power (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet) will start on the pole.
- Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge winner Marcus Ericsson (No. 8 Bryant Honda) earned his highest starting position of his NTT INDYCAR SERIES career. His previous best had been third last year at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.
- Andretti Autosport’s Romain Grosjean, who qualified ninth in the No. 28 NAPA AUTO PARTS/DHL Honda, will start the race in the 18th position due to an unapproved engine change in advance of this event. At oval tracks, the penalty for such action is nine positions; at road courses and street circuits, it’s six positions.
- Rookie Devlin DeFrancesco qualified in the 10th position and will start ninth due to Grosjean’s penalty, making this his highest-starting effort of the season. The previous best by the driver of the No. 29 PowerTap Honda of Andretti Steinbrenner Autosport was 15th in Race 2 at Iowa Speedway.
- The NTT INDYCAR SERIES will continue a tradition at WWTR by offering a pair of three-wide “Salute to Indy” parade laps. Drivers in positions 17 through 24 will pull alongside the first eight rows, leaving drivers in positions 25 and 26 to comprise Row 9. Coming to the green flag, the cars will be back in rows of two based on qualifying performances.
- Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires points leader Linus Lundqvist, who drives the No. 26 entry of HMD Motorsports with Dale Coyne Racing, won his series-leading sixth pole of the season Friday at WWTR with a two-lap speed average of 160.259 mph. It will be the seventh time Lundqvist starts at the front of the field, as he also had grid spot No. 1 earlier this month at Nashville, where the field was set by entrant points after qualifying was rained out. Benjamin Pedersen (No. 24 Global Racing Group with HMD Motorsports) was second at 160.124 mph. The 75-lap race is set for 4:20 p.m. ET on Peacock Premium, INDYCAR Live! and the INDYCAR Radio Network. Lundqvist has won five series races this season and holds a commanding 95-point championship lead.
- Salvador De Alba of Jay Howard Driver Development led Indy Pro 2000 testing Friday at WWTR with a fastest lap of 140.471 mph. Saturday’s 45-lap race is set for 3:15 p.m. ET.