If clocking 214 mph counts as a baby step, then Jimmie Johnson has taken an important baby step toward racing in the Indianapolis 500. Nothing in NASCAR could have prepared Johnson for hitting that speed, but finally being able to test on an oval has boosted his confidence immensely after finding a bit of commonality.
Jimmie Johnson made a breakthrough at Texas Motor Speedway
Johnson has moved closer to entering the 2022 Indianapolis 500 with a successful test Monday at Texas Motor Speedway, his first meaningful IndyCar work on an oval. Certainly, conditions on the two dates differed, but the 214 mph that Johnson hit on the 1.5-mile track would have qualified him fourth for last year’s race there.
The 214 figure is noteworthy because the acknowledged NASCAR record at Talladega Superspeedway is Rusty Wallace’s 216.3 mph during testing in 2004, according to NASCAR. But a 500-mile average of 175 mph is a fast-paced day at Daytona International.
“To have that consistency at that high pace, very hot conditions, very low grip with it being a green racetrack, I think that was all just a really good sign of how comfortable I was and willing to push the car closer to its limits,” Johnson said.
Jimmie Johnson’s NASCAR background is more valuable than he realized
Twenty years of a NASCAR Cup Series career replete with 83 race victories and seven season championships sounds as though it should prepare a driver for anything. But IndyCar scarcely relates to NASCAR. Everything from G-forces to field of vision requires acclimation.
“It was quite significant to start, so low in the car, vision is somewhat limited, just how quick the car responds to steering wheel input was pretty new and different for me,” Johnson told ESPN.
Johnson won seven times in Forth Worth from 2007-17, so his NASCAR experience on the track gave him a baseline as he expanded his IndyCar education.
“The way you make speed from a driving standpoint is the same as NASCAR,” he said. “I was able to identify with that (Monday).”
Johnson has run road and street courses exclusively in his rookie IndyCar season and immediately noted differences in braking and aerodynamic adjustments from NASCAR. But once he got on the oval, the feeling from all those years driving for Henrick Motorsports came roaring back.
“Your focal point is different on a road and street course in a NASCAR versus IndyCar, where on the oval I found out (Monday), it’s in the same place, and not only is it in the same place, the adjustments you make on the race car are the same from a Cup car to an IndyCar,” Johnson said.
That was a significant revelation for him.
“I felt much more at home, not only from a driving standpoint and where to create speed,” he admitted, “but also how to help the team adjust the car and work on the race car.”
The seven-time NASCAR champion has been taking baby steps
Johnson announced his NASCAR retirement before starting his 20th season. He’s been splitting time in 2021 between IndyCar’s road and street courses and IMSA.
The less-treacherous speeds of the races off the ovals has helped, but Johnson will be the first to admit it’s a complicated transition to IndyCar. He has yet to finish higher than a pair of 19th-place finishes in his nine starts. However, his last time out, on the Indianapolis road course, marked the first time he has finished on the lead lap.
Combined with his oval testing this week under the watchful eye of Dario Franchitti, Scott Dixon, and Tony Kannan (and their combined five Indianapolis 500 triumphs), it’s an indication that Memorial Day weekend on the Indy oval is increasingly plausible.
Johnson had previously sworn off interest in competing on ovals. In fact, he reacted to Dan Wheldon’s death in 2011 by suggesting it was time for the sport to abandon all racing on ovals. A decade later, he concedes he’s uncertain about taking the next step: mixing it up with other drivers in more elaborate testing.
“I’ve wondered about that quite a bit,” he said. “I know how the Cup cars act in traffic. A little bit of experience at some faster speeds on the road courses with an IndyCar in traffic. But that’s a great question and one that I’m not sure I have an answer for because I’m questioning that myself right now.”
Assuming he takes that step this fall, it sounds as though Johnson is all but certain to try the 2022 Indianapolis 500.
All stats courtesy of Racing Reference.