It could have been worse: Jimmie Johnson overcomes damage to finish 25th in Texas

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Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. became a pain in the grass for Jimmie Johnson in Monday’s Duck Commander 500 at Texas Motor Speedway.

Had Earnhardt not made a costly mistake, driving off the track and into a waterlogged grassy area in the infield heading into Turn 1, Johnson could very well have finished much better in the race than he actually did.

Unfortunately, a big chunk of the sod Earnhardt tore up, not to mention rubber from the tire he blew when he hit the grass and then bounced off the edge of the pavement and up into the Turn 1 wall went where it shouldn’t have.

Namely, right into Johnson’s windshield and the front end of his car. The impact was so forceful that the debris actually bent part of Johnson’s windshield and the inside support bracket.

As a result, Johnson was forced to make three separate pit stops within a few laps of each other for repairs. And then, if that wasn’t bad enough, he had to make a fourth stop when he suffered a right rear tire issue several laps later.

For Johnson to go through such a miserable day and still finish 25th, two laps behind race winner Joey Logano, is commendable and notable.

“When Junior when through the grass, it kicked up all this debris and mud,” Johnson recalled after the race. “It ripped the windshield and ripped the left front.

“There was a lot of noise. And I saw his car and then I instantly lost vision. I felt a couple of hard hits on my car and I knew that we had some damage.

“But … we recovered and had a fast car and we were okay, and then I don’t know if I ran something over on the track or what, but something really big hit the bottom-side of my car and that, I think, punctured our right rear tire. We had to come to pit road after that. And then we lost a couple of laps due to that.”

Johnson actually had a car worthy of winning his second race in a row at Texas, having done so in last fall’s Chase race there.

But when the race finally went green after the field circled TMS for the first 10 laps under yellow/green caution to test the track’s viability and dryness, it took less than two laps for Earnhardt to not only spoil his day, but Johnson’s as well.

“The Lowe’s team gave me a great car today,” Johnson said. “It’s kind of surreal what happened. Junior hit the grass there and something off his car like a splitter or something just destroyed my windshield and then something hit the nose of the car too.

“We were in a good position and were running decent lap times when the right rear blew. I’m glad Junior is alright and hats off to my guys today. We played around with some strategy at the end. They never gave up.

“It was a day of bad luck. We had a fast race car, so there was a little silk lining in it, but it was a terrible finish.”

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Robert Wickens in the Indy 500? Bryan Herta making plans to field a car for next year

Robert Wickens Indy 500
Brett Farmer/LAT Images/IMSA
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Bryan Herta wants to enter Robert Wickens in the Indy 500 as early as 2024 – a year longer than preferred as work continues on the hand controls needed for the paralyzed driver.

Wickens suffered a spinal cord injury in a crash at Pocono Raceway in his 2018 IndyCar rookie season. He’s worked as a driver coach for the Arrow McLaren IndyCar team since, but last year with Bryan Herta Autosport and Hyundai returned to racing in the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge.

The 33-year-old Canadian won a pair of races (including the season opener at Daytona) driving a Hyundai Elantra N-TCR that is fitted for Wickens to race strictly through hand controls. Herta said Thursday that perfecting that technology for an Indy car in the biggest race in the world has slowed the project he’s determined to do with Wickens.

‘I’M AS HUNGRY AS EVER’: Robert Wickens’ return to racing

“I’d love to take Robbie back to Indy because I know he could do that, and I think that would be a next step for him in his journey,” Herta told The Associated Press. “We’ve spent a lot of time looking at the logistical side of things, hand controls, and I think we have solutions for that.”

Herta said Honda has been supportive of the process, which Herta called “one of the most important things we’ve done in racing” last year.

“We actually looked at doing it this year, but the logistics of it, the timing, it just wasn’t enough,” Herta said. “That’s not something you can rush. There’s some things that we have to work very closely with IndyCar on, and things we just have to get right. It’s a process, but I can see a path to it.”

Wickens, when told his boss was openly discussing the Indy 500, grinned widely. Herta as a team owner won the Indianapolis 500 with Dan Wheldon and Alexander Rossi.

“That’d be fun,” he said of running the Indy 500.

But like Herta, Wickens said the effort has to be both done correctly and be competitive.

“We’d like to do it right. If we started right now, can we get a car ready for the open test in April? Probably,” Wickens told The AP. “But I don’t know where the systems would be and I want to get on proper simulators to make sure its correct.

“We all want to do a proper, professional effort,” he added. “I don’t want to do it for a marketing campaign. I want to do it for a chance to win.”

Wickens later tweeted about the possibility of racing the Indy 500 and said his goal was “always to get back to the top level of motorsport” whether it’s IndyCar or IMSA.

Wickens in 2021 did a demonstration in Canada that marketed advancements for paralyzed drivers and gave him a chance to again drive. His entire life had been upended 14 races into his rookie IndyCar season, just three months after winning top rookie honors at the Indianapolis 500.

Wickens has since married, returned to racing last year and welcomed the birth of his first child, an son named Wesley whom is infatuated with both race cars and the trip to Disney he took this week during the off days at Daytona International Speedway.

Wickens, who uses a wheelchair but can stand with some support, marks a full year back racing on Friday in the season-opening IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge race. Despite success last season, Herta made changes to his lineups and Wickens this year will be teamed with Harry Gottsacker.