IndyCar Media Day: News, notes, musings and observations

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INDIANAPOLIS – Tuesday’s IndyCar Media Day at a snowy, cold Indianapolis Motor Speedway was an exercise in rapid fire sessions and anxiousness, and I mean that in a good way.

The length of the 2014-2015 IndyCar offseason has, for lack of a better term, dragged.

Yes, there have been occasional news nuggets, and we’ve hit a number of features that would otherwise get overlooked during the season.

But the last race was held August 30. It will be nearly a full seven months since that point when the 2015 curtain-raiser occurs March 29 at St. Petersburg.

Alas, here were some of the nuggets from media day we didn’t hit yesterday and are looping back on today:

MORE AERO KIT DISCUSSION

Depending on where you looked, the words used online in the wake of Chevrolet unveiling its aero kit on Tuesday ran to the degree of “awful,” “hideous,” “ungainly” or “extra wings that are going to cause a heck of a lot of yellows.”

A word used occasionally, but less frequently, to describe the aero kits was, “cool.”

But a word we can all agree on for aero kits now more than ever, however late it is compared to the original idea that occurred back in 2010 is, “actual.”

The aero kit implementation ahead of 2015 is proof positive of the “better late than never” mantra, and quite frankly, is a huge element of the season ahead.

The competition element of the championship is there – witness double digit winners and either 19 or 20 podium finishers each of the last two years. But without something to build on beyond the competition, we’d be looking at 2015 as a “more of the same” year without something new to discuss.

Chevrolet’s aero kit has 123 parts, and it will be fascinating to see which of those parts makes the difference in outright pace improvements throughout the year. While GM’s VP of Performance Vehicles & Motorsports, Jim Campbell, couldn’t be pressed on percentage gains, he did confirm these will make for faster speeds, as you’d expect.

The domino next to fall is Honda’s aero kit, and the fact that the two aero kits are not being launched simultaneously is a benefit for the series, which will now have two “hits” rather than one.

The anticipation will now build for a few weeks for Honda’s official reveal – tentatively slated for March ahead of the Barber Motorsports Park spring training test – although as a Honda spokesperson confirmed, “the plan is written in pencil.” It could be earlier, and it may have to, given some Honda teams will be testing after the March 13 first date but before Barber on March 16. It’s impossible pictures won’t get out.

While I was not a fan of the perpetual delay of the aero kits, I am pleased to see the timeline outlined by Derrick Walker in his first weekend with INDYCAR in June 2013 rigidly adhered to to see the aero kits actually, finally, happen for 2015.

ANXIOUSNESS ABOUT WAITING…

The long offseason, as mentioned, has made a number of drivers stir-crazy and a bit anxious to actually be racing.

After a recent flurry of testing though, the engines will simmer over the next two to three weeks before it gets crazy again from March 13 until the St. Petersburg season opener.

“Being here (at IMS) is nice, but being around the guys is a tease,” said Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Graham Rahal. “You want to get out and get running, see what we can do.  I think it’s about a month before we hit the track again.  That’s kind of weird.”

…YET FAST-PACED MEDIA SESSIONS

The drivers themselves were in fine form for most of the breakout press conferences. Rahal’s counterpart James Hinchcliffe, as expected, brought the usual humor and candor he’s known for with a couple riffs.

Tony Kanaan’s “Awesome!” line in response to a question about the Brazil cancellation showed his humor is still as as fast-paced as his driving, before he addressed the cancellation head on.

Josef Newgarden seemed flattered to still be considered part of IndyCar’s “next generation” segment alongside rookies and fellow past Indy Lights champions in Gabby Chaves and Sage Karam.

Newgarden had the line of the day when he whipped out a random Australian accent ahead of the Team Penske press conference and told series champion Will Power, “Have a good press conference, mate!” to much laughter.

Then Power and the test of his Penske teammates, Juan Pablo Montoya, Helio Castroneves and new recruit Simon Pagenaud, had what Power described as “the most un-Penske-like press conference ever,” where the quartet was basically the IndyCar version of a comedy troupe. Montoya said he “sucked” early last year, Power said JPM left and the series went down, then he came back and now it’s on the way up. As the new guy, Pagenaud also got some good-natured ribbing.

With all sessions occurring between 9:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. at a snowy Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it was a hectic, fast-paced morning.

ONE OF THESE GUYS HAS A RIDE, AND ONE DOESN’T

It was good to catch up with JR Hildebrand, who planned this trip to Indianapolis in advance of knowing it would coincide with media day. Nonetheless, Hildebrand’s presence was a welcome surprise. The American spent time talking and catching up with those on site and while he doesn’t have anything immediate in the works, he and fellow Denver resident Justin Wilson are both still sorting out their plans.

Meanwhile James Jakes made a cameo appearance at the start of the day, and was among several drivers present who weren’t part of the media sessions. Jakes has been called IndyCar’s version of “The Stig” before because you rarely, if ever, hear him speak – Tuesday was no different.

I guess I can’t help but sigh a little bit because Jakes – who is still a plenty capable driver – does not have near the fan interest nor name recognition of a Hildebrand. And a Hildebrand confirmation to a ride would have undoubtedly generated a better reaction on social media than Jakes’ did earlier this week.

Jimmie Johnson won’t race full time in 2023; leaves open possibility of returning at Ganassi

Jimmie Johnson race 2023
Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images
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Though he remains uncertain of his plans for next year, Jimmie Johnson won’t race full time in 2023, scaling back his schedule after running a full 17-race NTT IndyCar Series season.

“This was a difficult choice for me, but in my heart, I know it’s the right one,” Johnson said in a statement Monday morning. “I’m not exactly sure what the next chapter holds, but if an opportunity comes along that makes sense, I will consider it. I still have a bucket list of racing events I would like to take part in. Competing at this level in IndyCar has been such a great experience.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better team to race for than Chip Ganassi and Chip Ganassi Racing. Everyone worked extremely hard for the last two seasons, pushing to get the best performances out of me every single week. The support from my crew and teammates Dario (Franchitti), Scott (Dixon), Tony (Kanaan), Marcus (Ericsson) and Alex (Palou) went above and beyond anything I could have ever asked for.”

WHAT’S NEXT FOR JIMMIE JOHNSON: An analysis of his racing options for the 2023 season

Driving the No. 48 Dallara-Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing, Johnson ranked 21st in the 2022 points standings with a career-best fifth place July 24 at Iowa Speedway.

After running only road and street courses for Ganassi in 2021, the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion added ovals this year. In his Indy 500 debut, he qualified 12th and finished 28th after a late crash.

“I do have a desire to go back (to IndyCar), it’s just at this point, I know what’s required to do a full schedule, and I don’t have that in me,” Johnson told AP. “I don’t have that passion that I need for myself to commit myself to a full season.”

That leaves open the concept of Johnson returning part time with Ganassi, perhaps exclusively on ovals.

“We are fully supportive of Jimmie,” team owner Chip Ganassi said in a statement. “He has been a valued member of our team and if we can find a way to continue working together, we would like to do so.”

During IndyCar’s season finale race weekend, Johnson told reporters Sept. 9 that he planned to explore his options with wife Chandra and daughters Evie and Lydia. Johnson told the Associated Press that his family is considering living abroad for a year or two, and he has toyed with the idea of running in the World Endurance Championship sports car series because of its international locales.

Johnson hasn’t ruled out IndyCar, IMSA sports cars or even a cameo in NASCAR next year. Since retiring from full-time NASCAR after the 2020 season, he has entered the endurance races of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship in the No. 48 Ally Cadillac (including Saturday’s Petit Le Mans season finale). Johnson also wants to race in the 24 Hours of Le Mans and is a prime candidate for the Garage 56 entry (a joint project of NASCAR and Hendrick Motorsports).

Johnson told the AP he is interested in becoming the latest driver to try “The Double” and run both the Coca-Cola 600 and Indy 500 on the same day (the most recent was Kurt Busch in 2014).

“You know me and endurance sports, and ‘The Double’ sounds awesome,” Johnson, a four-time Coke 600 winner, told AP. “I’ve always had this respect for the guys who have done ‘The Double.’ I would say it is more of a respect thing than a bucket-list item, and I’d love to put some energy into that idea and see if I can pull it off.”

It is less likely that he would return to IMSA’s endurance events because its top prototype series is being overhauled, limiting the amount of inventory available for the new LMDh cars in the rebranded GTP division.

Johnson has confirmed that he would retain primary sponsor Carvana, which has backed him in IndyCar the past two years. He revealed his decision Monday during the last episode of “Reinventing the Wheel,” Carvana Racing’s eight-part docuseries about his 2023 season.

“I’m thankful for the partnership with a company like Carvana for allowing me to take this journey in IndyCar, for seeing the value in our partnership and being open to future opportunities together,” Johnson said. “They have truly showed me that there are no finish lines in life. Along with Carvana, The American Legion, Ally, cbdMD and Frank August were there every step of the way, and I couldn’t have done it without all of them. Most importantly — and the true rockstars in all of this –my family, Chani, Evie and Lydia. They have always allowed me to chase my dreams, and we are all just really excited about what the future holds for all of us. I have enjoyed every minute of these last two years.”

Said Carvana co-founder Ryan Keeton: “During the past two years, Jimmie Johnson has been so amazing to collaborate with. Our team admires his passion, hard work and commitment to continuous improvement while also having fun, and we look forward to continuing to support him next year in this new chapter.”