One legend to another: Jimmie Johnson visits Fernando Alonso at Indy 500

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INDIANAPOLIS – Fernando Alonso had a visitor to the McLaren garage early Thursday morning – seven-time NASCAR Monster Energy Cup champion Jimmie Johnson.

“My wife sensed his charisma years ago when his car broke in an F1 race and he sat down in a lawn chair to get some sun,” Johnson said. “My wife said, ‘Who is this guy?’ He’s really cool.”

And having someone of Alonso’s stature only helps elevate auto racing’s biggest event, which airs May 26 on NBC.

“I’m glad you are in the States and racing in the Indianapolis 500,” Johnson said to Alonso.

“I am excited, too,” Alonso said. “This race is very important, too. We hope to get a good result next Sunday.”

THE 103RD INDIANAPOLIS 500: Click here for how to watch, full daily schedules

Both are legends and true racers; just with a different focus.

Alonso is the two-time Formula One champ. Johnson is a four-time Brickyard 400 winner. He has competed in the Cup race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway 17 times. But Thursday was the first time he ever attended an IndyCar event at the Speedway. The Indianapolis 500 is what Johnson watched growing up in El Cajon, Calif.

“I’m totally excited,” Johnson said. “There is nothing like seeing a race car come down the frontstretch. I’ve never seen the intended car – an Indy car – come down the frontstretch here. I have a lot of friends in this series.

“It’s nice to finally be here and see these cars whip around here.”

After visiting with Alonso, Johnson talked to NBC Sports.com about his first trip to Indianapolis Motor Speedway during the month of May. NBC Sports.com got exclusive access, thanks to McLaren’s IndyCar program and Johnson’s representative, John Lewensten.

“It’s cool to be here,” Johnson said. “I’ve had this on my list for years but didn’t plan far enough in advance. I always kicked myself. I want to come back and see the start of the race, and I would love to do that this year. More important to me, I wanted to see some friends and hang out.

“I had an awesome experience with the McLaren guys when I did the car swap last year.

“I didn’t have anything else going on today so heck, why not?”

Steve Shunck Photo

Alonso told Johnson, “You need to jump in this one,” pointing to the McLaren Chevrolet the team is trying to prepare for the Indy 500. “But your wife would not be happy.”

Johnson has expressed interest in driving an IndyCar, but he has said his wife, Chandra, wouldn’t be a fan of him competing in the Indianapolis 500 or any big oval in an Indy car. Johnson has expressed a desire to drive in IndyCar on a road course, however.

Last year, he told Motorsport.com that he had been approached several times about the Indy 500 and said that “I’m not overly excited about those fast ovals, but I think with my status and relationships I could put together some road course races in IndyCar.”

“I’ve run so many ovals, I want to do some road course racing,” Johnson told Alonso. “Especially, after feeling the braking and the downforce when I drove your McLaren at Bahrain last November.”

Alonso and Johnson swapped cars last November after the 2018 NASCAR Cup season and Formula One World Championship seasons ended.

“You saw how little performance our cars have,” Johnson said, referring to the No. 48 Chevrolet.

“It’s quite different racing,” Alonso said of NASCAR.

There is a mutual respect that champions have for other champions, and that was evident between Johnson and Alonso.

“I’ve always had fun meeting people along the way and building friendships,” Johnson said. “I’ve done the Race of Champions. When these guys come to our races, I make sure to meet them and get to know these other guys.

“My phone is blowing up now that other people know that I’m here. I better go visit them.”

Johnson met Alonso for the first time during the 2018 Rolex 24 at Daytona, and that is when the idea for the car swap last November began.

Johnson has followed McLaren’s progress, or lack of progress, during the first two days of Indy 500 practice. An alternator issue limited the team’s track time in Tuesday’s Opening Day. On Wednesday, Alonso crashed in Turn 2 just 1 hour and 34 minutes into practice and never returned to the track.

According to McLaren officials, the backup car won’t be ready for practice on Thursday until after 1 p.m.

“Every team struggles here at some point or another,” Johnson said. “There is still a lot of time.”

Johnson admitted walking into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May gets him jacked up.

“You are not human or a racer if you don’t,” Johnson said. “A Cup car is awesome to see here, but one of these cars not lifting into Turn 1 is spectacular.

“IndyCar has grown immensely. It’s highly competitive with McLaren getting involved. I would like to drive one of these cars one day, but ovals don’t appeal to me, but I would like to drive on a road course.

“The Indy 500 is definitely off the table for me.”

Jimmie Johnson open to racing Rolex 24 at Daytona in lower category to earn first watch

Jimmie Johnson Rolex 2023
Michael L. Levitt/LAT/USA/IMSA
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Jimmie Johnson could be making his last start in a prototype Saturday, but he still might be racing sports cars at the Rolex 24 at Daytona and Le Mans in 2023.

Now that he’s done racing full time in the NTT IndyCar Series, Johnson said this week that his top three priorities for 2023 are 1) racing the Indy 500 and Coca-Cola 600 on the same day (commonly known as “The Double”); 2) the 24 Hours of Le Mans and 3) the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Winning a Rolex 24 long has been a goal for Johnson, who has three overall runner-up finishes over nine starts in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season opener at Daytona International Speedway.

IMSA SEASON FINALE: Details for watching the Petit Le Mans

All of those were in the premier category, but with IMSA overhauling and rebranding the class (from DPi to GTP) next season, it seems there won’t be room for Johnson to return in the No. 48 Ally Cadillac. Johnson will be teamed with Kamui Kobayashi and Mike Rockenfeller in Saturday’s Petit Le Mans season finale, wrapping the second season of endurance races for the Action Express entry.

“I know the landscape with the new prototype class that’s come out, and frankly there’s just not enough cars or open seats available,” the seven-time Cup Series champion said during a Zoom news conference Tuesday. “So I don’t seen an opportunity in the premier division, but I am open to the other divisions on track and would love to finally earn one of those watches.”

That could mean Johnson (who bought an engraved Rolex after winning the 2006 Daytona 500 but wants to earn a signature trophy of sports car racing) entering in an LMP2 or LMP3 or perhaps a GT car for the first time at Daytona next year. He will have Carvana’s primary sponsorship in tow next year that he presumably could bring to a team.

The rest of the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion’s 2023 schedule also remains to be solidified. But it seems Johnson is nearly a lock for a 24 Hours of Le Mans debut in the lineup of the Garage 56 Next Gen Camaro, which will be fielded jointly by Hendrick Motorsports and NASCAR.

“The rest of it is just early,” he said. “In the coming weeks on all fronts, conversations will continue forward. I still feel I’m on a short list for the Garage 56 program in Le Mans next year and hope to get some clarity on that in the coming weeks or months. So I wish I had more to report at this point. It’s really about not returning full time to IndyCar, and now that I’ve made that decision and letting that news be known, I really feel like I’ll get some traction here and be able to solidify my schedule for ’23.”

Depending on the interest he draws, his options should be wide open. After racing a Honda the past two years and a Chevrolet for his 20-plus years in NASCAR, Johnson isn’t under contract to any manufacturer or team next year.

Here’s what else Johnson has said about what he wants to do in ’23:

IndyCar: Though his IndyCar track record was much stronger on ovals, Johnson seems open to any part-time schedule.

“I’m running out of specific events that are bucket list races (in IndyCar), and truthfully, that’s kind of what led to my decision to not come back full time,” Johnson said. “But I still am open to tracks that are important to me, races that are important to me and doing it with people and teams that are important to me, so if something develops with Chip (Ganassi) that’s a mixed bag of road and street courses and some ovals, I’m open to it. I’m open to just ‘the Double’ or the Indy 500 alone. I really do have a clean sheet of paper and eager to see what meaningful opportunities develop and make sense.”

Though he is free to talk with other teams, Johnson said returning with Chip Ganassi Racing would be his first choice after racing with the team since 2021.

“I’ve really only spoken to Chip,” he said. “I truly feel like I’m part of the family at CGR. If I’m in IndyCar, that’s really where I want to be. I know that team. I know the inner workings of it. I do feel like we’re working hard to continue the relationship together, so that would really be my intentions if I was able to put something together and come back in IndyCar, I’d love for it to be there.”

NASCAR: Johnson mentioned again that being a past winner of The Clash and All-Star Race previously granted him long-term eligibility for those events (NASCAR since has changed its criteria), so the exhibitions in Los Angeles and North Wilkesboro, North Carolina, are on his radar.

“I do have a few years left on my eligibility for the Clash and for the All-Star Race, so I’m surprised no one has really asked or pushed hard to this point yet,” he said. “I guess I’ve been busy in IndyCar, and people assume my schedule is tied up. But looking forward, those would be easy opportunities to come back, but honestly I’ve not had an in-depth serious conversation with anyone yet on any of those fronts.

“I’d love to go to Wilkesboro. I’ve never driven on that racetrack. Lowe’s corporate offices were just down the street, so I’ve driven by it many times. I went on a long bike ride with Matt Kenseth and some friends a few years ago and actually rode my bicycle around the track. So I’d love to go back in a proper race car and event someday and hopefully that opportunity can develop.”

Trackhouse Racing’s Project 91 (which put Kimi Raikkonen in the Cup race at Watkins Glen International) would provide an avenue for Johnson’s re-entry to stock cars.

“Justin’s been a longtime friend and someone I stay in touch with, and he’s certainly made it known that the Project 91 car is available if I have interest,” Johnson said. “So I would need to continue those conversations forward.”

–“The Double”: In trying to become the first driver since Kurt Busch in 2014 to race 1,100 miles at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Charlotte Motor Speedway in the same day, Johnson believes the logistics should be easier. Namely, he won’t have a full-time commitment in either IndyCar and NASCAR, and the reduced Cup schedule for practice and qualifying should free up more time.

“When drivers did it in the past, we had a lot more on-track activity for both series, certainly on the NASCAR side,” Johnson said. “I think how the NASCAR format works now, there’s less of an ask in time. So I do feel like the potential to apply myself and have physically enough time to pull it off is there. I do think the reduced schedule and not running the full IndyCar schedule will give me the time I need before and after to seriously focus and dedicate everything I can and would need to give my best performance in both races.”