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.”

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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.”

Attention NASCAR teams: IMSA drivers available for Daytona!

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NASCAR will be making its debut on the Daytona International Speedway road course next month, and there’s a big fan who’d like to join the historic weekend.

This fan actually has impressive credentials, too — a few thousand laps around the 12-turn, 3.56-mile layout that annually plays host to the Rolex 24 at Daytona in January.

In 2014, the winning GTLM team in the sports car endurance classic included IMSA Porsche driver Nick Tandy, who rabidly has followed NASCAR for more than 30 years since growing up in England.

So why not try racing NASCAR? Especially because Tandy has the weekend of Aug. 14-16 free.

He’s not picky, either — offering up his services on Twitter (as well as those of Porsche teammate Earl Bamber) for an ARCA, Xfinity, trucks or Cup ride.

Tandy’s affinity for American stock-car racing runs deep.

His first trip to the World Center of Racing was as a fan attending the 50th running of the Daytona 500 on Feb. 17, 2008. During Rolex testing in January, Tandy, 35, said he hadn’t missed a Cup race on TV in 15 years.

Among his favorite NASCAR drivers: the Earnhardts, Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch. When IMSA ran the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course in 2014, Tandy stayed a few extra days at the Brickyard and bought Kyle Busch gear for himself and his children.

He briefly took the stage during a NASCAR weekend last October. After IMSA’s season finale at Road Atlanta, Tandy made a few demonstration laps and a burnout in his No. 911 Porsche before the Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway.

He also has some experience in stock cars, having raced Modified-type grass-roots series on England’s quarter-mile short tracks.

Couple that with a Daytona road course record that includes two consecutive podium class finishes (including last Saturday) and a sports car resume with 13 IMSA victories and an overall win in the 2015 24 Hours of Le Mans … and maybe a NASCAR team should take a look.

And Tandy isn’t the only IMSA driver who likely would be available.

Corvette driver Jordan Taylor, who won the 2017 Rolex 24 overall title with Jeff Gordon as a teammate (and the inspiration for his Rodney Sandstrom persona), also tweeted his availability for the weekend on the high banks.

Sports car veteran Andy Lally, a GTD driver with multiple class wins in the Rolex 24 as well as 38 Cup starts (he was the 2011 rookie of the season in NASCAR’s premier series), also hung out his shingle.

There also is AIM Vasser Sullivan’s Jack Hawksworth (who just won at Daytona last Saturday), the Englishman who teamed with Kyle Busch at the Rolex 24 in January and made an Xfinity start at Mid-Ohio last year with Joe Gibbs Racing.

Many sports car drivers (such as Taylor) already live in Florida, and many are hunkering down in the Sunshine State with IMSA returning to action at Daytona last week and Sebring International Raceway next week. Because of COVID-19-related travel concerns and restrictions, several IMSA stars who live outside the country are riding out the pandemic within a few hours of Daytona with nothing to do.

Why not a weekend at the World Center of Racing?

Over the years, scads of “road-course ringers” (including some Formula One veterans) have tried their hands in stock cars at Sonoma Raceway and Watkins Glen International.

How about considering the many sports car drivers who already have reached victory lane at Daytona by making a few right-hand turns, too?