Jimmie Johnson says he wants to race INDYCAR in 2021 after NASCAR

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AUSTIN, Texas – As seven-time NASCAR Cup champion Jimmie Johnson prepares for his final Daytona 500, he already is thinking about his “bucket list” in 2021.

Atop Johnson’s bucket list after retiring from full-time NASCAR competition this year? The chance to drive an Indy car and potentially compete in a handful of NTT INDYCAR Series races next season.

Johnson, who has said many times over the past two years he is interested in racing road and street courses in INDYCAR, attended the first day of preseason testing for INDYCAR at Circuit of the Americas (COTA). He attended the preseason driver’s meeting and then spent the rest of a rainy Tuesday as guest of Arrow McLaren SP’s Zak Brown, who also oversees McLaren’s F1 team and helped broker two-time champion Fernando Alonso’s two attempts at the Indianapolis 500.

“I’m here to look around and have some fun,” Johnson, 44, told NBC’s Leigh Diffey during a taping for NASCAR America. “I have some great friends here in the Austin area. I have great friends here in this garage area, including my friends at McLaren. I did the Formula One swap with Fernando Alonso a few years ago. I just wanted to check it out.”

“I love Austin and I always wanted to come to this racetrack. Hopefully, we get some cars on track and see some action.”

At the conclusion of his interview with NASCAR America, Johnson took a few moments to speak to NBC Sports.com and offer his interest level in giving some INDYCAR road course races a try in 2021.

“At the end of last year when I knew I was done with 38 races a year, I got so excited,” Johnson told NBCSports.com. “I have a lot of things I want to try, including INDYCAR and sports car racing in 2021, and now I can consider those as my ‘bucket list.’

“Zak and I formed a friendship based on the car swap we did at Bahrain two Novembers ago and we stayed in touch. I kept in touch through his involvement in NASCAR and his marketing company. When he said he was coming over and invited me, I decided to come out.”

Through cold rainy weather, all 25 cars at the preseason test were equipped with the cockpit safety device known as the aeroscreen. Now that INDYCAR has created the aeroscreen, it has increased Johnson’s interest in getting into the cockpit himself.

“The aeroscreen for me is huge,” Johnson said. “From a safety standpoint, I’m used to having a roof over my head and a windshield in front of me. That safety step really opens up my interest in INDYCAR. I grew up going to the Long Beach Grand Prix and was an IndyCar fan and thought that was going to be what I did. But my career path went in a different direction.

“Getting in an Indy car, experiencing one and maybe racing one is all on my bucket list.”

Johnson admitted that he considered running the Indianapolis 500 10 or 12 years ago. He discussed the possibility with team owner Roger Penske.

“INDYCAR has been something for me that as a kid growing up, I dreamed of racing,” Johnson said. “As a kid in Southern California, I went to the Long Beach Grand Prix. Rick Mears was my hero and like me, he came from off-road racing. It’s always been on my radar. My career took me to NASCAR. I have no clue what 2021 holds for me, but I’m open.

“If the right opportunity comes up, I would certainly consider it.”

In addition to checking off IndyCar, Johnson told Diffey he wants to run sports cars (including the Rolex 24 again after finishing second twice and the 24 Hours of Le Mans) and return to his origins in off-road, as well as an Ironman triathlon and mountain biking.

“I’m really open to the point of checking boxes,” he said. “That is what 2021 will be all about in and out of the car. There is a lot I want to do and balance my life with my family.”

His final Daytona 500 is Sunday, but that didn’t keep Johnson from making a quick trip over to Austin, Texas to check the possibilities of a part-time switch to INDYCAR.

“I’m excited,” he said. “I want to soak it all in. Even today, I’ve always been so focused in, I’ve got to race, got to race. What does tomorrow look like?

“I’m just here to have fun and soak it in. Next year is unclear, but it should be a lot of fun.”

After attending the preseason Drivers Meeting, Johnson spoke individually with some of the top drivers from the NTT INDYCAR Series. Many of them are his longtime friends.

“Jimmie has been talking about it for a little while and looking at different options,” five-time NTT INDYCAR champion Scott Dixon told NBCSports.com. “He’s been super keen coming to INDYCAR races. That is just him. He’s a racer and wants to try something else. It’s good to see him in the paddock and try to do something. He is a legend of the sport; but also, a really good person. That is what I respect about him the most.

“Jimmie and I talk a lot about random stuff. We always text each other and have phone calls, too. Outside of Kyle Larson, he is the guy I talk to the most over on that side.”

Former driver Dario Franchitti had a legendary career in INDYCAR with three Indianapolis 500 victories and four championships. A student of international racing, Franchitti said the interest Johnson would bring to a part-time INDYCAR effort “would be awesome.

“It would be amazing,” Franchitti told NBCSports.com. “He has expressed interest for a long time. Jimmie is a friend of a lot of ours and to know he is going to retire from NASCAR at the end of the season he can do all these things on his bucket list. It would be fantastic to see him do some INDYCAR races.

“Jimmie is such an easy guy to get on with, it’s easy to forget he has won all of those championships. He is clearly one of the greatest ever. Jimmie just loves competing. He has a very easy personality, but when you watch what he does when he is cycling, running or racing, he has a real desire to win.

“I think he likes to test himself, too. It says a lot about the INDYCAR Series that he wants to come and drive the car, experience the car and race against the guys in the series.”

Graham Rahal also would like the chance to compete against Johnson in an Indy car.

“Jimmie is a legend,” Rahal told NBCSports.com. “It would be tremendous to have him in the INDYCAR paddock and racing with us. It would be an honor to race with him and against him. He is one of the best to ever do it. It’s just that simple.

“I think the style of racing is intriguing. The cars are fascinating for people to see and drive nowadays. The safety is continuing to improve and get better. The health of the sport has increased so much since from when I came around, for a lot of people the sport is opening eyes again and want to come be a part of it.

“The biggest challenge for him will be the braking capabilities and the downforce compared to it. The acceleration will be quicker, but a Cup car has tons of power, too. He would adapt perfectly fine. Given some testing and everything else, he will be right there.”

“I like to see guys accept the challenge and come over and do it. Scott McLaughlin and J.J. talking about it. Kyle Busch has expressed interest in running the Indy 500. All of these guys are opening their eyes to what is going on over here. INDYCAR is on the rise. They want to be a part of it.”

Team Penske recently announced that two-time Supercars champion Scott McLaughlin will make his IndyCar debut in May in the Indianapolis GP.

Tony Kanaan is competing in the five ovals races on the schedule this season as his career winds down. The 2004 INDYCAR champion and 2013 Indianapolis 500 winner said if Johnson runs some INDYCAR contests, he will get back in a car.

“He said his 2021 was wide open, and he’s looking around,” Kanaan told NBCSports.com. “I think it would be great to have him around. I told him if he comes back that I will come back whatever race he runs so we can bang wheels.

“He’s a legend, but he’s a true racer. He wants to race. It doesn’t matter where. You can’t label a guy like that as a NASCAR driver. He made his career in NASCAR, but he has raced so many things, including bikes.

“He is a legendary racer who wants to be part of a legendary sport.”

Johnson has made no secret of wanting to race in other series such as IndyCar and IMSA after his NASCAR career is over. Last fall during an appearance on NASCAR America Motor Mouths, he said he remained interested in running IndyCar races on road courses.

When talk of an IndyCar-NASCAR doubleheader weekend heated up last year, Johnson said he was in favor of hosting it at “a road course so I could do the double” and run both series.

At the Nov. 26 news conference announcing the 2020 season as his last in NASCAR, Johnson was asked by NBC Sports whether he had talked with sports car or IndyCar teams.

“No, I haven’t talked to anybody,” he said. “I saw them all pinging me on social media, like, ‘Hey, dibs! Come race here!’ Even the World of Outlaws sent me a tweet.”

“Nothing now. I haven’t even thought about it.”

Johnson established a relationship with McLaren two years ago when he met Formula One driver Fernando Alonso at a media event in Charlotte.

After the 2018 Cup season finale, Johnson traveled to Bahrain for a car swap with Alonso. The two-time F1 champion drove the No. 48 Chevrolet of Johnson, who piloted a 2013 McLaren on the Bahrain International Circuit.

Johnson made his first visit in May to Indianapolis Motor Speedway last year during Alonso’s attempt to make the Indy 500 with McLaren. He reiterated his desire then to run on road or street courses in the IndyCar NTT Series.

“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.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500 

Inside IndyCar’s iRacing revolution: Oliver Askew, team take it seriously

SimMetric Labs
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No laps have been turned in the NTT IndyCar Series this season, yet rookie Oliver Askew incessantly is analyzing fresh lap data with his Arrow McLaren SP team.

For the past two weeks, Askew has turned hundreds of laps in iRacing at Watkins Glen International and Barber Motorsports Park, and his support team meticulously has scoured the data in real time.

Race engineer Blair Perschbacher, assistant engineer Mike Reggio and strategist Billy Vincent are connected via all the software and timing systems that are on Askew’s real-world No. 7 Dallara-Chevrolet. After every run, numbers instantly are crunched, and Askew debriefs with his crew on improving the handling of his car in search of every fraction of a second as he would in real life.

WATCH: IndyCar iRacing Challenge, 2:30 p.m. ET Saturday, NBCSN or streaming here

The only difference is Askew is sitting inside a simulation rig housed by a 45-foot trailer in West Palm Beach, Fla., while each team member is in an Indianapolis area home.

“They basically set up their own timing stands in their living rooms,” Askew told NBCSports.com. “It’s awesome.”

It’s the new reality for IndyCar, which will play host to the second round of the IndyCar iRacing Challenge at 2:30 p.m. Saturday (NBCSN) at virtual Barber Motorsports Park.

Last Saturday, Askew started and finished fifth at Watkins Glen International, where he practiced with the advisement of his team for more than 15 hours in the SimMetric Driver Performance Labs simulator. Despite a relative sim racing newbie, Askew, 23, finished only two spots behind Will Power, who has more than 1,500 starts and 150 victories on iRacing road courses.

Askew already has practiced for more than 10 hours this week in his simulator for Barber, where he hopes to make the podium against a 29-driver field that will include many champions and winners.

“We’re taking this very seriously,” he said. “You can tell by the results at Watkins Glen. You know which drivers have built their sims properly. How much they’ve been practicing. Those are the guys who finish up front.

“I’m still trying to represent everyone. It’s cool we have the same paint scheme. We’re just trying to represent Arrow and our partners the best as possible. We know they’re all watching, and it seems the viewership is going up.”

The Jupiter, Florida, native has found an edge through his friendship with SimMetric Driver Performance Labs, which is based in nearby West Palm Beach, Florida. Askew and SimMetric CEO Greg De Giorgis met last year through mutual friends. Last year, Askew had done a few simulator sessions before winning the 2019 Indy Lights championship (and graduating to the ride with Arrow McLaren SP).

With an official simulator partnership in the Road to Indy program, SimMetric’s CXC Motion Pro II simulator travels in a trailer to racing events around the country, providing drivers with extra preparation time for the real world.

The full-motion simulator includes a motion system developed by drivers and engineers, hyrdaulic brakes and force-feedback steering system. Though at the high end for simulators available to the general public, it retails for much less than the seven-figure simulators used by auto manufacturers with race programs.

“While time in a driving simulator will never fully replace real seat time, sim seat time can go a very long way in supplementing the seat time a driver gets,” De Giorgis told NBCSports.com in an email. “With three added benefits you don’t get in the real car: Significantly lower cost per hour, no risk of bodily harm or damage to the car, and of course, no limitations on time.”

There are some limitations for how much Askew can practice, though. A schedule was set up last week so the team, Askew and De Giorgis (who helps run the simulator and maintain communications with the team) could work together while also maintaining self-isolation with their families.

RACING RETURN: Robert Wickens ‘just excited to drive’


The trailer with the simulator is parked indoors at the Riviera Beach, Florida, shop of Extreme Velocity Motorsports, which also has an unofficial affiliation with SimMetric.

“We’re practicing social distancing and making sure the trailer and everything is clean,” Askew said. “We’re taking that very seriously. It’s still a job for me, so I need to get what I can out of it.”

He’s gotten a lot from it despite a lack of experience. The team can compare simulation data from iRacing to real-world historical data from past races and test sessions.

Reggio handles fuel data, and Simpson monitors strategy and timing. While setups are fixed for the iRacing IndyCar Challenge, Perschbacher is able to work with brake bias. “He’s just trying to bend the rules as much as we can,” Askew said. “We’ve done a lot with brake bias. That’s pretty much all we can change.”

Fans also can watch Askew practicing via a YouTube channel provided by De Giorgis, who has chatted with viewers about the car’s laps in real time during the streams that are available by clicking here.

Fans will be able to find a live stream of Askew’s race Saturday by clicking here.

It’s all relatively new to Askew, who doesn’t even have a sim rig at his Indianapolis home. His previous sim experience mainly came on the Chevrolet simulator in Huntersville, North Carolina.

“Honesty, for me personally, I’m a little late to the party,” Askew said. “I don’t think a lot of people realize that. I’m young and they assumed I’ve been doing this. I’ve never even had my own iRacing account before. Guys like (McLaren driver) Lando Norris, (Watkins Glen winner) Sage (Karam), all these guys have been streaming live on Twitch and have been running iRacing for multiple years now.

“ It’s a great way to get fans engaged in the race weekend and get eSports get bigger and bigger every year. Very interesting moving forward. It’s cool that IndyCar has dipped their feet into these waters now. Even once the season starts, I wouldn’t be surprised if we do more of these races.”

If so, he and his team have learned to keep an eye on Power, a real-world ace on road courses. During some practice races Thursday, Askew thought he’d done well by qualifying third, but Power then put a half-second on the field by winning the pole position.

“Will is unbelievably quick and does the same things in real life as well,” said Askew, who did turn the fastest lap in the practice race. “He just pulls it out somehow. That’s where the engineers and our staff in Indy come into play because they’re able to watch his on-board in real time and replay his on board to figure out what he’s doing to get the most of out of his car in the video game.

“It gets the creative juices flowing again. It’s still very different from real life, but I think we’re going to be able to start the season a little more fresh than we would have without this.”

Chris Graythen / Getty Images