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.”
— Jimmie Johnson (@JimmieJohnson) February 11, 2020
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.”
— Zak Brown (@ZBrownCEO) February 11, 2020
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.”
— Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (@RLLracing) February 11, 2020
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.”
— Bruce Martin (@BruceMartin_500) February 11, 2020
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.”