Jimmie Johnson says he wants to do IndyCar ‘more than ever’ after test

IndyCar Jimmie Johnson test
Chris Owens/IndyCar
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Finally fulfilling his childhood dream of driving an Indy car, seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson is sold on figuring out how to race next year in the IndyCar Series after a test session Tuesday.

“It only lit the fire more. I want to do this more than ever before,” Johnson said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. “It was something new, something different. NASCAR has been so good to me. and I am so proud of the success I’ve had. But to try something new, man, this was really cool.”

Johnson initially thought his racing career would take him into IndyCar, the series he followed as a child, but the path instead veered into NASCAR. He’s put together one of the most successful careers in series history, but the 44-year-old will retire from full-time NASCAR competition at the end of this season.

He won’t stop competing, though, and Johnson has already put in motion a plan he hopes will get him into some IndyCar events next year. An initial test with McLaren was canceled when sports shut down in the early part of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic; Johnson’s positive coronavirus test earlier this month pushed a July 8 test with Chip Ganassi Racing to Tuesday.

Even as he headed to Indianapolis Motor Speedway at the start of the day, he fretted that something would spoil his long-awaited opportunity.

“Third time was a charm, but I was worried something would jinx it,” he said.

IndyCar Jimmie Johnson test
Jimmie Johnson leaned on five-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon for advice during a test session Tuesday with Chip Ganassi Racing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway (Chris Owens/IndyCar).

Nothing spoiled his day, which Johnson likened to a “first day of school.” He drove the same car Felix Rosenqvist raced on the Indy road course earlier this month and had five-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon on hand as his driver coach.

IndyCar Jimmie Johnson test
Jimmie Johnson drove the No. 10 Dallara-Honda during a test session Tuesday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway with Chip Ganassi Racing (Chris Owens/IndyCar).

Despite tough track conditions (with low grip because of high temperatures), Dixon said Johnson got a good idea of driving in IndyCar.

“He was very impressive. There was no trying to do too much,” Dixon told AP. “He was texting me last night, asking me all sorts of questions, if there were tricks for getting out of the pits, how to handle a turn, those kind of things. He was just super amped up and just excited to finally get there.”

It was a busy session for Johnson, who was trying to learn the car while also testing new cockpit cooling advances for the series. The Ganassi team had five sets of tires for the session and with the track temperature nearing 140 degrees, the degradation came quickly.

Johnson also spun twice during the day – once in the first turn of the road course when he had too much rear brake and a second time in the fourth turn when he just lost the car. He took pride in keeping it out of the grass both times, but he flat-spotted an already limited allotment of tires.

“By the end of the day they were mix-matching tires, giving me mixed sets, just to let me have more laps,” Johnson said.

Johnson had previously said this test would determine if pursuing IndyCar was worth his time – he had joked he’d know quickly if he was any good at it – and after nearly eight hours with the Ganassi team, he was undeterred.

“When I got in the car, I needed two sessions to let my eyes adjust. Things were coming up on me pretty quick,” Johnson said. “Right before lunch, we started finding a groove. In the beginning of the day I was finding big chunks, but the track was going away while my ability was increasing.”

Dixon was impressed with Johnson’s ability to process information and apply feedback, particularly since he’s one of the most accomplished NASCAR drivers in history. Dixon said it was difficult to assess Johnson’s pace because the track was green and the temperatures were so hot but estimated Johnson was running similar to how series regulars were earlier this month in “the mid-to-late stint of the race we had. But you’ve got no benchmark. It’s a big unknown.

“For a guy who has done what he’s done, he was still pretty excited,” Dixon said. “The passion that he has for racing and trying something different, he was typical Jimmie, just the way he applies himself. He’s never pushy. He’s constantly asking questions, how to be better, how do I do this.

“He was really methodical, he was really good at being able to copy stuff and he was really adaptive, which isn’t always easy, especially at our age.”

Johnson still hopes to test with Arrow McLaren SP later this year (McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown said recently the team remains interested in Johnson despite the test with Ganassi), and he is determined to get into road or street course races in 2021.

He’s softened his stance toward racing on ovals and the Indianapolis 500 because of IndyCar safety advancements but said Tuesday that 2022 is probably the earliest he could consider expanding his schedule.

He also noted that his IndyCar future is contingent on finding sponsorship and hoped a successful first test will spark conversations about funding.

“Hopefully today was the day to create a springboard,” Johnson said. “The more I can be in a garage, the more excitement I can generate, the better chances.”

IndyCar Jimmie Johnson test
Jimmie Johnson wants to run road and street courses in IndyCar next season but hasn’t ruled out the Indy 500 for 2022 (Chis Owens/IndyCar).

After New York whirlwind, Josef Newgarden makes special trip to simulator before Detroit

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DETROIT – There’s no rest for the weary as an Indy 500 winner, but Josef Newgarden discovered there are plenty of extra laps.

The reigning Indy 500 champion added an extra trip Wednesday night back to Concord, N.C., for one last session on the GM Racing simulator before Sunday’s Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix.

After a 30-year run on the Belle Isle course, the race has been moved to a nine-turn, 1.7-mile layout downtown, so two extra hours on the simulator were worth it for Newgarden.

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“I really wanted to do it,” he told NBC Sports at a Thursday media luncheon. “If there’s any time that the sim is most useful, it’s in this situation when no one has ever been on a track, and we’re able to simulate it as best as we can. We want to get some seat time.

“It’s extra important coming off the Indy 500 because you’ve been out of rhythm for a road or street course-type environment, so I really wanted some laps. I was really appreciative to Chevy. There was a few guys that just came in and stayed late for me so I could get those laps before coming up here. I don’t know if it’s going to make a difference, but I feel like it’s going to help for me.”

After a whirlwind tour of New York for two days, Newgarden arrived at the simulator (which is at the GM Racing Technical Center adjacent to Hendrick Motorsports) in time for a two hour session that started at 6 p.m. Wednesday. He stayed overnight in Charlotte and then was up for an early commercial flight to Detroit, where he had more media obligations.

Newgarden joked that if he had a jet, he would have made a quick stop in Nashville, Tennessee, but a few more days away from home (where he has yet to return in weeks) is a worthy tradeoff for winning the Greatest Spectacle in Racing – though the nonstop interviews can take a toll.

“It’s the hardest part of the gig for me is all this fanfare and celebration,” Newgarden said. “I love doing it because I’m so passionate about the Indy 500 and that racetrack and what that race represents. I feel honored to be able to speak about it. It’s been really natural and easy for me to enjoy it because I’ve been there for so many years.

“Speaking about this win has been almost the easiest job I’ve ever had for postrace celebrations. But it’s still for me a lot of work. I get worn out pretty easily. I’m very introverted. So to do this for three days straight, it’s been a lot.”

Though he is terrified of heights, touring the top of the Empire State Building for the first time was a major highlight (and produced the tour’s most viral moment).

“I was scared to get to the very top level,” Newgarden said. “That thing was swaying. No one else thought it was swaying. I’m pretty sure it was. I really impressed by the facility. I’d never seen it before. It’s one of those bucket list things. If you go to New York, it’s really special to do that. So to be there with the wreath and the whole setup, it just felt like an honor to be in that moment.”

Now the attention shifts to Detroit and an inaugural circuit that’s expected to be challenging. Along with a Jefferson Avenue straightaway that’s 0.9 miles long, the track has several low-speed corners and a “split” pit lane (teams will stop on both sides of a rectangular area) with a narrow exit that blends just before a 90-degree lefthand turn into Turn 1.

Newgarden thinks the track is most similar to the Music City Grand Prix in Nashville.

“It’s really hard to predict with this stuff until we actually run,” he said. “Maybe we go super smooth and have no issues. Typically when you have a new event, you’re going to have some teething issues. That’s understandable. We’ve always got to massage the event to get it where we want it, but this team has worked pretty hard. They’ve tried to get feedback constantly on what are we doing right, what do we need to look out for. They’ve done a ton of grinding to make sure this surface is in as good of shape as possible.

“There’s been no expense spared, but you can’t foresee everything. I have no idea how it’s going to race. I think typically when you look at a circuit that seems simple on paper, people tend to think it’s not going to be an exciting race, or challenging. I find the opposite always happens when we think that way. Watch it be the most exciting, chaotic, entertaining race.

Newgarden won the last two pole positions at Belle Isle’s 2.35-mile layout and hopes to continue the momentum while avoiding any post-Brickyard letdown.

“I love this is an opportunity for us to get something right quicker than anyone else,” he said. “A new track is always exciting from that standpoint. I feel I’m in a different spot. I’m pretty run down. I’m really trying to refocus and gain some energy back for tomorrow. Which I’ll have time to today, which is great.

“I don’t want that Indy 500 hangover. People always talk about it. They’ve always observed it. That doesn’t mean we have to win this weekend, but I’d like to leave here feeling like we had a really complete event, did a good job and had a solid finish leading into the summer. I want to win everywhere I go, but if we come out of here with a solid result and no mistakes, then probably everyone will be happy with it.”