Jimmie Johnson open to running Indy 500 in 2022 as he showcases lighter side in new ads

Jimmie Johnson Indy 500 2022
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Jimmie Johnson, with wisps of gray in his beard, is a 45-year-old rookie in the IndyCar Series ready to reintroduce himself (and possibly as an Indy 500 driver in 2022).

He’s a windbag, a craft-o-maniac, a guy who goes, is really into eggs and keeps things fresh.

Those are just some of the labels that Carvana has tagged on Johnson during a series of seven spots highlighting the online car dealer’s first partnership with a professional athlete. The seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion begins his official transition to IndyCar this weekend with Sunday’s season opener at Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama with three ads debuting during the NBC broadcast (which will begin at 3 p.m. ET Sunday).

This won’t be the vanilla version of Johnson fans became accustomed to during 19 Cup Series seasons driving for buttoned-up Hendrick Motorsports. Those who know Johnson away from his day job always have decried his image, insisting he’s actually a hard-partying daredevil who never shies away from a bad idea.

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Carvana, which is new to motorsports with its Johnson sponsorship and has a light sports marketing portfolio, decided to use Johnson’s true personality in making its ad campaign for the IndyCar season. It hired The Malloy Brohters for the spots, and Johnson already knew both Brendan Malloy and Emmett Malloy through other connections.

He was comfortable when the Malloys came to him about using a laxative to demonstrate how quickly Carvana can complete a car sale, or eating seven hard-boiled eggs for the seven-day test it out policy. Johnson even bedazzled a pair of jeans to demonstrate personalized financing options.

So who is this loose and easy-going Johnson (who has been more active than ever on social media)? Same guy he always was.

“You know, this is just what I’ve figured in my own head and I’ve got nothing to back it up, but I’ve given people a reason to hate me for so many years, right?” Johnson said in an interview with The Associated Press.

“I was Jeff Gordon’s hand-picked guy and there was a crowd I was never going to win over. Then in my final year, people were like `OK, it’s his last year, he’s been here a long time, we’re not going to cheer him but we’re give him some credit.’ Now that I am not there, I wonder if there’s a fan base that has finally decided, `Alright, he’s cool. He’s served his time. I respect him for doing something different.’ I don’t know, but there’s some kind of shift going on and people are finally starting to lighten up about me.”

The road ahead won’t be easy for Johnson as he unlearns two decades of driving a heavy stock car and adapts to a nimble, open-wheel machine against drivers half his age. Johnson is slated to drive just the 12 road and street course events on the IndyCar schedule for Chip Ganassi Racing with Tony Kanaan picking up the five oval races in the No. 48.

His barometers have so far only been in testing with his first true action this weekend at Barber.

“I’ve got a lot of territory to cover yet and a lot of things I haven’t done yet. I haven’t had any practice yet, and I have to be honest with myself, I haven’t been through a race weekend yet,” Johnson said. “I haven’t qualified a car. I haven’t seen a track truly evolve. I’ve never been on a red tire, I’ve never been in traffic. I’ve not passed a car. I’ve not done a start or a restart. I’ve not done an in or an out yet lap. I just have so much stuff to learn.”

And yet he’s excited. The challenge has invigorated him. Johnson won 83 Cup races and a record-tying seven titles but went winless his final three seasons. Pushing himself in a new formula has been galvanizing.

He’s found fresh energy in the IndyCar paddock. The NASCAR routine sees many drivers rush to the airport after the race. In IndyCar, they often stick around for parties or wine-fueled dinners.

Johnson has said for years that the Indianapolis 500 is off the table – in part because his wife doesn’t approve of the dangers at Indianapolis Motor Speedway – but that stance seems to be softening. He recently said he was impressed with the aeroscreen, the cockpit safety device introduced last season by IndyCar.

He’s a no for the race next month but told AP that 2022 is no longer off the table.

“I need to test on an oval, that’s the first step, and I’ve let the team know that’s certainly the first step I need to do to work through this process,” Johnson said. “I think a year in this sport certainly is going to help myself in understanding the risks. Chani really looks to me to where my gut is on these things and the journey where I’ve taken her on how safe Indy cars are… we’re both tracking in the same direction and she’s like, `Go try one on an oval, go see what you think.’ ”

Until then, he will go to Alabama this weekend and then look to his very first street course, in St. Petersburg, Florida, in following his childhood dreams. IndyCar is what Johnson wanted to race growing up watching hero Rick Mears but his path instead took him to NASCAR.

Now he gets his chance after a full career and no reason not to start anew.

“I’m nervous and excited. Some days more nervous than excited, but I dig this,” Johnson said. “I love the accountability of fear and excitement and fear and all that goes with it, and putting in the time and learning all about the process everywhere I can right now.”

Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Formula One embrace the United States

Verstappen Perez United States
Fatih Aktas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Last week, Red Bull Racing revealed its new car, the RB19, and a new relationship with Ford Motor Co. in an event in New York City complete with drivers Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and team principal Christian Horner.

It’s the first Formula 1 team to launch in the United States for 2023, but even that small move of the needle reflects a major shift in the attitude of both F1’s management and their teams – and the extent to which the American audience has fully embraced the sport.

“It’s something fantastic and unique, for the sport to be able to break it into the U.S,” Perez told NBC Sports. “The market is huge and it’s a huge opportunity for everyone involved, for the drivers, for the team. It’s always a huge market.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Sergio Perez finished fourth in the Unites States Grand Prix, but he was first with the fans.  – Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

In 2023, Formula 1 will race three times in the United States and five times in North America. The Circuit of the Americas will host their 11th consecutive race in October before heading south to Mexico City. Miami returns for a second time in May on a temporary street course around the Hard Rock cafe and the third addition is in downtown Las Vegas in November.

With the Canadian Grand Prix on the schedule for June and the Brazilian Grand Prix in November, American fans are now in the ballpark of Europeans, who have eight events on the continent and one in England.

In 2022, Verstappen won every race in North America. He was kept from sweeping the hemisphere only by George Russell, who won in Brazil. That fact is less remarkable when one considers that Verstappen won 15 times in the season – nearly two-thirds of the races on the schedule.

By the time Formula arrived in Austin, Texas, for Round 20 of 23, Verstappen already had wrapped up his second consecutive championship.

“Sometimes it can be hard to replicate the season, but I think it’s the same as with the car, right? You always try to improve it,” Verstappen told NBC Sports. “And I always look at the little details that even when you have had a good race, you could have done better. And then of course you also learn from the bad races. So we always try to look for these little improvements and general experience you gain year after year.

“You try to do better, but of course it also depends a lot on the package you have.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Max Verstappen United States Grand Prix win was one of 15 for the drivers and 17 for Red Bull.
(Gongora / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Now Verstappen’s thoughts inevitably will turn to establishing a dynasty, and America will again play a pivotal role.

“I just enjoy what I’m doing,” Verstappen said.  “After the years in Formula One, when you have to be on top of your game and you gain a lot on your experience – in that sense nothing really can get to you anymore. Every year you just try to do the best you can. But a lot depends on the material around you. It’s always a bit of a guess. Start the season as fit as you can be and be well prepared. But if you don’t have the car, you’re not going to win the championship.”

Perez added two wins to Red Bull’s total, at Monaco and the Marina Bay Street course. With two of the US 2023 races on street courses, Perez hopes to close the gap on Verstappen and potentially be his chief rival for the championship.

“The strategy is clear; it is to maximize the potential of the car – and we believe we have a good car, but how good?,” Perez said “We don’t know what the competition is doing. We just give our best in building this car and we hope that it’s good enough to get us to win races.

“I think we have to work together as a team. At the same time. We both want to win the championship. It’s just having good compromise. The competition will be really strong out there, so we really need everything we possibly can get from each other.”

Formula One returns to the United States for Round 6 and the Miami Grand Prix on May 7.