Being the gracious sort, it didn’t take long – roughly 30 seconds into his first answer — for Jimmie Johnson to pivot into discussing the other IndyCar driver who made his debut Sunday with Chip Ganassi Racing at Barber Motorsports Park.
“A huge congratulations to Alex,” Johnson said, steering an interview with NBC Sports’ Dave Burns toward race winner Alex Palou, his 24-year-old teammate at Ganassi. “Kid is on it. And clearly showed he can get it done today. First off, he’s just an amazing guy. And to be his age with so much talent and so much wisdom in speaking with him is something that’s very impressive to me.
“We did have a good laugh the other day where he informed me that I’m older than his father, so I’ve been picking on him a bit since then.”
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Johnson probably doesn’t need any more reminders of his age as a 45-year-old rookie trying to acclimate to the highly competitive NTT IndyCar Series. But the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion seemed to find his race weekend debut for Ganassi as a much more exhilarating than exasperating experience despite some mistakes and a lack of pace (that had been completely expected).
“Very happy to have finished,” he said.
After qualifying 21st (in a moral victory) out of 24 drivers, Johnson was 19th Sunday.
But unlike some other big names (such as two-time series champion Josef Newgarden, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Colton Herta), Johnson at least completed the vast majority of the race (87 of 90 laps) and reacted well from “two pretty scary moments” in the opening 10 laps.
The first was the Lap 1 crash started by Newgarden that left a debris field covering Turn 5. Johnson managed to avoid damaging his No. 48 Dallara-Honda while slamming the brakes. “There was chaos,” he said. “I bounced off a few cars, but nothing really happened to mine evidently, so was very fortunate there.”
Johnson was less lucky on Lap 9 while climbing the hill into Turn 13. Rinus VeeKay had whooshed past, and Johnson lost control in the wake. He was able to keep his car rolling under yellow but lost a lap, putting him on the defensive and in deference to lead-lap cars for the rest of the race.
.@JimmieJohnson's first spin in an @IndyCar race.
The 45-year-old rookie goes around at @BarberMotorPark. TV: @NBC pic.twitter.com/wR5BMysy9X
— IndyCar on NBC (@IndyCaronNBC) April 18, 2021
But it was still “a ton of learning experiences” for Johnson, who got confused on making anti-roll bar adjustments in the cockpit and had to be coached via radio from the timing stand through the knobs and switches to reverse the changes.
“I got it tuned in, and my pace picked right back up,” he said. “I just can’t say too many times just how different this is, and how specialized this craft is, and how good these drivers are in this series.”
Six-time champion teammate Scott Dixon, who finished third, maintained that Johnson should be given until 2022 to be evaluated.
“Again, I couldn’t think of anything more difficult than what he’s trying to accomplish,” Dixon said. “It takes time to progress, and once you get some laps, and even this year with limited schedules that we have on track time and tires, it just becomes very hard. You want to push, but then you also don’t want to crash the car. So it’s a very fine balance.
“Without the spin I think (Johnson) would have been a lot better off. He beat five cars. That’s awesome.”
Said team owner Chip Ganassi of Johnson: “What a great leader he is. What a great guy. Really makes me mad to know what I was up against in NASCAR all those years. Now I understand why he won seven championships. The guy is the hardest worker I know. And he never stops. He’s having a great time. He’s got a hill to climb, but he’s going to do it.”
This is the stuff dreams are made of pic.twitter.com/nJhADTxG07
— Jimmie Johnson (@JimmieJohnson) April 18, 2021
Next week, Johnson will be in the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg – his first time on a tight street course with hardly any margin for error. But he was buoyed by surviving two hours at Barber, which is considered the most punishing and physically demanding track on the circuit because of its fresh pavement.
“I could have gone a few more laps,” he said. “I wasn’t totally taxed, and the training’s been working well, so I’ll heal up and get ready for St. Pete.”
Johnson said two of his biggest areas of improvement are positioning for the initial start (which was tricky as cars fanned out around him) and on restarts.
“But I learned a lot,” he said. “It exceeded expectations and was an amazing experience. I can’t wait to go again next week.”
Today exceeded ALL expectations, I can’t wait to do it again next week. pic.twitter.com/PNE0JLFkTA
— Jimmie Johnson (@JimmieJohnson) April 19, 2021