Jimmie Johnson IndyCar Watch, Race 2: Two cautions at St. Pete GP but still ‘had a blast’


Sunday’s street course debut for Jimmie Johnson might have been his toughest day in the NTT IndyCar Series. But the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series reminded that the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg also marked only his 10th day behind the wheel of the No. 48 Dallara-Honda (because of IndyCar’s restrictive testing policy, Johnson has turned to sports cars and junior formula cars for extra laps).

Given that history, the perspective shifts about finishing five laps down in 22nd while grappling with the sketchy and unforgiving confines of the 14-turn, 1.8-mile circuit.

Regardless, it didn’t dim the boundless enthusiasm of Johnson, who tweeted after qualifying 23rd of 24th that his “fun meter was at 11” for his new venture in auto racing.

RULING THE STREETS: Colton Herta leads 97 of 100 laps in victory

STATS PACKAGEFull results, points after St. Pete

“Exciting day for me here in St. Pete,” Johnson said in a short postrace video. “Unfortunately, I made two mistakes on older tires.”

The first came when he went off course into the Turn 13 runoff area on Lap 15.

After gently tapping a tire barrier, Johnson initially seemed well-positioned to return quickly to the track. But he was unable to put the car into reverse, which necessitated a full-course yellow two laps later.

Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg
Jimmie Johnson was a part of two caution flags in a 22nd-place finish in the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg (Mark Brown/Getty Images).

“I could feel the car losing some grip and being a little more difficult to drive, but I thought I could stay on top of it, and just got behind into 13 and locked up the fronts,” he said.

The next misstep came on Lap 73 when Johnson spun in Turn 3 and made light left-front contact with the wall. He was able to continue without assistance this time, but the yellow still flew.

“I had a really loose car through the high-speed stuff and it got away from me,” he said. “Both situations, we needed to put a new wing on the front but was able to get it back out and get going. At different points, there certainly were some bright spots, and the pace was there by really putting together the run from cold tires to old tires, something I need to work on.”

There were some major gains over the weekend as Johnson made nearly 170 laps over three days and shaved about 4 seconds off his pace (he still was about 1-1.5 seconds off the race pace) while continuing to understand the nuances of the two tire compounds used for street and road courses.

Perhaps the biggest moment was picking up a second from practice and outqualifying Dalton Kellett for the second consecutive race.

Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg
Jimmie Johnson straps into qualify Saturday for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg (Mark Brown/Getty Images).

“I’m feeling really much more in tune with the car,” he said. “The repetition of one week to the next and the flow. It’s starting to finally sink in and help me out.”

Some of the greatest comfort has come off the track.

Johnson spent the weekend in an urban vacation hot spot with his wife and two daughters, enjoying breakfasts in upscale cafes in downtown St. Petersburg and then walking to work.

Johnson told the Tampa Bay Times that on Friday morning he turned to his wife, Chandra, and said “normally we’d be sitting in Talladega right now, starting outside the motorhome window at the same patch of grass we’ve looked at for 20 years.”

No wonder the smile still remained after his “worst” day yet in IndyCar.

“I had a blast here in my first street race,” Johnson said. “It is more physical and more difficult than these drivers ever make it look, so a huge credit to all of them and how easy they make this look.”

NEXT: After a week off while Tony Kanaan takes over the No. 48 Dallara-Honda for the May 1-2 doubleheader at Texas Motor Speedway, Johnson will return for the May 15 race on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.

RACE 1: How Jimmie fared in the season opener

Strong rebounds for Alex Palou, Chip Ganassi amid some disappointments in the Indy 500


INDIANAPOLIS – Alex Palou had not turned a wheel wrong the entire Month of May at the Indy 500 until Rinus VeeKay turned a wheel into the Chip Ganassi Racing pole-sitter leaving pit road on Lap 94.

“There is nothing I could have done there,” Palou told NBC Sports. “It’s OK, when it is my fault or the team’s fault because everybody makes mistakes. But when there is nothing, you could have done differently there, it feels bad and feels bad for the team.”

Marcus Ericsson was a master at utilizing the “Tail of the Dragon” move that breaks the draft of the car behind him in the closing laps to win last year’s Indianapolis 500. On Sunday, however, the last of three red flags in the final 16 laps of the race had the popular driver from Sweden breathing fire after Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden beat him at his own game on the final lap to win the Indianapolis 500.

Despite the two disappointments, team owner Chip Ganassi was seen on pit road fist-bumping a member on his four-car team in this year’s Indianapolis 500 after his drivers finished second, fourth, sixth and seventh in the tightly contested race.

Those are pretty good results, but at the Indianapolis 500, there is just one winner and 32 losers.

“There is only one winner, but it was a hell of a show,” three-time Indianapolis 500 winner and Chip Ganassi Racing consultant Dario Franchitti told NBC Sports. “Alex was very fast, and he got absolutely caught out in somebody else’s wreck. There was nothing he could have done, but he and the 10 car, great recovery.

“Great recovery by all four cars because at half distance, we were not looking very good.”

After 92 laps, the first caution flew for Sting Ray Robb of Dale Coyne Racing hitting the Turn 1 wall.

During pit stops on Lap 94, Palou had left his stall when the second-place car driven by VeeKay ran into him, putting Palou’s Honda into the wall. The car sustained a damaged front wing, but the Chip Ganassi crew was able to get him back in the race on the lead lap but in 28th position.

Palou ultimately would fight his way to a fourth-place finish in a race the popular Spaniard could have won. His displeasure with VeeKay, whom he sarcastically called “a legend” on his team radio after the incident, was evident.

“The benefit of being on pole is you can drive straight and avoid crashes, and he was able to crash us on the side on pit lane, which is pretty tough to do, but he managed it,” Palou told NBC Sports. “Hopefully next year we are not beside him. Hopefully, next year we have a little better luck.”

Palou started on the pole and led 36 laps, just three fewer than race leader Pato O’Ward of Arrow McLaren Racing.

“We started really well, was managing the fuel as we wanted, our car was pretty good,” Palou said. “Our car wasn’t great, we dropped to P4 or P5, but we still had some good stuff.

“On the pit stop, the 21 (VeeKay) managed to clip us. Nothing we could have done there. It was not my team’s fault or my fault.

“We had to drop to the end. I’m happy we made it back to P4. We needed 50 more laps to make it happen, but it could have been a lot worse after that contact.

“I learned a lot, running up front at the beginning and in mid-pack and then the back. I learned a lot.

“It feels amazing when you win it and not so good when things go wrong. We were a bit lucky with so many restarts at the end to make it back to P4 so I’m happy with that.”

Palou said the front wing had to be changed and the toe-in was a bit off, but he still had a fast car.

In fact, his Honda was the best car at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway all month. His pole-winning four lap average speed of 234.217 miles per hour around the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway was a record for this fabled race.

Palou looked good throughout the race, before he had to scratch and claw and race his way back to the top-five after he restarted 28th.

In the Indianapolis 500, however, the best car doesn’t always win.

“It’s two years in a row that we were leading the race at the beginning and had to drop to last,” Palou said. “Maybe next year, we will start in the middle of the field and go on to win the race.

“I know he didn’t do it on purpose. It’s better to let that pass someday.”

Palou said the wild racing at the end was because the downforce package used in Sunday’s race means the drivers have to be aggressive. The front two cars can battle for the victory, but cars back in fourth or fifth place can’t help determine the outcome of the race.

That is when the “Tail of the Dragon” comes into the play.

Franchitti helped celebrate Ericsson’s win in 2022 with his “Tail of the Dragon” zigzag move – something he never had to do in any of his three Indianapolis 500 victories because they all finished under caution.

In 2023, however, IndyCar Race Control wants to make every attempt to finish the race under green, without going past the scheduled distance like NASCAR’s overtime rule.

Instead of extra laps, they stop the race with a red flag, to create a potential green-flag finish condition.

“You do what you have to do to win within the rules, and it’s within the rules, so you do it,” Franchitti said. “The race is 200 laps and there is a balance.

“Marcus did a great job on that restart and so did Josef. It was just the timing of who was where and that was it.

“If you knew it was going to go red, you would have hung back on the lap before.

“Brilliant job by the whole Ganassi organization because it wasn’t looking very good at half-distance.

“Full marks to Josef Newgarden and Team Penske.”

Franchitti is highly impressed by how well Ericsson works with CGR engineer Brad Goldberg and how close this combination came to winning the Indianapolis 500 two-years-in-a-row.

It would have been the first back-to-back Indy 500 winner since Helio Castroneves in 2001 and 2002.

“Oh, he’s a badass,” Franchitti said Ericsson. “He proved it last year. He is so calm all day. What more do you need? As a driver, he’s fast and so calm.”

Ericsson is typically in good spirits and jovial.

He was stern and direct on pit road after the race.

“I did everything right, I did an awesome restart, caught Josef off-guard and pulled away,” Ericsson said on pit lane. “It’s hard to pull away a full lap and he got me back.

“I’m mostly disappointed with the way he ended. I don’t think it was fair and safe to do that restart straight out of the pits on cold tires for everyone.

“To me, it was not a good way to end that race.

“Congrats to Josef. He didn’t do anything wrong. He is a worthy champion, but it shouldn’t have ended like that.”

Palou also didn’t understand the last restart, which was a one-start showdown.

“I know that we want to finish under green,” Palou said. “Maybe the last restart I did, I didn’t understand. It didn’t benefit the CGR team.

“I’m not very supportive of the last one, but anyway.”

Dixon called the red flags “a bit sketchy.”

“The red flags have become a theme to the end of the race, but sometimes they can catch you out,” Dixon said. “I know Marcus is frustrated with it.

“All we ask for is consistency. I think they will do better next time.

“It’s a tough race. People will do anything they can to win it and with how these reds fall, you have to be in the right place at the right time. The problem is when they throw a Red or don’t throw a Red dictates how the race will end.

“It’s a bloody hard race to win. Congrats to Josef Newgarden and to Team Penske.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500