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

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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.

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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