Jimmie Johnson IndyCar Watch, Race 9: Back home again and feeling racy at the Brickyard

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INDIANAPOLIS — On a new course but familiar turf in more ways than one, the Brickyard was as good as Jimmie Johnson has been during his rookie season in IndyCar.

On the road course at Indianapolis Motor Speedway (where he has four Brickyard 400 victories on the oval), Johnson tied a season-best 19th-place finish while finishing on the lead lap for the first time during his nine starts on the NTT IndyCar Series circuit this year.

After qualifying 22nd ahead of IndyCar winners Helio Castroneves and James Hinchcliffe and briefly flirting with advancement to the final round, Johnson embraced adaptation during 85 laps on the 14-turn, 2.439-mile layout.

The Chip Ganassi Racing driver dodged some incidents early, shifted into fuel mileage midrace and then made some clean passes for position in his most competitive outing in single-seater racing — undoubtedly in part because he has many laps on the IMS road course as any track, having raced there in May and tested there twice before.

A great day at the racetrack,” Johnson said about Saturday’s race. “This weekend has just been full of more confidence and understanding of the car. Certainly more understanding of the track since I’ve raced here before and also tested. Certainly my ceiling from the spring race was my floor, and I’m able to build on that.

NASCAR Cup Series Verizon 200 at the Brickyard Practice
Jimmie Johnson holds his daughter Lydia on the grid before Saturday’s NTT IndyCar Series race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course (Sean Gardner/Getty Images).

“On top of that, I had some racecraft going on. I had to work some fuel numbers and wasn’t in the race that I wanted to be in midrace, but with the cautions at the end, we were able to go back to full power, make a couple of passes, work my way up into the high teens. Just had an awesome day in this Carvana Honda. Good fun. Can’t wait to to go to Portland (NBC, 3 p.m. ET, Sept. 12) and do it all again.”

During IndyCar’s second annual crossover weekend with NASCAR at the Brickyard, the Cup Series practiced just ahead of Saturday’s IndyCar race. That gave the seven-time NASCAR champion an opportunity to catch up with old friends at the track for the first time since ending his full-time Cup career last November.

Former crew chief Chad Knaus, now the vice president of competition at Hendrick Motorsports, hung out on Johnson’s pit stand during his qualifying session, which might have been the highlight of the No. 48 Dallara-Honda’s weekend. Despite a slicker track under much hotter conditions, Johnson qualified more than a second faster in further evidence that he is improving.

Jimmie Johnson confers with Chad Knaus after qualifying 22nd on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course (Doug Mathews/IndyCar).

“That was a good session,” he told NBC Sports pit reporter Dave Burns. “My confidence keeps building for me, the more laps that I get under my belt the better I go. That was a great session to be only six 10ths (of a second) off my temmates. This is a huge accomplishment for me.

“My instincts of attacking in a Cup car are the horrible points to attack in an IndyCar. I still have to think my way through when I attack (and) how I attack. At some point, I’m going to forget about all that stuff, and it’s going to be second nature for me. I’m excited for that day to come.”


NEXT: Johnson will miss the IndyCar’s final oval race of the season Saturday at World Wide Technology Raceway before returning for the final three races of the year. The first will be the 14th round of the 2021 season will be at 3 p.m. ET (NBC) on Sept. 12 at Portland International Raceway.


JOHNSON’S ROOKIE SEASON

The seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion is racing 12 road and street course events this year. Here’s how he has fared in previous races:

RACE 1: How Jimmie fared in the season opener

RACE 2: Rough day at the office in St. Petersburg

RACES 4-5: A challenging weekend at the Detroit Grand Prix

RACE 6: One critical mistake at Road America

RACE 7: An enjoyable ride at “awesome” Mid-Ohio

RACE 8: A big bump but still having a blast in Nashville

‘HE’S GOING TO GET THERE’: An inside look at Jimmie Johnson’s rookie season at the halfway mark

In nine starts, Johnson has completed 620 of 715 laps with an average start of 23.2 and an average finish of 22.1.

AUTO: AUG 14 INDYCAR - Big Machine Spiked Coolers Grand Prix
Jimmie Johnson tied a season-best 22nd while finishing on the lead lap for the first time in his IndyCar career (Jeff Robinson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images).