Oval questions soon to be answered for Jimmie Johnson, Romain Grosjean, IndyCar

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Oval racing is the story of the NTT IndyCar Series this week, and the most interesting left turn still is yet to come from Jimmie Johnson.

IndyCar will be heading Saturday night to its final oval of the 2021 season after also reportedly announcing Thursday the return of another oval for next year.

World Wide Technology Raceway near St. Louis will play host to the 13th race of the 2021 season (which then will conclude over Portland, Laguna Seca and Long Beach) and also will mark the circle-track debut of Romain Grosjean.

Saturday’s start for the F1 veteran (who is mulling a full IndyCar season in 2022) will be as highly anticipated as the upcoming oval foray for Johnson. The seven-time NASCAR Cup champion likely will test at Texas Motor Speedway near the end of August, and he is putting an intriguing spin on one of his objectives (aside from getting up to speed and kicking the Indy 500 approval process into motion).

JIMMIE JOHNSON WATCH, RACE 9: Best IndyCar weekend so far at IMS

“Ultimately, I need to hit something,” the seven-time champion said recently. “Like, I want to know what it’s like to crash one of these things. I sure as hell don’t want to do it in a test session and draw the attention to it and all that, but that’s the million-dollar question.”

OK, but you don’t want to feel the impact, though? Just a lazy spin into a wall?

Uhhh.

“Yeah, a little of both,” Johnson said. “I tried to be the first one to (Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Alex) Palou after his (qualifying) crash at Indy.

“I just want to know how bad does it hurt. I know what it feels like to have all that steel around you and have it crush on impact. I don’t know what knocking off a couple of wheels that are supported by toothpicks feels like. It’s part of it.”

Knowing the effects of an oval crash impact is important for Johnson because his possible Indy 500 debut hinges on evaluating the safety of the cars.

Jimmie Johnson oval
Jimmie Johnson, shown holding daughter Lydia on the starting grid before last Saturday’s race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, said his family will need to approve if he decides to attempt the 2022 Indy 500 (Sean Gardner/Getty Images).

“I’m probably going to be more careful in this decision than anything I’ve done,” he said. “I’m just trying to make sure I’m making smart decisions, good decisions in that respect.”

Since he began broaching the concept of running the Indy 500 next season, Johnson said he’s been in constant communication about the possibility with his wife, Chandra, and his two daughters.

His family ultimately will need to sign off on whether he attempts 500 miles on the 2.5-mile oval at Indianapolis Motor Speedway next year, but Johnson concedes he possesses great latitude in swaying his wife.

“She’s trusting me more than anything because she doesn’t know what it’s like to be in the cars,” he said. “She hasn’t been as close to it as I have, so it’s really on me to make the right decision.”


The aeroscreen, a cockpit safety device that was implemented last year, has helped assuage many of the concerns Johnson had when he committed to running only street and road courses this year (Tony Kanaan has driven the No. 48 Dallara-Honda in place of Johnson on ovals, making his last 2021 start Saturday).

Ryan Hunter-Reay credited the aeroscreen with preventing serious injury during a crash in the season opener at Barber Motorsports Park.

Johnson said Alan Miller, his longtime attorney who has represented dozens of auto racing drivers, had five clients killed in IndyCar crashes, including four on ovals when being struck in the head by a flying right front tire.

“Now that the aeroscreen is on the car, you’re like, ‘OK, that can’t happen,’ ” Johnson said. “So it’s helped me way more than (Chandra). I feel like every time she goes to the track and watches a car go through a turn, it maybe sets her back a little because the cars go so fast. Big picture, she’s trending the same way, but she’s never seen a car at 200 mph” on an oval.

Unlike Johnson, who scored 82 of his 83 Cup victories on ovals, the transition is more about simple acclimation for Grosjean, who will be racing the first circle track of his life after a career on European road and street courses before coming to America this year.

“It’s so different from every type of racing I’ve done before,” Grosjean said last Saturday after his second runner-up finish on the IMS road course. “I’ve been named a rookie all year long. I don’t feel like one. (This Saturday), I am one. I just want to gradually go for it, improve myself, learn about it.

Romain Grosjean toasted to his second runner-up finish of the season on the IMS road course (James Black/IndyCar).

“It’s a weird one. The car drives itself. People are telling you that’ll be fine, and you’re like ‘What are they talking about? I drive my car!’ On the ovals, I think the car does the work, and you control the speed, and it’s quite a bit of a strange feeling.”

The Frenchman tested last month at World Wide Technology Raceway and talked with Johnson afterward about the surprises of the 1.25-mile oval.

“It is harder than what people think it is,” Grosjean said. “It’s a bit strange the way you need to drive the car. It’s all about the rear-right tire, making sure you feel confident with that. I’m sure for (Johnson) it’s probably going to be a little more normal than maybe road or street courses. Where for me, it’s a thing to learn. I like that.”


After hearing Grosjean’s feedback on the oval test, Johnson was heartened about his upcoming adaptation. Few NASCAR drivers in Cup history are as good as Johnson in managing their right-rear tires at speed.

Johnson said he was told by two-time Indy 500 winner Juan Pablo Montoya, who has won in both IndyCar and NASCAR, that he thinks Johnson will be “very competitive” in a single-seater cockpit on an oval because of his experience with the efficient racing lines of a stock car.

“He’s not a man of a lot of words, so it’s hard to really extract from (Montoya) what that is, but I absolutely believe him and look forward to trying to find that competitive piece that comes with it,” Johnson said.

The learning curve at Texas (which is viewed as a more viable option for a test than the original choice of Homestead-Miami Speedway, which last played host to IndyCar in 2010) will start with help from a Ganassi teammate. Six-time series champion Scott Dixon will shake down Johnson’s car at Texas.

Jimmie Johnson oval
Jimmie Johnson finished on the lead lap for the first time as an IndyCar rookie while tying a season-best 19th on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course (Brian Spurlock/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images).

Dixon also is expecting Johnson, whose best finish is 19th in nine races as an IndyCar rookie, will find the pace more quickly than on road and street courses.

“The Cup car when it goes onto the track for the first time is typically the fastest lap of the weekend,” Dixon told NBC Sports. “It’s the opposite (in IndyCar). I think Jimmie struggled with that a little bit and just getting rid of muscle memory and thoughts of how it should be done. Even if it’s a single-car test, the first run will be the (worst) of the day and then it’ll slowly get better.

“We’re kind of stepping into his forte of why he’s so damn good and what he’s used to more. So I’m interested to see what things he finds abnormal. The (G forces) at Texas will be big. That’ll shock him.”

Jimmie Johnson oval
Iowa Speedway, shown here playing host to the opener of a Friday-Saturday doubleheader with IndyCar in July 2020, is expected to return to the series schedule next season with an announcement Thursday (Chris Owens/IndyCar).

After the test at Texas (where he has seven Cup victories), Johnson is hoping the next step will be a tire test at IMS this fall to help him complete the Rookie Orientation Program that is required to start his first Indy 500.

With the expected addition of Iowa Speedway to the 2022 schedule, Johnson said he is undecided on if he would be interested in racing a full schedule with ovals next year.

“It’s a distant thought,” he said. “I want to drive on an oval (in the test), and that will start the next step and then the next step. A few steps out there could be a chance, but there’s a lot to get in place.”

Justin Grant prevails over Kyle Larson in the Turkey Night Grand Prix

Grant Larson Turkey Night
USACRacing.com / DB3 Inc.
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On the heels of his Hangtown 100 victory, Justin Grant worked his way from 13th in the Turkey Night Grand Prix to beat three-time event winner Kyle Larson by 1.367 seconds. The 81st annual event was run at Ventura (Calif.) Raceway for the sixth time.

“My dad used to take me to Irwindale Speedway, and we’d watch Turkey Night there every year,” Grant said in a series press release. “This is one of the races I fell in love with. I didn’t think I’d ever get a chance to run in it, never thought I’d make a show and certainly never thought I’d be able to win one.”

With its genesis in 1934 at Gilmore Stadium, a quarter-mile dirt track in Los Angeles, the race is steeped in history with winners that include AJ Foyt, Parnelli Jones, Gary Bettenhausen and Johnnie Parsons. Tony Stewart won it in 2000. Kyle Larson won his first of three Turkey Night Grands Prix in 2012. Christopher Bell earned his first of three in 2014, so Grant’s enthusiasm was well deserved.

So was the skepticism that he would win. He failed to crack the top five in three previous attempts, although he came close last year with a sixth-place result. When he lined up for the feature 13th in the crowded 28-car field, winning seemed like a longshot.

Grant watched as serious challengers fell by the wayside. Mitchel Moles flipped on Lap 10 of the feature. Michael “Buddy” Kofoid took a tumble on Lap 68 and World of Outlaws Sprint car driver Carson Macedo flipped on Lap 79. Grant saw the carnage ahead of him and held a steady wheel as he passed Tanner Thorson for the lead with 15 laps remaining and stayed out of trouble for the remainder of the event.

“It’s a dream come true to win the Turkey Night Grand Prix,” Grant said.


Kyle Larson follows Justin Grant to the front on Turkey Night

The 2012, 2016 and 2019 winner, Larson was not scheduled to run the event. His wife Katelyn is expecting their third child shortly, but after a couple of glasses of wine with Thanksgiving dinner and while watching some replays of the event, Larson texted car owner Chad Boat to see if he had a spare car lying around. He did.

“We weren’t great but just hung around and it seemed like anybody who got to the lead crashed and collected some people,” Larson said. “We made some passes throughout; in the mid-portion, we weren’t very good but then we got better at the end.

“I just ran really, really hard there, and knew I was running out of time, so I had to go. I made some pretty crazy and dumb moves, but I got to second and was hoping we could get a caution to get racing with Justin there. He was sliding himself at both ends and thought that maybe we could get a run and just out-angle him into [Turn] 1 and get clear off [Turn] 2 if we got a caution, but it just didn’t work out.”

Larson padded one of the most impressive stats in the history of this race, however. In 10 starts, he’s won three times, finished second four times, was third once and fourth twice.

Bryant Wiedeman took the final spot on the podium.

As Grant and Larson began to pick their way through the field, Kofoid took the lead early from the outside of the front row and led the first 44 laps of the race before handing it over to Cannon McIntosh, who bicycled on Lap 71 before landing on all fours. While Macedo and Thorson tussled for the lead with McIntosh, Grant closed in.

Thorson finished 19th with McIntosh 20th. Macedo recovered from his incident to finish ninth. Kofoid’s hard tumble relegated him to 23rd.

Jake Andreotti in fourth and Kevin Thomas, Jr. rounded out the top five.

1. Justin Grant (started 13)
2. Kyle Larson (22)
3. Bryant Wiedeman (4)
4. Jake Andreotti (9)
5. Kevin Thomas Jr. (1)
6. Logan Seavey (8)
7. Alex Bright (27)
8. Emerson Axsom (24)
9. Carson Macedo (7)
10. Jason McDougal (18)
11. Jake Swanson (16)
12. Chase Johnson (6)
13. Jacob Denney (26)
14. Ryan Timms (23)
15. Chance Crum (28)
16. Brenham Crouch (17)
17. Jonathan Beason (19)
18. Cade Lewis (14)
19. Tanner Thorson (11)
20. Cannon McIntosh (3)
21. Thomas Meseraull (15)
22. Tyler Courtney (21)
23. Buddy Kofoid (2)
24. Brody Fuson (5)
25. Mitchel Moles (20)
26. Daniel Whitley (10)
27. Kaylee Bryson (12)
28. Spencer Bayston (25)