In a ‘way different’ car, Jimmie Johnson makes successful IndyCar oval debut at Texas

IndyCar Jimmie Johnson oval
Texas Motor Speedway
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Seven-time Texas Motor Speedway winner Jimmie Johnson went to the 1.5-mile track Monday to forget everything he knew about driving the layout in his first IndyCar oval test.

“I need to pretend as if I’ve never been here before and then after a lot of laps, maybe pull a few small things from my NASCAR days to apply to the Indy car,” the seven-time Cup Series champion said in an interview distributed by the track after his one-day test session was complete. “Ironically, the way you use the banking to help support the race car is much more critical in an Indy car than it is in a Cup car, and the line is a bit more forgiving in a Cup car as a result. Some of my early laps I was maybe a little wide on entry and exit and putting myself in a harmful position on track, and we had to correct that and pull me back into the IndyCar line and the IndyCar mindset.”

For the most part, though, Johnson’s oval debut seemed to go swimmingly despite being in a car that “drives way different” than a stock car.

“It’s much more responsive and certainly a bit more sensitive to the inputs that the driver gives to the car,” he said. “But it’s been really nice to be on a familiar track. I know where I am. I know what to do. I know the line around this place. Even down to simple things like knowing where the hotel was last night or knowing how to drive into the tunnel and get into the infield. There’s been some small wins that are nice to have.”

Johnson, who is running the road and street courses as an IndyCar rookie with Chip Ganassi Racing this season, also had the support of three IndyCar champions. Teammate Scott Dixon shook down the No. 48 Dallara-Honda for Johnson to drive, and team consultant and driving coach Dario Franchitti offered pointers. Tony Kanaan, who drove the No. 48 in four oval races this season, also was on hand.

IndyCar Jimmie Johnson oval
Jimmie Johnson was joined for his test session at Texas Motor Speedway by Dario Franchitti, Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan (Texas Motor Speedway).

Using five sets of tires, Johnson was estimated to have made at least 200 laps. Speeds from Monday’s test were unavailable, but the IndyCar pole at Texas last year was 215.74 mph (for comparison, the most recent NASCAR Cup Series pole speed at Texas was 189.707 mph in November 2019).

“He got up to speed really quickly, but his description was it feels like the Millennium Falcon going into hyperdrive in the Star Wars film, and I could definitely relate to that because they’re so quick, particularly around here in Texas,” Franchitti, a veteran of NASCAR and IndyCar at Texas, said in an interview with Texas Motor Speedway PR.

“It’s all about the subtleties. It would be like a person that plays cricket and then says, ‘I’m going to play baseball.’ It’s got a bat. It’s got a ball. Everything else is different, and I think that’s the difference between a stock car and an Indy car. Everything you learn on the way up, and everything you learn when you’re the top in either of those fields, doesn’t prepare you in any way to do the other. In fact, it hurts you. It’s a challenging thing that Jimmie’s doing as I say, but so far he’s done very well.”

Johnson has said the Texas test is the first step in determining if he will race the Indy 500 next year. He is hoping to do a tire test in the fall at Indianapolis Motor Speedway to complete the Rookie Orientation Program that is required before a first attempt at the Indy 500.

He also is weighing running more ovals in 2022.

IndyCar Jimmie Johnson oval
(Texas Motor Speedway)

“I feel like I need to work through things that make me comfortable with the car on track, and this is one,” Johnson said. “More test sessions on track are needed before I can make a decision, certainly more conversations with my family, with Chip, with our sponsors. There are a lot of moving pieces to this, but I’m just very thankful to the team for identifying dates and saying, ‘Hey, let’s go get you laps, see what you think,’ and then we’ll know from here once I’ve had a day or two to digest it what that next step might be and do we go to another oval and try to get more experience working toward a race someday down the road.”

Referencing the 2001 CART race that was canceled at the track after drivers experienced dizziness from severe G-loading at speed, Johnson said he had concerns about how Texas would drive. But he found it “more forgiving” than anticipated and also easier than the laps he’d made on an iRacing simulator.

“There was a point in time where speeds were so high drivers could barely stay conscious driving around this track, so it has had me alarmed,” Johnson said. “To know that I could come here and test and experience it as a driver was important to me. Let’s go to the tough one. It’s one thing by myself. I feel like I can control my environment, and I’m very thankful that I’m able to go out here and do it. The way IndyCar has advanced their safety and certainly what the tracks have done to increase the safety, my concerns are much less and that’s why we’re here today.”

With throaty roar, NASCAR Next Gen Camaro is taking Le Mans by storm on global stage

Le Mans 24 Hour Race - Car Parade
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

LE MANS, France — The V8 engine of the NASCAR Chevrolet Camaro has a distinct growl that cannot go unnoticed even among the most elite sports cars in the world at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

When the Hendrick Motorsports crew fired up the car inside Garage 56, NASCAR chairman Jim France broke into a huge grin and gave a thumbs up.

“The only guy who didn’t cover his ears,” laughed seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson.

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France has been waiting since 1962 – the year his father, NASCAR founder Bill France Sr., brought him to his first 24 Hours of Le Mans – to hear the roar of a stock car at the most prestigious endurance race in the world.

A path finally opened when NASCAR developed its Next Gen car, which debuted last year. France worked out a deal to enter a car in a specialized “Innovative Car” class designed to showcase technology and development. The effort would be part of NASCAR’s 75th celebration and it comes as Le Mans marks its 100th.

Once he had the approval, France persuaded Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear – NASCAR’s winningest team, manufacturer and tire supplier – to build a car capable of running the twice-around-the-clock race.

The race doesn’t start until Saturday, but NASCAR’s arrival has already been wildly embraced and France could not be more thrilled.

“Dad’s vision, to be able to follow it, it took awhile to follow it up, and my goal was to outdo what he accomplished,” France told The Associated Press. “I just hope we don’t fall on our ass.”

The car is in a class of its own and not racing anyone else in the 62-car field. But the lineup of 2010 Le Mans winner Mike Rockenfeller, 2009 Formula One champion Jenson Button and Johnson has been fast enough; Rockenfeller put down a qualifying lap that was faster than every car in the GTE AM class by a full three seconds.

The Hendrick Motorsports crew won its class in the pit stop competition and finished fifth overall as the only team using a manual jack against teams exclusively using air jacks. Rick Hendrick said he could not be prouder of the showing his organization has made even before race day.

“When we said we’re gonna do it, I said, ‘Look, we can’t do this half-assed. I want to be as sharp as anybody out there,” Hendrick told AP. “I don’t want to be any less than any other team here. And just to see the reaction from the crowd, people are so excited about this car. My granddaughter has been sending me all these TikTok things that fans are making about NASCAR being at Le Mans.”

This isn’t NASCAR’s first attempt to run Le Mans. The late France Sr. brokered a deal in 1976, as America celebrated its bicentennial, to bring two cars to compete in the Grand International class and NASCAR selected the teams. Herschel McGriff and his son, Doug, drove a Wedge-powered, Olympia Beer-sponsored Dodge Charger, and Junie Donlavey piloted a Ford Torino shared by Richard Brooks and Dick Hutcherson.

Neither car came close to finishing the race. McGriff, now 95 and inducted into NASCAR’s Hall of Fame in January, is in Le Mans as France’s guest, clad head-to-toe in the noticeable Garage 56 uniforms.

“I threw a lot of hints that I would like to come. And I’ve been treated as royalty,” McGriff said. “This is unbelievable to me. I recognize nothing but I’m anxious to see everything. I’ve been watching and seeing pictures and I can certainly see the fans love their NASCAR.”

The goal is to finish the full race Sunday and, just maybe, beat cars from other classes. Should they pull off the feat, the driver trio wants its own podium celebration.

“I think people will talk about this car for a long, long time,” said Rockenfeller, who along with sports car driver Jordan Taylor did much of the development alongside crew chief Chad Knaus and Greg Ives, a former crew chief who stepped into a projects role at Hendrick this year.

“When we started with the Cup car, we felt already there was so much potential,” Rockenfeller said. “And then we tweaked it. And we go faster, and faster, at Le Mans on the SIM. But you never know until you hit the real track, and to be actually faster than the SIM. Everybody in the paddock, all the drivers, they come up and they are, ‘Wow, this is so cool,’ and they were impressed by the pit stops. We’ve overachieved, almost, and now of course the goal is to run for 24 hours.”

The car completed a full 24-hour test at Sebring, Florida, earlier this year, Knaus said, and is capable of finishing the race. Button believes NASCAR will leave a lasting impression no matter what happens.

“If you haven’t seen this car live yet, it’s an absolute beast,” Button said. “When you see and hear it go by, it just puts a massive smile on your face.”

For Hendrick, the effort is the first in his newfound embrace of racing outside NASCAR, the stock car series founded long ago in the American South. Aside from the Le Mans project, he will own the Indy car that Kyle Larson drives for Arrow McLaren in next year’s Indianapolis 500 and it will be sponsored by his automotive company.

“If you’d have told me I’d be racing at Le Mans and Indianapolis within the same year, I’d never have believed you,” Hendrick told AP. “But we’re doing both and we’re going to do it right.”

Le Mans 24 Hour Race - Car Parade
Fans gather around the NASCAR Next Gen Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 that is the Garage 56 entry for the 100th 24 Hours of Le Mans at the Circuit de la Sarthe (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).

General Motors is celebrating the achievement with a 2024 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 Garage 56 Edition and only 56 will be available to collectors later this year.

“Even though Chevrolet has been racing since its inception in 1911, we’ve never done anything quite like Garage 56,” said GM President Mark Reuss. “A NASCAR stock car running at Le Mans is something fans doubted they would see again.”

The race hasn’t even started yet, but Hendrick has enjoyed it so much that he doesn’t want the project to end.

“It’s like a shame to go through all this and do all this, and then Sunday it’s done,” Hendrick said. “It’s just really special to be here.”