Jimmie Johnson ended his NTT IndyCar rookie season with a sense of awe and admiration for the skill and sensitivity of his competitors, which was clear in his voice when NBC Sports’ Leigh Diffey caught up with him after he concluded 2021 with career-best results. Johnson finished with a pair of 17th-place finishes on the permanent road course of Laguna Seca and on the streets of Long Beach in the last two races of the IndyCar season.
“I feel really good where I ended the season,” Johnson told Diffey in the interview (which you can watch above). “Truth be told, I thought I was going to start the season a little further along. It just shows how specialized these cars are. How difficult the tracks are. How competitive the series is.
“But I had an amazing experience and so many lessons learned and honestly had just a great time being an IndyCar driver.”
Johnson knew he would be racing outside his comfort zone when the season began.
In fact, that was a large part of IndyCar’s appeal.
With seven Cup championships – a record that tied two of the sports’ most iconic superstars, Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, Sr. – there was nothing to do in NASCAR except add to his legend.
He could have tried to add to his 83 victories and 36 poles. But instead, he looked around for his greatest challenge.
“I’ve spent a lifetime trying to perfect that NASCAR path, so to come in and go down the IndyCar road, the open-wheel road, the way you make speed and lap time, just how condensed and compressed those zones are around the track,” Johnson said. “One: it has been mind-blowing to me, and 2) the sensitivity these drivers have in those small, little condensed areas to extract tenths and tenths of a second.
They really are special drivers.”
If Johnson was surprised by steepness of the learning curve, it contributed to his excitement of tackling 2021 – and his desire to improve in 2022.
The NASCAR Cup series does not visit any of the 12 road courses Johnson raced in his rookie IndyCar season. Not that it would have helped much given the sharp difference in handling between a stock car and open wheel car. Heading back to the same tracks with a set of notes and newly-developed muscle memory is going to make a big difference. It will provide a little of the comfort he was denied in 2021.
“Everything was new in ’21,” Johnson said. “So to look at Sebring and think that’s my first test session for the year, know that short course, know what to expect with how rough and bumpy it is. How to take those lessons learned and apply them to St. Pete into the first couple of races. It’s been decades since I haven’t had notes. And this last year was my first year in decades in which I didn’t have notes and didn’t have anything to study, so I’m very excited for ’22.”
And as for his comfort level? Johnson is still not content to be content.
After the season concluded, he participated in an Indy 500 rookie test – the first step toward being allowed to run the most famous sporting event on any calendar. The test was cut short by rain, but testing and hopefully racing there in 2022 will allow Johnson to continue to work outside of his comfort zone.