Jimmie Johnson, Colton Herta finish second in the Race of Champions Nations Cup

Johnson Herta Race Champions
Jimmie Johnson
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All that California sunshine apparently prepared Jimmie Johnson and Colton Herta well for driving in snow as the NTT IndyCar Series drivers took Team USA to a second-place finish Saturday in the Race of Champions (ROC) Nations Cup.

Johnson and Herta came up just short to Team Norway’s father-son duo of Petter and Oliver Solberg on the snow- and ice-covered course in Pite Havsbad, Sweden, 60 miles south of the Arctic Circle.

“Who would have thought two California guys would be here on snow and ice and finish second in the Race of Champions Nations Cup,” an incredulous Johnson said in a social media video. “Awesome day for us both. I think we kind of surprised ourselves going rounds. Then I really think we had a shot at the final.

INDIVIDUAL RESULTS: Johnson, Herta reach quarterfinals

“I had a car break and a mechanical, which took me out of an opportunity in the first round. Came back and won in the Porsche. Colton was right there on pace and just came up a little short to the Solberg family.

“Just a super fun day. We exceeded expectations and looking forward to having some fun tonight.”

The Solbergs became the first family team to win the ROC as Petter, a three-time rally champion, won the Nations Cup for the second time.

It was the first ROC appearance in 15 years for Johnson, who had been trying to win the event for the second time.

The seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion won the Nov. 29-Dec. 1 2002 event, capturing the Nations Cup for Team USA with Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon and MotoGP rider Colin Edwards in Gran Canaria, Spain (on a dirt track).

Herta was a last-minute replacement for an injured Travis Pastrana, whom Johnson said called the team shortly before the event to predict victory.

“He was watching with a group of friends at 5 a.m. in the States,” Johnson said. “He told us we’d go all the way, and we nearly did it. All the other drivers here have been really friendly and helpful too, offering us advice.

“But until you can actually sense the feel and grip and how a four-wheel-drive car helps pull you round the turn, it doesn’t stick. So every lap has been making us better. Now after today I’m not so sure we’ll be given any more tips.”

Johnson will be driving again Sunday for the “Champion of Champions” title in the individual ROC category.

Johnson and Herta had advanced to the Race of Champions semifinals by beating the German team of four-time Formula One champion Sebastian Vettel and Mick Schumacher.

They then beat Team Finland (with Herta besting two-time F1 champion Mika Hakkinen) to reach the final. Herta also faced four-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves in the first round.

The impressive result came despite limited practice time in their cars after a snowstorm made the course mostly undrivable Friday. In a Twitter video, Johnson said he had gotten a handful of laps in two of the four vehicles used in the competition.

The inclement weather also resulted in canceling the ROC’s traditional group stage, sending teams directly into a straight knockout system with four heats between both drivers against the other team. For 2-2 matches, the best total time advanced.

Before the Race of Champions, both had raced last weekend in the Rolex 24 at Daytona, where Herta claimed his second class victory. Johnson came up short in his ninth attempt at winning the overall.

In the Race of Champions “Snow + Ice” World Final event, Johnson and Herta competed against the field in a variety of vehicles (including some from rallycross) with a focus on electric power — a Porsche 718 Cayman GT4 Clubsport, an RX Supercar Lites, an RX2e, an FC1-X and a Polaris PRO XP.

Johnson had joked during a prerace news conference that he and Herta were the favorites, and Herta said the loose atmosphere had prevailed into the competition Saturday.

“Our original goal was not to get knocked out in the first round, so when we won that we were jumping up and down and celebrating like we’d won the whole thing,” Herta said. “Certainly nobody could have thought we’d make it to the final. But we had a plan, we stuck to it and here we are.

“It was awesome to race against these guys, and particularly the Solbergs in the final. The conditions weren’t too bad today, depending on which car you were driving – but maybe we’re not experienced enough to know when conditions are good and bad. Our approach was just send it and see what happens.”