Ovals should be natural for Jimmie Johnson as new full-time IndyCar driver hunts speed

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Year 2 of the NTT IndyCar Series will be both easier and harder for new full-time driver Jimmie Johnson.

The seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion already overcame the major hurdles of getting acclimated as an open-wheel rookie in 2021 — the lack of power steering, the commitment required to trust the downforce in high-speed corners, the mind-blowing acceleration.

Johnson mastered the weekly basics last year – everything from cockpit technology and tire behavior to “knowing where to park and where the rental car place was” — while improving from being off as much as 4 seconds on some street courses to finishing on the lead lap in three of his final four starts. During a recent test at Sebring International Raceway, he was nearly a second faster than a year ago and much closer to keeping pace with his Chip Ganassi Racing teammates.

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But the toughest improvements will come at the sharp end of the IndyCar grid, which will feature a record-tying 26 cars Sunday at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

“Everything I’ve raced in my lifetime, taking the big chunks out has been the easy part,” Johnson, 46, told NBC Sports. “Once you get to get to near the front of the field, a tenth of a second moves you up five, six, seven positions. In Year 2, I still have a decent gap to close, and I think I’ll be able to get into some of that. But as the year wears on, I suspect it’s just going to get harder and harder to close that last little bit.”

That certainly will apply on the road and street courses, which Johnson ran exclusively in ’21. There have been more promising signs for his transition into ovals this season.

In his first test last summer at Texas Motor Speedway (where he won four times in Cup), Johnson was able to match the lap speed of six-time champion teammate Scott Dixon within his second run. And after usually having to forget virtually everything he learned while becoming a NASCAR legend, Johnson also discovered that many of the oval adjustments he made with a bulky, heavy stock car finally transferred to a lighter and sleeker Dallara-Honda.

That should bode well for his Indy 500 debut in May as well as Texas Motor Speedway (March 20), Iowa Speedway (July 23-24) and Gateway (Aug. 20).

“It’ll be more second nature on the ovals,” Johnson said. “It’s a huge confidence-builder, but I am being a bit reserved in my approach. The speeds are higher (than NASCAR), the way it drafts is much different. Until I get some reps, I don’t know what to expect.”

He will need to ace some new oval tricks, such as shifting gears and using weight jacker and sway bar adjustments for handling. But with 82 of his 83 victories in Cup on ovals, Johnson is hoping he will be able “to get a sense of the balance of the car, the adjustments to make and ultimately perform well and even help my teammates build a better race car for the ovals.”

Dixon immediately could tell Johnson was more comfortable during the Texas test.

“When he got out of the car to see just the big smile that he had, obviously that adaption was a lot more natural for him and felt more at home,” Dixon said. “I think that will help also throughout the season. It’s hard to step out and step back in, so I’m excited for Jimmie. His progression was huge last year. Even some of the races where he didn’t maybe get the right result, when you look at the lap times, he did an outstanding job. I expect with his work ethic and his love for the sport and racing, it will only get better.”

For Johnson, it’ll get no better than May 29 when he is expected to make his first start at the Greatest Spectacle in Racing after becoming enamored with the event as an NBC Sports analyst last year.

“Being there and witnessing the excitement of that race at half-capacity was one of the coolest fan experiences and probably the most energy I’ve seen at a racetrack,” Johnson said. “I can’t wait to hear the national anthem and ‘Back Home Again in Indiana’ and all the pageantry that makes the Indy 500. I can’t wait to live it firsthand.”