ST PETERSBURG, Florida – Jimmie Johnson impacted the outcome of an NTT IndyCar Series race Sunday – just not quite the way he eventually wants to as a race contender.
As Johnson fought to stay on the lead lap ahead of race winner Scott McLaughlin, Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Alex Palou sliced the leader’s gap by nearly 2 seconds and turned the final 12 laps of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg into a nip and tuck battle.
But though that was the most notable moment of the race for Johnson, it didn’t dampen the spirits of the seven-time NASCAR champion who tweeted he was “as competitive as we’ve ever been” in the 2022 season opener.
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“By far the most confident and comfortable I’ve felt in the car and closest on pace,” Johnson said after finishing a lap down in 23rd of a 26-car field. “Super excited about this race and looking forward to my next street course.”
I felt really good in the car today and about as competitive as we’ve ever been. We’ll dial in qualifying and I’m confident our finishes will continue to improve. pic.twitter.com/l0nzpADOyu
— Jimmie Johnson (@JimmieJohnson) February 27, 2022
Though he fell short of his preseason goal to place on the lead lap of every race (after three lead-lap finishes in the last four races of his rookie season), Johnson was satisfied to stay clean over 100 laps on the 14-turn, 1.8-mile track where he finished five laps down and caused two cautions last year.
The opening race weekend of his first full-time IndyCar season got off to a rough start with four spins (none incurring serious damage) over three practice sessions and a mediocre qualifying effort in which Johnson blamed himself for lacking speed.
But things improved Sunday as Johnson raced as high as 12th before having to stay on the softer red tire compound longer than desired when the race dictated strategy changes for his No. 48 Dallara-Honda team.
“For myself, I know the result doesn’t show it, but I think that’s a reflection of the poor qualifying effort I had,” said Johnson, who started last for the first time in 13 starts. “Race pace was in the mid to high teens. I ran there in one part of the race, and unfortunately, the strategy just didn’t work out in our favor.”
Johnson told longtime IndyCar journalist Bruce Martin that he backed up to McLaughlin and Palou because he was in a fuel conservation mode.
“It was good,” Johnson told Martin. “When they asked me to save fuel, they caught me. When they asked me to step it up, I did and held them off. We all caught (rookie) Tatiana Calderon at the same time. I didn’t want to be in the way and affect the race, so I moved and let them go.
“After that, I got behind them.”
But he didn’t stop battling after going a lap down. Third-place finisher Will Power radioed to his team that “it looks like Jimmie’s trying to get a bit of coverage here,” and the Penske driver continued joking afterward about “a good battle between him and I; hope the TV is getting that sponsor for him.
“Jimmie was P3,” Power deadpanned. “Oh hang on, no, he was racing me. Oh, he was a lap down. Sorry, the way he was racing I thought it was for the podium.”
He likely would hear few apologies from Johnson, who told NBC Sports in a preseason interview last month that “the elbows are slowly getting up, and they can be out if I’m running in the top 10 on a more consistent basis.
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“But I also want to be realistic and respectful to others out there. I feel like the ovals might be an area where I’ll be more comfortable and hopefully closer to the pace and running further up the field.”
Johnson will get his first test on an oval in IndyCar with the March 20 race at Texas Motor Speedway, where he was pleased with a test last summer.
“My goal is to start the season with consistent finishes in the top 15 and then look at the top 10,” he said. “I think road and street courses, top 10s would be a big accomplishment. We get on the ovals, that changes. I clearly haven’t spent a lot of time on the oval yet, but I would think my expectations would be top 10 to start and do better from there.”