Though denied a lap during a scrubbed IndyCar test last week at Texas Motor Speedway, Jimmie Johnson still soaked in some old glory in a very familiar victory lane.
Renamed in 2020 as “the Jimmie Johnson Winners Circle” for his record seven NASCAR Cup Series victories at the 1.5-mile oval, Johnson gazed at a wall of plaques honoring a quarter-century of victors at the track north of Fort Worth.
He flashed back to his first win there on Nov. 4, 2007 – an “epic side-by-side battle” with Matt Kenseth that ranked as “one of my favorite battles ever in a Cup car.
INDYCAR AT TEXAS: How to watch Saturday on Sunday on Peacock and NBC
“That one was really special for me,” Johnson said Wednesday morning during a Zoom news conference to preview his NTT IndyCar Series oval debut Sunday at Texas (12:30 p.m. ET, NBC). “Honestly, from a pure driving standpoint, it was my favorite mile-and-a-half (track) that we competed on. There’s just so many lanes, so many options, big bumps, lots of character in the track.
“I don’t remember a ton specifically from that (2007 victory), but I remember the mental awareness I had. Certainly some of the mental coaching I did to myself to really try to finish that pass off with Matt, knowing it was Matt, he raced me clean and allowed me to get in there and race that hard that late in the season.”
More than 14 years later, Texas will mark a new phase of “Jimmie 2.0” that began with his entry into IndyCar last season. In 2022, he has moved into a full-time schedule that was driven by his expected debut in the Indy 500 (at a track where he and Jeff Gordon are tied with a NASCAR record four victories on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval).
Texas will be the lone oval tune-up for the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, and Johnson’s already limited experience was hampered further last week when inclement weather kept his No. 48 Dallara-Honda off track.
The seven-time Cup champion with 82 oval victories in NASCAR’s premier series has been on an oval only twice in IndyCar. Both were one-day tests: at Texas last August and a Rookie Orientation Program session last October at Indianapolis Motor Speedway that also was shortened by rain.
“I got some laps but running at reduced speed and not at the edge of what the car is capable of,” Johnson said of the ROP test. “We really didn’t adjust the car to fit my senses, to help me understand what changes do on that ragged edge.
“I’m thankful for every lap that I have had so far, but I still have plenty to learn in single-car running. I still haven’t been in traffic, and these cars are much more sensitive in traffic than what I anticipated from watching. I’ve watched every video humanly possible. I’m still surprised how big of a tow these cars receive exiting Turn 2 to Turn 1, how much distance you can close. Working on the timing of that.
A lot of good memories at this place, ready to make some more on March 20. pic.twitter.com/goUsbb23IF
— Jimmie Johnson (@JimmieJohnson) March 7, 2022
“It was something I was hopeful to experience at a test session, get a sense of closing rate, get a sense of how the turbulent air affects the car in Turns 1 and 2, how to set up a pass. I’ll have to use the two hours of practice (Saturday) to maximize that, get a sense of it, so I can have the best race craft possible heading into the event.
Additionally, Texas was overhauled in 2017, and though Johnson won the first race after the reconfiguration, his other six wins came on the former layout that he misses for “how many lanes there were to find a place to run, get your car to work.
“I still have plenty to learn coming to a track I know and love,” he said.
The Chip Ganassi Racing driver does have the confidence of having matched teammate and six-time series champion Scott Dixon’s pace on his second lap during the Texas test — indicative of the immediate comfort he was expecting to feel in five oval races this season.
At speeds that are roughly 30 mph faster than NASCAR, Johnson also discovered the IndyCar racing line at Texas was narrower on turn entry and exit (keeping the car away the corner transitions that have been tricky ever since the track opened in 1997). He plans to be “focused on chasing that white line as much as possible” on the bottom groove after being warned by many IndyCar drivers about the residual effects of traction compound used for NASCAR races having eliminated the outside lane.
His goals are lofty for this weekend: A career-best starting position (Johnson has yet to qualify higher than 21st in 13 starts on road and street courses) and the first top 10 finish of his IndyCar career.
“Ultimately I want to run every lap of the race,” he said. “I’m so new into my IndyCar experience, starting all over on ovals, every lap is going to be a marked amount of experience gained.
“We’re trying to build up for the Indy 500. Everyone knows how special the Indy 500 is. It’s the second oval on the schedule. Every lap I make will be very beneficial.”
"I need to pretend as if I've never been here before."@JimmieJohnson is preparing to make his #INDYCAR oval debut at @TXMotorSpeedway.
You know, the track he's won at 7 times before.#XPEL375 // @CGRTeams pic.twitter.com/lSkShLP0za
— NTT INDYCAR SERIES (@IndyCar) March 16, 2022
And could the final lap land him in the victory lane that bears his name?
Though Texas was his fourth winningest NASCAR track after Dover (11 wins), Martinsville (9) and Charlotte (8), Johnson isn’t expecting to leave his first IndyCar race there with a winning memory like 2007 yet.
“I don’t think that’s realistic,” he said. “Some people may have that expectation and that’s fine. I would love that to be the case. Whenever you enter the new series, you’re with the regulars, they’re so good at what they do. We have seen it when drivers try to cross over from various series.
“I certainly have higher expectations for myself, but I’m not thinking I’m going to show up, qualify on pole, lead the most laps and win the race.”