Jimmie Johnson wants to set new personal bests in IndyCar at Texas Motor Speedway

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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.

“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.”

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.”

Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Formula One embrace the United States

Verstappen Perez United States
Fatih Aktas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
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Last week, Red Bull Racing revealed its new car, the RB19, and a new relationship with Ford Motor Co. in an event in New York City complete with drivers Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and team principal Christian Horner.

It’s the first Formula 1 team to launch in the United States for 2023, but even that small move of the needle reflects a major shift in the attitude of both F1’s management and their teams – and the extent to which the American audience has fully embraced the sport.

“It’s something fantastic and unique, for the sport to be able to break it into the U.S,” Perez told NBC Sports. “The market is huge and it’s a huge opportunity for everyone involved, for the drivers, for the team. It’s always a huge market.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Sergio Perez finished fourth in the Unites States Grand Prix, but he was first with the fans.  – Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

In 2023, Formula 1 will race three times in the United States and five times in North America. The Circuit of the Americas will host their 11th consecutive race in October before heading south to Mexico City. Miami returns for a second time in May on a temporary street course around the Hard Rock cafe and the third addition is in downtown Las Vegas in November.

With the Canadian Grand Prix on the schedule for June and the Brazilian Grand Prix in November, American fans are now in the ballpark of Europeans, who have eight events on the continent and one in England.

In 2022, Verstappen won every race in North America. He was kept from sweeping the hemisphere only by George Russell, who won in Brazil. That fact is less remarkable when one considers that Verstappen won 15 times in the season – nearly two-thirds of the races on the schedule.

By the time Formula arrived in Austin, Texas, for Round 20 of 23, Verstappen already had wrapped up his second consecutive championship.

“Sometimes it can be hard to replicate the season, but I think it’s the same as with the car, right? You always try to improve it,” Verstappen told NBC Sports. “And I always look at the little details that even when you have had a good race, you could have done better. And then of course you also learn from the bad races. So we always try to look for these little improvements and general experience you gain year after year.

“You try to do better, but of course it also depends a lot on the package you have.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Max Verstappen United States Grand Prix win was one of 15 for the drivers and 17 for Red Bull.
(Gongora / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Now Verstappen’s thoughts inevitably will turn to establishing a dynasty, and America will again play a pivotal role.

“I just enjoy what I’m doing,” Verstappen said.  “After the years in Formula One, when you have to be on top of your game and you gain a lot on your experience – in that sense nothing really can get to you anymore. Every year you just try to do the best you can. But a lot depends on the material around you. It’s always a bit of a guess. Start the season as fit as you can be and be well prepared. But if you don’t have the car, you’re not going to win the championship.”

Perez added two wins to Red Bull’s total, at Monaco and the Marina Bay Street course. With two of the US 2023 races on street courses, Perez hopes to close the gap on Verstappen and potentially be his chief rival for the championship.

“The strategy is clear; it is to maximize the potential of the car – and we believe we have a good car, but how good?,” Perez said “We don’t know what the competition is doing. We just give our best in building this car and we hope that it’s good enough to get us to win races.

“I think we have to work together as a team. At the same time. We both want to win the championship. It’s just having good compromise. The competition will be really strong out there, so we really need everything we possibly can get from each other.”

Formula One returns to the United States for Round 6 and the Miami Grand Prix on May 7.