FORT WORTH, Texas – The 30-mph gusts came whipping Sunday afternoon through Texas Motor Speedway, winds of change coinciding with a racing superstar’s long-awaited arrival in the NTT IndyCar Series.
Scott Dixon felt the direction shift with 10 laps remaining in the XPEL 375 when his No. 9 Dallara-Honda got stuck in traffic while plowing into a massive frontstretch headwind. Watching three cars zip around the outside into Turn 1, the six-time series champion and five-time Texas winner did a double-take.
Was that Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Jimmie Johnson actually making a bold outside pass with the No. 48 – for fifth place — in his first IndyCar race on an oval?
“I looked at the (scoring) pylon and said, ‘Man, he’s ahead of us!’ ” Dixon said with a mixture of delight and surprise. “We’re just happy he did such a tremendous job.”
Yes, on this blustery Sunday, it was no longer idle bluster to proclaim that Jimmie Johnson, the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion, officially was a legitimate IndyCar driver.
Though Dixon would regain the top-five position with two laps remaining when Johnson suddenly was scrambling to conserve fuel because of faulty telemetry, the moment still ranked as the highlight of Johnson’s career-best sixth that left the IndyCar paddock awestruck.
“I passed Scott Dixon,” Johnson said (and still with a slight level of incredulity an hour later). “Probably to his disappointment and to my excitement. I had to look two or three times to make sure really it was the 9 car, not another car with a blue back half. Yeah, I have caught Scott Dixon. This is good!”
So good that his team already was thinking about Johnson going even bigger in the next oval race, which also happens to be the biggest race in the world.
“Let’s go win the Indy 500,” No. 48 engineer Eric Cowdin radioed as soon as Johnson crossed the finish line.
— Jimmie Johnson (@JimmieJohnson) March 20, 2022
That might have seemed hyperbolic for a driver who had yet to start higher than 21st or finish better than 17th in 13 IndyCar starts prior to this weekend.
But this is Jimmie Johnson, man.
The guy who already decided that 45 years old was a good time to make a jarring midlife transition from NASCAR to IndyCar and add 30-40 mph of risk despite having no prior open-wheel experience
“I feel like that’s an aggressive statement, for sure,” Johnson said about Cowdin’s vow. “But why not? Why can’t we? The 500 is a special race. We’ve seen favorites win. We’ve seen the race won by strategy, first-time winners, a variety of different things.
“Helio (Castroneves) is like ages older than me (editor’s note — actually four months, but who’s counting), and he won last year. Really, anything’s possible. If I had a poor running car today or didn’t feel the car, I would think the hill to climb during the month of May would be much steeper. Learning what I did today, I’m going to start at such a better spot.
“If the race was 50 laps longer, I think I would have finished further forward. If I started 10th, the way the track played out, my result would have been better than a sixth. Why not? Let’s dream big.”
So “Jimmie Johnson Mania” has been christened for the Indy 500 after Texas?
“I’m not against that,” Johnson said with a smile. “Let’s go.”
A warm reception
The paddock and his peers certainly seem ready to embrace the level of hype that previously has followed the debuts of Fernando Alonso and Danica Patrick at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Johnson’s Indy venture will be different. It won’t have the historical precedent of Patrick, who became an overnight sensation in becoming the first woman to lead the Indy 500, and it lacks the international cachet of Alonso, the two-time Formula One champion.
But it will have something neither of those can offer – one of the greatest American drivers of the 21st century trying to win the event that has defined U.S. motorsports for more than 100 years.
Runner-up Scott McLaughlin was born in New Zealand and made his fame in Australia, but the Team Penske driver was well aware of Johnson’s sway even before they became friends and golfing buddies as rookies last year.
“He’s going to be good at Indy, and I’m really excited for him, and for IndyCar itself, it’s exciting,” McLaughlin said. “A guy like that with so much talent. There’s not many people in America who don’t know who Jimmie Johnson is. If he’s going to compete at the front of the Indy 500, hopefully just behind me, we’re good. I’ll lead him across the bricks at the end of the race, no dramas. Tuck in, mate, it’s good prize money.
“Everywhere that’s got NASCAR on television knows who J.J. is. I mean, I know who J.J. was. I flipped out when I got his mobile number. It was pretty cool.”
Big crowds post-race. It’s amazing to get to celebrate a great day on track with fans who have supported me in this journey. pic.twitter.com/CA8jkEugny
— Jimmie Johnson (@JimmieJohnson) March 20, 2022
Penske drivers might have dominated at Texas in claiming three of the top four spots, but they were all enamored with Johnson’s performance.
Will Power, who had taken some playful potshots at Johnson last month for impeding traffic in the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg season opener, was among the first to greet Johnson in the pits with a massive smile.
“Oh man, back in your wheelhouse,” Power said. “Was it similar?”
“Once I understood the car, and what was too much, then I knew what to do,” Johnson said. “But working up to that edge, I was so worried in practice. At the end of the runs is when I was most competitive.”
“Oh yeah, I could see you coming, and my hands were numb,” Power said.
Race winner Josef Newgarden, who had been immersed in the chaos of beating McLaughlin with a thrilling last-lap pass, greeted the news of Johnson’s finish with an exaggerated mouth agape expression.
“Did Jimmie finish sixth? That’s legit,” Newgarden said. “Hard to finish sixth at Texas. It’s hard. Like, that’s really good.
“Well, look, not to take away from Jimmie, but it has been a steep learning curve. He’s had to unlearn an entire career of operating procedures. The IndyCar is so removed from what a stock car is. For him to be able to get on top of that so quickly, it makes sense it’s going better here at Texas. It’s closer to what he’s used to procedurally. I don’t want to act too surprised because he is a seven-time champ, incredible worker and teammate.
“Man, that’s really good, though. First IndyCar oval race, sixth at Texas. These cars are hard to drive. The way that we draft, the way the groove works for us, you can’t go up a lane or two like in a stock car. They’re scrubbing the car before he gets there. I need to watch this race back, see how he got there. I’m sure he’ll be a huge threat at Indy then.”
The last IndyCar driver to win in his oval debut was Dixon with PacWest Racing at Nazareth Speedway on May 6, 2001. Dixon agreed the case can be made that what Johnson did was just as impressive.
“It’s just so different man just because of the stuff he has to unlearn,” Dixon said. “That’s the hard part. I was a rookie coming in and running races. I didn’t know any different. He’s got to unlearn everything he’s done previous (in NASCAR) and start again. You could see he was pretty adventurous on trying lines, which a lot of guys aren’t. Especially guys like myself who have maybe been in the series long enough that you maybe don’t always do that. It was fun to race him and see him trying different stuff.”
“That was as good as a win,” team owner Chip Ganassi told Johnson on pit lane. “That was a huge day. It will help you when you get to Indy. It was absolutely huge. You did a great job today. It was really great.”
‘You’ve got to figure out when to use your aggression’
It was a weekend-long performance. Though Johnson ranked 18th in qualifying, it still was his career-best starting spot, and he helped with some oval pointers for Marcus Ericsson, who had the highest-finishing Ganassi car in third.
“It’s super impressive,” Ericsson said. “Already from Lap 1 (of practice) you could tell he was a lot more comfortable, this felt more at home for him compared to the road and street courses, even though he’s improved a lot there, as well.
“For us as a team, he’s been a great asset with his experience. Even though an IndyCar is very different to NASCAR, I think his oval experience is still paying off a lot. I’ve been able to ask him questions this weekend to learn things from him.
'@JimmieJohnson's first oval race was a home run.
— IndyCar on NBC (@IndyCaronNBC) March 20, 2022
“It bodes really well to have all four Ganassi cars in the top (seven). It just means coming the 500, we’re going to be super strong and have so many cars to work with, sort of help each other.”
That Johnson finally was able to contribute was reassuring for the longtime observers who watched him effortlessly dominate NASCAR for most of two decades. Instead of effusive congratulations for his Ganassi teammate, Dixon greeted Johnson with postrace commiseration about being unable to win the race – more evidence that Johnson was being treated like just another top-flight racer Sunday.
“It definitely feels good to be complimented by the other drivers (and) my teammates,” he said. “It’s honestly the icing on top of the cake. The cake is I know what I did behind the wheel today, the growth I’ve had in the race car. That’s the part I’m savoring the most right now.
“I do enjoy the congratulations from others, but I’m almost speechless myself, just kind of savoring it and taking it in.”
There was a lot to digest about Johnson’s race, which could be viewed as the same type of slog he’s endured in IndyCar. He didn’t crack the top 15 until Lap 104 and narrowly missed two crashes that thinned the field.
In the second half, he grew comfortable with turning the knobs and switches in the IndyCar cockpit that are critical to handling, and he found the edge of out of control with his front and rear axle, carrying momentum while shifting and learning “so many little nuances that I never had to think about in a Cup car.
“I was feeling my way, and it was just awful that far back in traffic,” he said. “So as soon as I would find a little confidence, I would have a big save and scare myself and back off and then tip-toe my way back in, but I really feel after the first round of pit stops, I got enough laps and understood how to slip and slide the car around and we made good adjustments. I was comfortable using my tools, and that whole next stint was just better. And I worked my way forward.”
His slow creep into contention recalled some of his greatest moments in NASCAR with crew chief Chad Knaus, who could tune any ill-handling car to Johnson’s liking.
He reached the top 10 on Lap 169 and completed his first power move on Santino Ferrucci five laps later for ninth.
'@JimmieJohnson is in the TOP TEN!
— IndyCar on NBC (@IndyCaronNBC) March 20, 2022
By Lap 226, he was up to sixth and then passed Dixon for fifth on Lap 236 before having to give up his first top five on Lap 246.
After 248 laps (about 75 percent of the 500-mile distances he ran in winning seven of 35 Cup starts at Texas), Johnson had completed 21 passes, 17 for position and seven in the top 10.
“I was able to zip by guys and work up and then have to save fuel again,” he said. “I feel like the cadence, the adjustments, how and when to be aggressive. All that started to make a lot more sense. You can’t just go out there, hold it wide open and zip around. You’ve got to figure out when to use your aggression and that really just started to come to me as the race went on.”
So did he feel more like an IndyCar driver having turned the race’s fifth-fastest lap?
“I’m feeling more like one now,” Johnson said. “The scale still tilts toward NASCAR, but it’s getting closer to center.”
The needle for Jimmie Mania, meanwhile, is moving closer to the right.
After being blown by some gale-force momentum at Texas, you can expect it to be pegged in time for the Brickyard.