Ryan: Ready for ‘Jimmie Johnson Mania’ at the Indy 500? ‘Why not? Let’s dream big’


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.”

PENSKE POWER: Josef Newgarden nips Scott McLaughlin with last-lap pass for Texas win

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!”

How 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.

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.”

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.”

NTT IndyCar Series XPEL 375 - Practice
Jimmie Johnson was full of smiles over the race weekend at Texas Motor Speedway, both before and after finishing a career-best sixth in the NTT IndyCar Series (James Gilbert/Getty Images).

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.

“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.

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.

IndyCar Preseason, Day 1: Simon Pagenaud on why he likes teasing Josef Newgarden

Newgarden Pagenaud feud
Joe Skibinski/Penske Entertainment

PALM SPRINGS, Calif. — A roundup of nuggets from the opening day of preseason IndyCar Content Days for media that lead into two days of preseason testing Thursday and Friday at The Thermal Club, starting with a playful “feud” between former teammates Josef Newgarden and Simon Pagenaud:

After making a point to needle Newgarden during the Rolex 24 at Daytona (when he was warned for being deemed to have caused a spin by the car driven by Newgarden and Scott McLaughlin), Pagenaud laughed about why he likes poking at his ex-teammate at Team Penske.

“I just love to press the button with Josef,” Pagenaud said. “I just love it. I’m being very open about it. I think he knows it, too. It’s funny to see him unsettled a little bit. I like when he gets aggressive. I don’t know why. It’s funny.”

They scrapped a few times as Penske teammates. Pagenaud notably was hot after a 2017 incident at Gateway during Newgarden’s first season with the team, but he later backtracked and blamed it on his French blood.

Pagenaud says all is good between now – though he also admits with a devilish grin that he’s taking advantage of the freedom from leaving Penske last year.

“Absolutely, yeah. I couldn’t do that before,” he said with a laugh about teasing Newgarden. “I would get in trouble.

“Yeah, I can be myself. I can say what I want to say. Nobody is upset about it. I love Josef. Don’t get me wrong. I love the guy.

“Do I love the driver? Not always, but I enjoy pressing the button with him because he seems like such a confident person. Yeah, I like to just go press it a little bit.”

When he was informed of the sardonic comments (Pagenaud asked reporters to make sure they relayed that he enjoyed passing Newgarden in the race) after his first stint at Daytona last weekend, Newgarden took a shot back.

“He doesn’t get many opportunities these days, so I’m sure he enjoyed that,” Newgarden said. “Take them when you can get them. There’s so much happening I don’t even remember half the stuff that happened when I was out there. Hey, he’s a big note-keeper, that guy.”

Pagenaud, who is winless since 2020, conceded that point Tuesday at IndyCar’s media session.

“I will do better this year,” he said. “But I got to build my team up, put myself in that situation. We were not there yet. I hope we can be there this year.

“But certainly not being teammates, you race differently. Now, the driver that he is, I have a huge amount of respect for him. He’s tremendous. I mean, he’s one of the best at what he does. So beating him is even a better reward. But I like my résumé better than his.”

For the record, Newgarden has one more IndyCar championship than Pagenaud but is empty in the Indy 500 win column compared to the 2019 winner at the Brickyard.

During his Rolex 24 availability, Pagenaud also took playful aim at the “Bus Bros,” the branded social and digital content that Newgarden and teammate and buddy Scott McLaughlin have been producing for nearly a year.

“Apparently they hang out together all the time,” Pagenaud cracked. “They’re ‘Bus Bros.’ Do you guys know what this is, the ‘Bus Bros’ thing? Have you watched it? I should start watching it.”

Newgarden and McLaughlin are scheduled to appear together on the second day of the preseason media event at the Palm Springs Convention Center, so stay tuned for the next round of snark.

Pagenaud is among many drivers enthused to get acclimated to The Thermal Club, which is a $275 million motorsports country club of sorts.

But for the Frenchman, Thermal represents more than just a chance to tune up for the 2023 season. Pagenaud, who made his first visit to the desert track three years ago after winning the Indy 500, is thinking about his long-term future.

“It’s actually something I’m really interested in for my future but in another life,” he said. “I love the concept. Actually before my IndyCar career, I was on a project like that myself in France. I was going to build something similar. I had the backing, I had everything going on, but my career took off. I had to give up on the project.

“But it is something I’ve always been interested in. My dad used to run my home racetrack. I had access to it, so I could see how that was going.

“I always had a passion for it because it’s a way to allow the fans to get closer to the car, allow the sport to be more known to the general public. There’s so many things that you can do with a racetrack, not only for races, but so many people that can come to bicycle races, you can have runners do a marathon. It doesn’t have to be just racing. It can be events. I’m into that. I’ve always been. Certainly when it’s time to stop driving, it will be something that I’m interested in, yes. That’s maybe 20 years from now.”

Felix Rosenqvist returns for his third consecutive season at McLaren, the longest stint with one team for the Swede since 2014 in F3.

But he finds himself somewhat in a similar position to last season when his return was uncertain for months during the Alex Palou-Chip Ganassi Racing saga. Palou is back with Ganassi but still expected to join the team in 2024, and with Rossi and O’Ward on long-term deals, Rosenqvist would be unable to stay unless the team added a fourth car.

He is taking it all in stride with the same grace in which he managed last season’s uncertainty.

“I think I handled it probably as good as I could,” Rosenqvist said of last year. “That’s probably a reason why I’m here this year. I think it’s a massive opportunity for me to be back for a third year. I feel like I have all the tools I need to perform, feeling very good with everyone at the car. As I said, there’s so many things happening last year on and off the track. I think as a team, we just really learned a lot from that that we can bring into this season.

“I think we’ll be tough this year. We have a lot of things in the bag to try early this season. A couple of things here at Thermal we want to try. Going into the season, we have pinpointed some areas where we feel we were lacking a little bit, like the short ovals, for example. I feel like we’ve done the best we can to attack all those areas and bring the best possible package we can.”

Rosenqvist is winless since his breakthrough victory over O’Ward at Road America in 2020. Ending that skid certainly would improve his prospects, but he isn’t worried.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future,” he said. “That’s a long time until next year. I think it’s a great opportunity for me. I’m in a good spot. I’m in a well-performing team. I feel well with everyone around me. I feel like I have a good support from the team. I don’t really think too much about that stuff. I just try to do what I can do, which is go fast forward and try to win races.”

After being frozen out of remote access to team data last year, Palou said his working relationship at Ganassi is “back to 100% like it was before from both sides.” The 2021 series champion said he had full privileges restored after he closed the season by winning the finale at Laguna Seca Raceway and then settled on staying with Ganassi a day later.

He is allowed to continue his F1 testing with McLaren, too, though IndyCar will be the priority in-season.

“It was a tough year,” said Palou, whose contract dispute lasted for two months. “Could have been a lot worse, for sure, than what we had but also could have been a little bit better if we didn’t have anything around in our minds. It’s a part of racing.

“I’m just happy that now we know that even with things in our minds, we were able to be successful. Hopefully, we can be back to 2021 things during this season. Yeah, obviously there’s always some moments (in 2022) where you’re like, ‘Oh, no, my God, this is not going the direction I wanted.’ But there was things that were out of my control, obviously. Some things that I could control, as well. But at the end of the day I had all the information from my side, from other sides. I knew that everything could be settled, and it did.”

Pato O’Ward unplugged from the racing world for six weeks during the offseason, ensuring he was fully recharged when the new year arrived.

“I haven’t had the opportunity to do it in the past few years,” said O’Ward, who tested an F1 car in 2021 and then went right into preparing and racing (then winning) the 2022 Rolex 24 at Daytona. “I said, ‘I want at least six weeks. Don’t talk to me, don’t text me, I don’t want to hear anything.’ It’s healing. It’s very healing.

“As much as you love what you do, you need to find a balance of just doing something else. I always tell people, there’s a huge difference between relaxing and recharging. How I recharge is doing things I don’t normally do during the year. Just being at the beach to me is my favorite thing to do after driving race cars. I made sure that I had that kind of time to just enjoy my loved ones. After I was finished with that, I was like, ‘OK, race cars now.’ ”

Marcus Ericsson is planning on a long future with Chip Ganassi Racing, and the 2022 Indy 500 winner seems well-positioned to become the team’s anchor driver if he can maintain last season’s consistency.

Jimmie Johnson has been replaced by the Marcus Armstrong-Takuma Sato combination, and Alex Palou is leaving after this year.

Six-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon, 42, is Ganassi’s unquestioned dean until his retirement, but Ericsson clearly is interested in the mantle after that.

“I’m feeling very much at home in the team,” said Ericsson, the Formula One who is entering his fourth season with CGR. “I’m super happy about that. I wish to stay for a very long time, as well. There is some uncertainty with other places maybe in the future, but Dixon seems to be just getting better and better. He might be here for another 10 years or so, who knows.

“But that’s great. Me and Scott, we work really well together. I can still learn a lot from him. I want to be here for a long time and win races and championships together.”

The Swede had a droll response when asked if no longer being the only Marcus will get confusing in Ganassi debriefs. “Yeah, it is; I’m angry,” Ericsson deadpanned. “I think we’re OK. He seems like a good kid. He has a good name.”

Following in the footsteps of Callum Ilott and Christian Lundgaard from F2 to IndyCar, Armstrong is OK with deferring his F1 dreams to run road and street courses as a rookie in 2023. The New Zealander grew up as an IndyCar fan rooting for Dixon, his boyhood idol and fellow countryman.

“I’ve been watching him on TV since I was a kid,” Armstrong, 22, said. “It’s cool because IndyCar is massive where I’m from because of him. I’ve always been so attracted to this championship. Of course, I spent my entire life chasing F1. You can never say ‘never.’ If I’m honest with you, I’m happy where I am now. It’s a dream come true.”

Armstrong hopes to move to full time in 2024 and believes being aligned with a powerhouse such as Ganassi will give him an opportunity to post strong results immediately (just as Ilott and Lundgaard had flashes as rookies last year).

“I’ve been genuinely impressed by the organization, just the strategic point of view that Chip Ganassi Racing has, it’s really quite remarkable,” he said. “I can understand why they’ve had so much success. I think fundamentally I need to get on it straightaway. I have all the information in the world, really. I just need to hit the ground running, do well immediately.”

In among the wildest stories of the offseason, rookie Sting Ray Robb revealed he landed his ride at Dale Coyne Racing because he ran into Indy Lights champion Linus Lundqvist at PitFit Training, a physical fitness and performance center used by many drivers in Indianapolis.

Lundqvist was the presumptive favorite for the DCR No. 51 Dallara-Honda, which was the last open seat heading into the 2022 season. Because of his Indy Lights title (since rebranded as “IndyNXT”) with HMD Motorsports, Lundqvist had a six-figure sponsorship to bring to an IndyCar team, and DCR is partnered with HMD.

“There was a few teams that we were talking to, and Dale’s team was not the one that was at the top of the list because we thought they already had a driver,” Robb said. “Obviously with Linus winning the championship, we assumed with the HMD association there that there would be a straight shoe-in for him.

“But I actually was at PitFit Training one day with Linus and discovered that was not the case. That created an opportunity for us that allowed me to call up my manager, Pieter Rossi, and get him on the phone, and he immediately called Dale and said, ‘Hey, we’re available.’ I think there was a mutual understanding of what availability was for either one of us. That’s when conversations began. Then we had a really good test in 2023 right at the beginning of January, and I think that was kind of the one that set the tone that allowed me to get in the seat.

“I think there’s been some opportunities that were miraculously created that we couldn’t have done on our own.”

Robb, who finished second in last year’s Indy Lights standings, hasn’t talked to Lundqvist since their PitFit meeting.

“Linus does deserve a seat” in IndyCar, Robb said. “His on-track performance was incredible. But it takes more than just a driver to get into IndyCar. You’ve got to have a village around you that supports you, and so I think that that is where my group made a difference. It wasn’t just in my performance, but it was the people around me.

“I feel bad for Linus because as a driver I can feel that way towards him because I could be in that seat if I didn’t have those same people around me. So there you go.”