Jimmie Johnson’s Indy 500 journey gathers speed with fastest lap of his storied career

Jimmie Johnson Indy 500 test
Jenna Watson/IndyStar / USA TODAY NETWORK

INDIANAPOLIS – Jimmie Johnson has legendary accomplishments in racing, from seven NASCAR Cup Series championships to 83 career victories that include two Daytona 500s and four Brickyard 400s.

But during Thursday’s second day of the Indy 500 Open Test, Johnson ran the fastest lap of his life.

He turned 138 laps around the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway during a frantic four-hour test session (which started four hours late and was shortened by two hours).

BRICKYARD SPEEDS: Click here for Thursday l Click here for overall

It often was busy enough to seem as if it were race day for the Indianapolis 500. On Lap 129, Johnson’s No. 48 Carvana/American Legion Dallara-Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing went 227.900 mph — the fastest lap of his storied career.

“Man, that’s really boogieing,” Johnson told NBCSports.com after practice. “This is the reason why wanted to become an IndyCar driver.

“I wanted to experience driving a really fast race car really fast.”

Johnson got his wish Thursday as one of 31 drivers testing at IMS for the 106th Indy 500 on May 29 (11 a.m. ET, NBC). At one point in the first hour of testing, Johnson was the fastest driver.

He stayed in the top three as the final test session entered “Happy Hour” – the final hour when conditions are ideal for running fast laps.

He would finish the day as the eighth-fastest driver but was very impressive on the IMS oval and further established himself as a potential contender to win the Indy 500 in his debut.

When Johnson was asked about the fastest lap of his life, a big smile came across this face.

“You notice it,” he said. “It’s a very cool sensation. Now I understand why when I’ve asked any of these guys, any of my friends that are drivers here, what it’s like to go fast around here, they have a smile that I’ve always wondered what it’s like.

“I haven’t really been on the full boost, full power, qualifying trim setting yet. I’m starting to get that grin. I look forward to having that big smile that all these guys have experienced.”

Thursday is a major reason why Johnson decided to take the leap and make a drastic career change in 2020. He announced in November 2019 that the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season would be his last, but he was open to competing in other forms of racing, including sports cars and IndyCar.

He tested with Chip Ganassi Racing late in the summer of 2020 and announced a 2021 street and road course schedule in IndyCar.

It was not an easy transition. He started the season way off the pace of IndyCar’s top drivers. Instead of running at the front of the field, Johnson had to learn from the back of the pack.

But each race, Johnson was significantly better than before. By the end of the season, he actually was racing against — and passing — some big IndyCar names.

Johnson went full time this year, adding ovals and the biggest race in the world, the Indianapolis 500. He proved he remains a fantastic oval racer with his IndyCar career-best sixth-place finish in the XPEL 375 at Texas Motor Speedway on March 20. That race boosted his confidence and made others realize that he could be a legitimate contender in the Indy 500.

But three weeks later on the streets of Long Beach, California, Johnson crashed in the opening practice for the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach and broke his right hand near his little finger.

He was able to complete the race weekend with a specially designed splint and had surgery by Dr. Glenn Gaston in Charlotte, North Carolina, the day after the race. (Johnson got his stitches out this week and drove without a splint Thursday with “great strength in my hands.”)

A long titanium screw also was put into Johnson’s hand, and he was good to go for this week’s two-day Indy 500 Open Test, which got off to a muted start for the field with pit lane problems Wednesday.

That limited track time for Johnson, and the tension level increased when Thursday’s test session was delayed because of heavy rains overnight. It finally started at 2:30 p.m. ET.

Over the next hours, 31 drivers ran a total of 3,267 laps around the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The only driver missing from the 32 entered for the 33 starting positions in the Indy 500 was four-time and defending race winner Helio Castroneves, who crashed his 2021-winning car when he lost control on the pit warmup lane and slammed into the Turn 2 wall on Wednesday. The No. 06 Meyer Shank Racing Honda was sent back to the team’s shop in Pataskala, Ohio, for repairs.

Team Penske driver Josef Newgarden would end the two-day test as the fastest driver with a top speed of 229.519 mph in the No. 2 Chevrolet. He ran 119 laps.

“Once we got into the swing of it, we were really making a lot of progress on our race car specifically, which I was happy about,” said Newgarden, who is seeking his first Indy 500 win in his 11th attempt. “I really wanted to get into some race work this afternoon. We spent a lot of the time doing that, probably the majority of it.

“It was a positive test for us. We try to divide and conquer on Team Penske, get through as much as we could with all three cars.

“I’m happy about it. The weather conditions turned pretty beautiful there at the end. It was just about perfect. So pleased. Happy to be here with Team Penske as always. I like the new Shell car this year with the extra gold, I think it looks pretty racy. I think Team Chevy has done their homework, too.

“We’ve been feeling positive to start this year. Big thing for us is to carry that into the month of May.”

Two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Takuma Sato was second fastest in the No. 51 Dale Coyne Racing with RWR Honda with a fast lap at 229.427 mph over 84 laps. Tony Kanaan, Johnson’s Chip Ganassi Racing teammate who drove the No. 48 on ovals last year, was third at 228.767 mph over 72 laps in the No. 1 American Legion Honda.

“Nothing has changed,” said Kanaan, who will make his only 2022 IndyCar start in Ganassi’s fifth car at IMS. “The cars are prepped the same. Chip Ganassi wouldn’t field me a car just because he wanted to do me a favor. The car is the same prep as the other ones.

“The team, it’s a bunch of good guys. I think as a team we’re competitive. As a team we’ve been working really hard. There is no doubt that we’ll do everything we can to win this race.

Today we did quite a bit actually. We have the advantage; we have five cars in the team. We’re sharing a bunch of things. Everybody had a list. Everybody went through it.

“If you look at the results, draft, no draft, still we had five cars in the top 10. That’s a pretty good day for us.”

Said Johnson: “It means so much to me to have Tony as a friend, as a teammate,” Johnson said. “I think it’s really cool to be competitors this year in the Indy 500. Our pit stalls, located on pit lane, he’s right behind us. Every time I pulled out and went around, I just smiled and thought how cool it is to share the track with one of my great friends, many of my friends that I’ve been able to share racing with over the last year, year, and a half.

“Tony has been a huge part of this deal happening for me, the split season, then his willingness to allow me to race the ovals this year. He’s been a friend in so many ways. I know the general public hasn’t been able to see a lot of that, but I’m very thankful for our friendship, his understanding, and certainly look forward to racing hard with him.”

Another Chip Ganassi Racing driver, six-time NTT IndyCar Series champion and 2008 Indy 500 winner Scott Dixon was fourth at 228.689 mph in the No. 9 PNC Bank Honda. Team Penske driver Scott McLaughlin rounded out the top five at 228.397 mph.

“It was a real good day,” Johnson said. “Yesterday, I was a little disappointed not to get more laps. I think we all kind of were. Weather conditions didn’t really help either. So, to have the afternoon be as warm as it was, the track be kind of worked in, be as friendly as it was that early, was great. I got a lot of quality reps, certainly learned a ton today.”

All five Chip Ganassi Racing drivers were in the top 10 with Marcus Ericsson 10th at 227.785 mph and with the most laps (148, one more than Palou).

“I think we’re all paying attention to that scoring pylon,” Johnson said. “We’re all trying. As long as the session is green, we’re all trying to be the fastest car out there. When any car was on new tires, people were trying to create a gap, trying to put up a fast lap time.

“I think our cars do have a lot of speed. For myself, it was really just trying to understand how to get that gap and pull up to the group in front of you, pop off a lap.

“It looks nice on the scoreboard, but there were a few cars that could really pass. I think that’s what we’re all deep down inside focused on, and going to debrief and work on, is to figure out how to get off of turns two and four and make better passes.”

In the Indy 500 test, Jimmie Johnson also was becoming a quick learner at how the Indy car handles differently in traffic than the No. 48 Chevrolet NASCAR Cup stock car that made him a racing legend earlier in his career.

For instance, Johnson noticed there is no “side draft” off the Indy car, but it’s a useful aerodynamic tool in NASCAR Cup racing.

“I feel like flat out sixth gear on the rev limiter turning into Turn 1 or 3 was really what I needed to do, get a good sense of that type of speed, that type of G force, trust the car, no driver lifts, really flat in those really fast situations,” Johnson explained. “But I feel like racecraft, when we’re in the pack, you have to worry about turbulent air, setting up a pass, the pace comes down so much that I feel much more comfortable in that environment.

“I think where I still have a lot of questions is when you trim out and you need to average 230 something for three laps around here. That’s the part that I’m still working towards.”

When Johnson drove the No. 48 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports in the Brickyard 400, NASCAR drivers often had to lift past the finish line before entering Turn 1 and also lift on the backstretch entering Turn 3. In an Indy car, race drivers don’t lift in the turns.

“I’m still flinching in Turn 1 and Turn 3,” Johnson said. “It’s just a long-ass straightaway to talk to yourself and convince yourself to hold it wide open through one and three.

“Ironically, Turns 2 and 4 behave very much the same, regardless of the NASCAR vehicle or the IndyCar vehicle.

“There are differences. Turns 2 and 4 are still the key to passing regardless of series. So, I’m surprised how similar and how challenging 2 and 4 can be to set up a pass. I don’t think I made a pass today, like a true heads-up pass. I have some work to do to figure that out. Guys made mistakes in front of me, I was able to get them. I have some more to do to figure out passing.”

Johnson understands that a successful race driver often has to experience by placing the car in areas on the track that might be risky. That’s one way to learn what the car is capable of and also what to avoid.

“That’s the name of the game,” Johnson said. “We’ve been as smart as we can with the balance of the car, kind of backing me into the sweet spot of the window of the car. We had some reps at Texas to kind of work through that. I learned a lot in traffic.

“It’s a different racetrack here, so there are different things to take into consideration. Today was really full of that. I think yesterday afternoon, the afternoon session, we went too far in some areas. I’m glad we went through that, and I was able to understand what that felt like. Made a lot of changes on the car today and understood the balance of clean air versus in traffic.

“That’s really the name of the game in racing, but we are trying to be a bit smarter in it, not put me in a dangerous positions and end up with a torn-up race car.”

Though he was part of IndyCar last season, Johnson experienced his first 500 while working for NBC Sports with analyst Steve Letarte atop the Peacock Pit Box. Though witnessing Indy from up close spurred him to race the event this year, Johnson demurred when asked if he wished he had raced ovals last year.

“I’ve been on my journey,” Johnson said. “I had to come to grips with things in my own fashion, gain the comfort and desire to do it. I can say sitting here and watching the Indy 500 last year, working in television really kicked things into overdrive for me.

“Watching and being a fan of the sport for so many years, TV does a great job of showing what it’s like. To actually be here in person took it to the next level for me. That’s when I started pursuing to find a way to at least be here, then it turned into the full season.”

At 46, Johnson has been very deliberate on his journey, but as his first Indy 500 looms on the horizon, it’s a journey well taken for one of the greatest race drivers of his era.

With his fast lap in Thursday’s Indy 500 Open Test, Johnson’s journey is gaining speed.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500 

Strong rebounds for Alex Palou, Chip Ganassi amid some disappointments in the Indy 500


INDIANAPOLIS – Alex Palou had not turned a wheel wrong the entire Month of May at the Indy 500 until Rinus VeeKay turned a wheel into the Chip Ganassi Racing pole-sitter leaving pit road on Lap 94.

“There is nothing I could have done there,” Palou told NBC Sports. “It’s OK, when it is my fault or the team’s fault because everybody makes mistakes. But when there is nothing, you could have done differently there, it feels bad and feels bad for the team.”

Marcus Ericsson was a master at utilizing the “Tail of the Dragon” move that breaks the draft of the car behind him in the closing laps to win last year’s Indianapolis 500. On Sunday, however, the last of three red flags in the final 16 laps of the race had the popular driver from Sweden breathing fire after Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden beat him at his own game on the final lap to win the Indianapolis 500.

Despite the two disappointments, team owner Chip Ganassi was seen on pit road fist-bumping a member on his four-car team in this year’s Indianapolis 500 after his drivers finished second, fourth, sixth and seventh in the tightly contested race.

Those are pretty good results, but at the Indianapolis 500, there is just one winner and 32 losers.

“There is only one winner, but it was a hell of a show,” three-time Indianapolis 500 winner and Chip Ganassi Racing consultant Dario Franchitti told NBC Sports. “Alex was very fast, and he got absolutely caught out in somebody else’s wreck. There was nothing he could have done, but he and the 10 car, great recovery.

“Great recovery by all four cars because at half distance, we were not looking very good.”

After 92 laps, the first caution flew for Sting Ray Robb of Dale Coyne Racing hitting the Turn 1 wall.

During pit stops on Lap 94, Palou had left his stall when the second-place car driven by VeeKay ran into him, putting Palou’s Honda into the wall. The car sustained a damaged front wing, but the Chip Ganassi crew was able to get him back in the race on the lead lap but in 28th position.

Palou ultimately would fight his way to a fourth-place finish in a race the popular Spaniard could have won. His displeasure with VeeKay, whom he sarcastically called “a legend” on his team radio after the incident, was evident.

“The benefit of being on pole is you can drive straight and avoid crashes, and he was able to crash us on the side on pit lane, which is pretty tough to do, but he managed it,” Palou told NBC Sports. “Hopefully next year we are not beside him. Hopefully, next year we have a little better luck.”

Palou started on the pole and led 36 laps, just three fewer than race leader Pato O’Ward of Arrow McLaren Racing.

“We started really well, was managing the fuel as we wanted, our car was pretty good,” Palou said. “Our car wasn’t great, we dropped to P4 or P5, but we still had some good stuff.

“On the pit stop, the 21 (VeeKay) managed to clip us. Nothing we could have done there. It was not my team’s fault or my fault.

“We had to drop to the end. I’m happy we made it back to P4. We needed 50 more laps to make it happen, but it could have been a lot worse after that contact.

“I learned a lot, running up front at the beginning and in mid-pack and then the back. I learned a lot.

“It feels amazing when you win it and not so good when things go wrong. We were a bit lucky with so many restarts at the end to make it back to P4 so I’m happy with that.”

Palou said the front wing had to be changed and the toe-in was a bit off, but he still had a fast car.

In fact, his Honda was the best car at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway all month. His pole-winning four lap average speed of 234.217 miles per hour around the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway was a record for this fabled race.

Palou looked good throughout the race, before he had to scratch and claw and race his way back to the top-five after he restarted 28th.

In the Indianapolis 500, however, the best car doesn’t always win.

“It’s two years in a row that we were leading the race at the beginning and had to drop to last,” Palou said. “Maybe next year, we will start in the middle of the field and go on to win the race.

“I know he didn’t do it on purpose. It’s better to let that pass someday.”

Palou said the wild racing at the end was because the downforce package used in Sunday’s race means the drivers have to be aggressive. The front two cars can battle for the victory, but cars back in fourth or fifth place can’t help determine the outcome of the race.

That is when the “Tail of the Dragon” comes into the play.

Franchitti helped celebrate Ericsson’s win in 2022 with his “Tail of the Dragon” zigzag move – something he never had to do in any of his three Indianapolis 500 victories because they all finished under caution.

In 2023, however, IndyCar Race Control wants to make every attempt to finish the race under green, without going past the scheduled distance like NASCAR’s overtime rule.

Instead of extra laps, they stop the race with a red flag, to create a potential green-flag finish condition.

“You do what you have to do to win within the rules, and it’s within the rules, so you do it,” Franchitti said. “The race is 200 laps and there is a balance.

“Marcus did a great job on that restart and so did Josef. It was just the timing of who was where and that was it.

“If you knew it was going to go red, you would have hung back on the lap before.

“Brilliant job by the whole Ganassi organization because it wasn’t looking very good at half-distance.

“Full marks to Josef Newgarden and Team Penske.”

Franchitti is highly impressed by how well Ericsson works with CGR engineer Brad Goldberg and how close this combination came to winning the Indianapolis 500 two-years-in-a-row.

It would have been the first back-to-back Indy 500 winner since Helio Castroneves in 2001 and 2002.

“Oh, he’s a badass,” Franchitti said Ericsson. “He proved it last year. He is so calm all day. What more do you need? As a driver, he’s fast and so calm.”

Ericsson is typically in good spirits and jovial.

He was stern and direct on pit road after the race.

“I did everything right, I did an awesome restart, caught Josef off-guard and pulled away,” Ericsson said on pit lane. “It’s hard to pull away a full lap and he got me back.

“I’m mostly disappointed with the way he ended. I don’t think it was fair and safe to do that restart straight out of the pits on cold tires for everyone.

“To me, it was not a good way to end that race.

“Congrats to Josef. He didn’t do anything wrong. He is a worthy champion, but it shouldn’t have ended like that.”

Palou also didn’t understand the last restart, which was a one-start showdown.

“I know that we want to finish under green,” Palou said. “Maybe the last restart I did, I didn’t understand. It didn’t benefit the CGR team.

“I’m not very supportive of the last one, but anyway.”

Dixon called the red flags “a bit sketchy.”

“The Red Flags have become a theme to the end of the race, but sometimes they can catch you out,” Dixon said. “I know Marcus is frustrated with it.

“All we ask for is consistency. I think they will do better next time.

“It’s a tough race. People will do anything they can to win it and with how these reds fall, you have to be in the right place at the right time. The problem is when they throw a Red or don’t throw a Red dictates how the race will end.

“It’s a bloody hard race to win. Congrats to Josef Newgarden and to Team Penske.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500