Jimmie Johnson rebounds from spin to lead at Iowa Speedway, impress IndyCar rivals

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NEWTON, Iowa – Jimmie Johnson impressed his NTT IndyCar Series competitors with his exploration of Iowa Speedway’s grip level in an 11th-place finish – though the quest went a little too far Saturday.

Trying to apply lessons to “chase the paint” that he had learned as a seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion, Johnson overstepped the boundaries by putting his No. 48 Dallara-Honda on the apron and into a spin in Turn 4 on Lap 16.

“In a Cup car, you can always hang your left front tire on the paint,” Johnson told NBC Sports, referring to the white line around the bottom of the track. “You might remember Richmond, it works. It doesn’t work in an IndyCar. I just figured that out that opening run.

“I think instinctively, I tried to run the painted line like a Cup car, and as soon as I touched it, I was like you idiot. Thankfully, I kept it out of the wall, was able to bump-start it once I got going on the frontstretch and pointed in the right direction. That was just a lot of fun.”

Johnson rebounded quickly after pitting for fresh tires that put him out of sequence with the lead pack. Clicking off laps that were a few seconds faster than the field on the 0.894-mile oval, Johnson cycled into the lead on Lap 61 and stayed in first for 19 laps.

He appeared headed toward the second top 10 finish of his IndyCar career before fading from eighth to 11th in the final 15 laps because he had “burned the right rear tire off the car.

“The first half of the race, I had some lines working nobody else was really working on, and the spotters are awfully good here, and cued up every driver I was catching how to defend and block,” Johnson said. “And before I knew it, the lines that I had working were kind of run off, and then I tried to find some new stuff, and that last run, we just went so far.”

“But still a very strong performance, super happy for everybody at Chip Ganassi Racing.”

Though it didn’t match his career-best sixth March 20 at Texas Motor Speedway, Johnson (who also had a solid May at Indianapolis Motor Speedway before a late wreck in the Indy 500) again showed his prowess on ovals that he admittedly lacks on road and street courses.

“I think he’s doing a phenomenal job in the ovals,” Pato O’Ward said. “In Texas, I got to follow him for a bit. I thought it was really, really cool to see him explore in areas where no one else was exploring. He was making the car work in areas where no one else was. I think that’s why he was so strong.

“I think that NASCAR experience paid off in how those guys are just continuing to explore and see where the grip is. For us, I guess sometimes if you go off of what you know, it can be a big price to pay. It was really cool to see that he was kind of thinking outside the box vs. everybody else. I think he’s just going to keep getting better and better.”

Said Scott Dixon, Johnson’s Ganassi teammate: “Jimmie kind of had his own line. He had like Lane 3 or 4. He did an amazing job today, and he was really fun to watch because he was constantly trying stuff. Maybe I need to do a little more of that.”

Some of Johnson’s best battles Saturday were with Rinus VeeKay, racing inches apart from the Ed Carpenter Racing driver.

“It was fun battling Jimmie Johnson, he definitely knows what he is doing on an oval,” VeeKay told racing journalist Bruce Martin. “He was super comfortable on the high line, and I wasn’t at all. It shows his skill as a driver. Coming from a stock car to (open-wheel racing) on a street and road course is difficult.

“But this is his jam. This is what he is good at and what he has done all of his life. He was fast. I enjoyed racing with him.”

With 300 more laps on tap for Sunday’s race at Iowa (3 p.m. ET, NBC), Johnson will have another shot to improve at a track where he never raced in NASCAR. He still excelled Saturday “by just being able to be myself. It was really a lot of fun.

“Watched so many great races at this track,” Johnson said. “To be here in person, drive on it in an Indy car  is such a rush. The first two-thirds of the race I really felt like we had a car competitive enough to win. Then there at the end it kind of slipped away from us. I think the longer run at the end also kind of exposed a weakness in our car, and I faded a bit more.

“We’ll sleep on it tonight, work with our teammates and engineers, make some good changes and come back stronger. These cars really reward confidence. A Cup car, I think they reward patience and finesse. There’s a different skill set that goes with it. You’re going so damn fast in these things, the more downforce it creates, the confidence really rewards you.

“I hope tomorrow I have an even sharper performance.”