‘More ovals, please’: Jimmie Johnson hoping to make another big splash at Gateway

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For both the good of the NTT IndyCar Series and his future of continuing to race the circuit, Jimmie Johnson left Iowa Speedway last month with a simple request.

“More ovals, please,” Johnson said with a smile. “Especially what I experienced in Iowa on a short oval, I’m just much more in my element and less thinking and more reacting. And it put on a great show. So I’m fired up for St. Louis.”

Saturday’s race (6 p.m. ET, USA) at World Wide Technology Raceway Gateway (which is located just outside of St. Louis in Madison, Illinois) will mark the last oval of the 2022 season and one of only four that played host to five of 17 races this season.

INDYCAR AT WWTR GATEWAY: Details, schedules, start times for this weekend

Though the 2023 schedule is expected to be unchanged, there is speculation about the future of Texas Motor Speedway (both with IndyCar and its surface), and there remains hope the season eventually will be reimagined with more equal weight given to ovals, which comprised nearly half the schedule as recently as seven years ago.

A rebalanced slate also might help shore up the chances of keeping Johnson in the No. 48 Dallara-Honda.

After running part time as a rookie on street and road courses, Johnson moved full time this year and wants to return in IndyCar for 2023 depending on sponsorship (primary backer Carvana likely will wait until the end of summer to decide on its funding for next year).

“Still actively selling,” Johnson said. “Still out there working. I haven’t heard, ‘No,’ yet, so that’s a good sign.”

Given his success at exclusively turning left this year – a career-best fifth in the second race at Iowa Speedway, a sixth at Texas and a solid May at Indianapolis Motor Speedway before a late crash in the Indy 500 – more ovals could be a positive for securing his spot at Chip Ganassi Racing.

“It might be from a selling standpoint,” Johnson said. “I never thought I’d say it, but I’m in favor of more short ovals. I just think that they put on such a great show. And with my own personal frustration of Indy and trying to pass and what I’ve been able to see at Iowa in those two races, to my surprise, these cars really perform well on a short oval.”

In 26 career IndyCar starts, Jimmie Johnson has three finishes inside the top 15, and all were on ovals this season — fifth and 11th at Iowa; sixth at Texas. (Marc Lebryk/USA TODAY Sports Images).

The 1.25-mile oval at Gateway could be a tougher test Saturday than Iowa’s 0.8-mile oval, where Johnson explored myriad lines over a doubleheader race weekend.

Gateway traditionally has been a one-groove track. IndyCar has scheduled a special 30-minute practice Friday devoted to working in the outside lane.

Johnson, who had 82 oval victories in NASCAR’s premier series as a seven-time Cup Series champion, is optimistic about being able to find an outside groove the way that Romain Grosjean did in his oval debut at Gateway last year.

“I look at Indy and being a single-groove track, I just couldn’t find my rhythm, couldn’t go,” said Johnson, who made three Xfinity Series starts at Gateway from 1998-2001. “I know Romain made it interesting on restarts when the track was clean and was able to work different lanes. I hope that I’ll have that opportunity. I hope to keep the track cleaned off up top.

“That was something I recognized I needed to do at Iowa, and why I continued to run up high even by myself. These cars, it’s harder to dust off the outside lane and to push up the lane. The marbles are so much larger than a Cup car marble for whatever reason that when it sticks to your tire, you just lose control of your car. So if you can keep it clean, you just need a chance to have a second lane. Hopefully, I can help inspire others to keep it clean and have more racing.”

He certainly impressed the field at Iowa, racing notably hard with Ganassi teammate Marcus Ericsson and Rinus VeeKay, who finished fourth in the first race after several laps of battling inches apart with Johnson (who led 19 laps after an early spin).

“(Johnson) was amazing in the high line,” VeeKay told NBC Sports a week later. “He kept coming back, went second groove, and he went third groove. He definitely knows his way around an oval. It was fun racing, and it was fair racing, too. We left each other just enough space.

“I’m still talking about it with my spotter. I was in the second groove and can hear my spotter like, ‘Outside, still there.’ I’m like, ‘What?’ It’s crazy. He has balls of steel. But he knows what he’s doing. He definitely used the experience from stock cars.”

Though the tracks have little in common, Johnson said he drove Iowa’s mostly flat asphalt like the high-bank concrete of Bristol Motor Speedway, aggressively relying on off-throttle time to chase the limits of traction.

The results opened many eyes from an IndyCar paddock that had grown accustomed to watching Johnson work hard just to maintain lead-lap pace at road and street courses. On ovals, the speed has seemed much more effortless, drawing compliments from veterans such as Simon Pagenaud and six-time series champion Scott Dixon (who said “maybe I need to do more of that” after watching Johnson constantly trying new lines at Iowa).

“Yeah, I got plenty of feedback, and everybody thought I was possessed or crazy or something in between,” Johnson said. “To me it was just normal oval racing. It just kind of showed me how aggressive I need to get comfortable with on the road and street courses.

“If I was to measure the way I felt in the car and how much more aggression I brought at Iowa, it was double the aggression I’ve ever had on a road or street course, so I just need to trust the car and let it do its work. Learning to trust the downforce has been more of a challenge than I anticipated.”

Josef Newgarden claims first Indy 500 victory, outdueling Marcus Ericsson in 1-lap shootout

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INDIANAPOLIS — Josef Newgarden won the 107th Indy 500 with a last-lap pass of Marcus Ericsson, giving team owner Roger Penske his 19th victory in the race but his first as the owner of Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

In a one-lap shootout after the third red flag in the final 20 laps, Newgarden grabbed the lead from Ericsson on the backstretch and then weaved his way to the checkered flag (mimicking the same moves Ericsson had made to win at the Brickyard last year). Santino Ferrucci finished third for AJ Foyt Racing, maintaining his streak of finishing in the top 10 in all five of his Indianapolis 500 starts.

“I’m just so thankful to be here,” Newgarden told NBC Sports’ Marty Snider. “You have no idea. I started out as a fan in the crowd. And this place, it’s amazing.

INSIDE TEAM PENSKE: The tension and hard work preceding ‘The Captain’s’ 19th win

“Regardless of where you’re sitting. It doesn’t matter if you’re driving the car, you’re working on it or you’re out here in the crowd. You’re a part of this event and the energy. So thank you to Indianapolis. I love this city. I grew up racing karts here when I was a kid. I’m just so thankful for Roger and (team president) Tim (Cindric) and everybody at Team Penske.

“I just felt like everyone kept asking me why I haven’t won this race. They look at you like you’re a failure if you don’t win it, and I wanted to win it so bad. I knew we could. I knew we were capable. It’s a huge team effort. I’m so glad to be here.”

Newgarden became the first driver from Tennessee to win the Indy 500 and the first American to win the Greatest Spectacle in Racing since Alexander Rossi in 2016.

“I think the last two laps I forgot about being a track owner and said let’s go for it,” Penske told Snider. “But what a great day. All these wonderful fans. To get No. 19 racing my guy Ganassi, my best friend in this business. But a terrific effort by Josef. Tim Cindric called a perfect race.

“Had a great race, safe race. I’ll never forget it. I know Josef wanted it so bad and wondered why he couldn’t be there, but today all day long, he worked his way up there, and at the end when it was time to go, I was betting on him.”

After Newgarden finally got his first Indy 500 victory on his 12th attempt the two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion climbed out of his No. 2 Dallara-Chevrolet, squeezed through a hole in the catchfence and ran into the stands to celebrate with fans.

“I’ve always wanted to go into the crowd at Indianapolis,” Newgarden said. “I wanted to go through the fence. I wanted to celebrate with the people. I just thought it would be so cool because I know what that energy is like on race day. This was a dream of mine. If this was ever going to happen, I wanted to do that.”

After finishing 0.0974 seconds behind in second with his No. 8 Dallara-Honda, Ericsson was upset about how IndyCar officials handled the ending.

Though it’s not the first time a red flag has been used to guarantee a green-flag finish at the Indy 500, IndyCar races typically haven’t been restarted with only one lap remaining. The green flag was thrown as the field left the pits in an unusual maneuver that had echoes of Formula One’s controversial 2021 season finale.

“I just feel like it was unfair and a dangerous end to the race,” Ericsson told NBC Sports’ Kevin Lee. “I don’t think there was enough laps to do what we did. We’ve never done a restart out of the pits, and we don’t get the tires up to temperature.

“I think we did everything right today. I’m very proud of the No. 8 crew. I think I did everything right behind the wheel. I did an awesome last restart. I think I caught Josef completely off guard and got the gap and kept the lead. But I just couldn’t hold it on the (backstretch). I was flat but couldn’t hold it. I’m proud of us.

“Congratulations to Josef, he did everything right as well. He’s a worthy champion, I’m just very disappointed with the way that ended. I don’t think that was fair.”

There also were a lot of emotions for Ferrucci, who was tearing up as he exited his No. 14 Dallara-Chevy. In the past eight weeks, the team has weathered the deaths of A.J. Foyt’s wife and longtime publicist Anne Fornoro’s husband.

“It’s just tough,” Ferrucci told NBC Sports’ Dave Burns. “We were there all day. All day. I’m just so proud of our AJ Foyt Racing team. We had a few people riding on board with us. This one stings, it’s bittersweet. I’m happy for third and the team. I’m happy for Josef and all of Team Penske.

“I was trying not to tear up getting into the race car before we started the race. Different emotions. It was different. I think coming to the end, the last few restarts. I think IndyCar did the right decision with what they have done. a green-flag finish for the fans. Wish we had a couple more laps to finish that off.”

Pole-sitter Alex Palou rebounded to finish fourth after a collision in the pits near the midpoint. Alexander Rossi took fifth.

The race was stopped three times for 37 minutes for three crashes, including a terrifying wreck involving Felix Rosenqvist and Kyle Kirkwood that sent a tire over the Turn 2 catchfence.

It had been relatively clean with only two yellow flags until the final 50 miles.

After spending the first half of the race trading the lead, pole-sitter Alex Palou and Rinus VeeKay (who started second) collided while exiting the pits under yellow on Lap 94.

Leaving the pits after leading 24 laps, VeeKay lost control under acceleration. He looped his No. 21 Dallara-Chevy into the No. 10 Dallara-Honda of Palou that already had left the first pit stall after completing its stop,

Palou, who had led 36 laps. stayed on the lead lap despite multiple stops to replace the front wing but restarted in 28th.

“What an absolute legend trying to win it,” Palou sarcastically radioed his team about VeeKay, who received a drive-through penalty for the contact when the race returned to green.

The incident happened after the first yellow flag on Lap 92 after Sting Ray Robb slapped the outside wall in Turn 1 after battling with Graham Rahal.

Robb put the blame on Rahal in an interview with NBC Sports’ Dillon Welch.

“I think I just need to pay more attention to the stereotypes of the series,” Robb said. “Pay attention to who I’m racing, and that was just way too aggressive of a move I thought. But yeah, I guess we’re in the wall and not much further to say.”

An already miserable May for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing continued before the race even started.

Rahal, who failed to qualify but started his 16th consecutive Indy 500 in place of the injured Stefan Wilson, was unable to start his No. 24 for Dreyer & Reinbold/Cusick Motorsports.

After two aborted attempts at firing the car’s Chevrolet engine, team members pushed Rahal behind the pit wall and swapped out a dead battery. Rahal finally joined the field on the third lap, but he wouldn’t finish last.

RLL teammate Katherine Legge, who had been involved in the Monday practice crash that fractured Wilson’s back, struggled with the handling on her No. 44 Dallara-Honda and nearly spun while exiting the pits after her first stop on Lap 35.

Legge exited her car about 30 laps later as her team began working to fix a steering problem.