‘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.”

SuperMotocross: Ken Roczen urgently needed change

Roczen change
Feld Motor Sports/MX Sports Pro Racing/Align Media
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Change can be frightening, but it is often exhilarating and Ken Roczen, a rider in his ninth season on a 450 bike, it was urgently needed.

Roczen ended the 2022 Supercross season with his worst performance in five years. After finishing outside of the top five in seven of his last eight rounds in the stadium series, well down the points’ standings in ninth, he decided to put that season on hold.

How it ended was in stark contrast to how it began. Roczen’s 2022 season got off to the best possible start. He won the Supercross opener at Angel Stadium in Anaheim, California by more than seven seconds over the 2021 champion Cooper Webb.

That would be his last podium and he scored only one more top-five in the Glendale, Arizona Triple Crown.

MORE: Ken Roczen sweeps top five in Anaheim 2 Triple Crown

Before 2022, Roczen was a regular challenger for the championship despite being plagued by major accidents that required surgery in 2017 and 2018. On his return, he was diagnosed with the Epstein-Barr virus, which presents with symptoms of heavy fatigue, muscle weakness and loss of appetite and last year he tested positive for COVID-19.

Against those odds, he finished second in the outdoor season in 2019 and third in 2020. In the Supercross series, he finished third in 2020 and second in 2021.

But the abbreviated season of 2022 signaled a need for change for Roczen.

“I needed the change urgently,” Roczen said in last week’s post-race press conference at Angel Stadium. “I did a pretty big change in general.”

Those comments came three races into the 2023 with him sitting among the top three finishers for the first time in 10 Supercross rounds. It was the 57th podium of his career, only six behind 10th-place Ryan Villopoto. It was also the first for Suzuki since 2019 when Chad Reed gave them one in Detroit 63 rounds ago.

Taking time off at the end of the Supercross season had the needed effect. He rejoined SuperMotocross in the outdoor season and immediately stood on the podium at Fox Raceway in Pala, California. Two rounds later, he won at Thunder Valley in Lakewood, Colorado. The relief was short lived and he would not stand on the podium again until this year.

Roczen Motocross Round 3
Ken Roczen won Round 3 of the outdoor season in 2022 at Thunder Valley after finished second in Moto 1 and first in Moto 2. Feld Motor Sports/MX Sports Pro Racing/Align Media

Winds of Change

Roczen’s offseason was dramatic. Citing differences over his announcement to compete in the World Supercross Championship, he split with Honda HRC and declared himself a free agent. It wasn’t a difficult decision; Roczen was signed only for the Supercross season.

That change had the desired effect. Roczen won the WSX championship in their two-race, pilot season. More importantly, he proved to himself that he could compete for wins.

Late in the offseason, Roczen announced he would also change manufacturers with a move to HEP Progressive Ecstar Suzuki. He won the 2016 Pro Motocross title for Suzuki with nine wins in 12 Nationals and finished no worse than second. He easily outran the competition with an advantage of 86 points over second-place Eli Tomac.

“I just think change overall made it happen – and these overseas races – it’s really just a snowball,” Roczen said. “You start somewhere and you feel like something works out and I got better and had more fun doing it. Working with the team as well and working on the motorcycle to get better and actually see it paying off. It’s just, it’s just a big boost in general.”

The return to Suzuki at this stage of his career, after nearly a decade of competing on 450 motorcycles, recharged Roczen. He is one of three riders, (along with Cooper Webb and his former Honda teammate Chase Sexton), with a sweep of the top five in the first three rounds of the 2023 Supercross season.

But last week’s podium really drove home how strong he’s been.

“I think we’re all trying to take it all in,” Roczen said. “I wouldn’t say it came out of nowhere really, but before the season starts you think about – or I thought of how my whole last season went – and it’s been a long time since I’ve been on the podium.”

Roczen’s most recent podium prior to Anaheim 2 came at Budds Creek Motocross Park in Mechanicsville, Maryland last August in Round 10 of the outdoor season. His last podium in Supercross was the 2022 season opener that raised expectations so high.

Supercross Round 1 results
Ken Roczen raised expectations with his season opening win at Anaheim but did not stand on the box again in the Supercross series. Feld Motor Sports/MX Sports Pro Racing/Align Media

The change Roczen needed was not just a different team and bike. More importantly, he needed the freedom to set his own schedule and control his training schedule.

“It’s long days, but I’m really into it at the moment,” Roczen said. “Overall, I felt [that] throughout this off season and now my health has been really well, really good, so that helps. It’s needed to get to the top. I’m pretty confident that we’re, we’re doing the right thing – that I’m doing the right thing.

“I’m doing all my training on my own and I’m planning out my entire week. And I feel like I have a really good system going right now with recovery and putting in some hard days. Right now, I don’t really have anybody telling me what to do. I’m the best judge of that.

“It’s really hard to talk about how much work we’ve put in, but we’ve been doing some big changes and riding a lot throughout the week, some really, really late days. And they’re paying off right now; we’re heading in the right direction. We’re all pulling on the same string, and that helps me out big time.”