Jimmie Johnson unsure of Indy 500, Rolex 24 return, but NASCAR will be top priority in 2024

Jimmie Johnson Indy 2024
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The door seems open for Jimmie Johnson to return to the Indy 500 or other cars and series in 2024 — even after aligning with Toyota in NASCAR.

But his work schedule at Legacy Motor Club might be too busy for the seven-time Cup Series champion to venture outside stock cars.

After retiring from full-time NASCAR after the 2020 season, Johnson has raced in IndyCar (part time in 2021, full time last year including his Indy 500 debut) and IMSA (the Rolex 24 at Daytona and other endurance races in ‘210-22).

But this year, the Garage 56 Camaro in the 24 Hours of Le Mans will mark his only extracurricular activity beyond a few Cup starts with Legacy Motor Club, the NASCAR team he now co-owns.

Johnson has yet to firm up his 2024 schedule (“we certainly keep an open ear to other opportunities”), but during the Tuesday unveiling of LMC’s new deal with Toyota Racing Development starting next year, he indicated multiple times that management of Legacy Motor Club is his first priority.

“I honestly don’t know at this stage,” Johnson said when asked by NBC Sports if he might return to IMSA or IndyCar next season. “I know my schedule for this year, which will include the Garage 56 program. Obviously, I’m very excited to go and have my first attempt at Le Mans with my friends from Chevrolet and Hendrick Motorsports and NASCAR.

“From a time commitment standpoint and being a proud co-owner of this team and being a part of this organization, my focus really is on what needs to happen for this team. I’m happy to hold a steering wheel, and we’ll certainly look at any and all opportunities to try. My focus really needs to be how it helps this team, so I think I’ll have to use that filter as I look at opportunities in the future and take it from there.”

Johnson and team owner Chip Ganassi have indicated he could have raced again for Honda in the Indy 500 this year despite his current ties in Cup to Chevrolet (a relationship that began when Johnson, 47, joined the General Motors racing fold as a teenager).

After the new deal with LMC and Toyota, sources close to the situation have told NBC Sports that Johnson would be allowed to race other series next year if he chooses.

TRD’s general policy has been to allow drivers to race in other series where Toyota isn’t a rival competitor. That would permit Johnson crossing over to IndyCar (Johnson drove a Dallara-Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing the past two years, and Chevrolet is the other engine manufacturer) and IMSA (Toyota races a Lexus in the GT divisions, but there would be no conflicts in the prototype categories).

Of course, Toyota’s first priority would be for Johnson to climb behind the wheel of a Camry in the Cup Series for the first time in 2024.

“We’re partnered with Jimmie as an owner first and foremost,” TRD president David Wilson said during the news conference Tuesday. “As a boots on the ground guy. Jimmie and (co-owner) Maury (Gallagher) are at this every day. It’s Jimmie’s day job to put the pieces in place to build that foundation. Everything on top of that is icing on the cake.

“If Jimmie decides that he’d like to run a race here or there in a Toyota Camry, I think we can make that happen, and we’d like nothing more.”

Johnson has made two Cup starts this season (the Daytona 500 and Circuit of the Americas) and will make at least two more with the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway and the inaugural Chicago Street Race.

With his starts tied in part to bringing sponsorship to LMC, it seems likely he would make at least a few Cup starts next year with Toyota – when he can break away from his day job of overseeing the commercial side of the team.

Those commitments curtail the likelihood of side projects for Johnson, who is known for his intense preparation. Trying to balance a Rolex 24 or Indy 500 start while getting a new manufacturer off the ground with LMC would be extremely difficult.

“My focus is heavily skewed to front office, marketing, branding and partner relations,” Johnson said. “It’s occupied a ton of time. Our competition department, I have check in points, and they’re a phone call away. That group is rock solid.

“It’s been more front office than competition, and that’s funny, because as a driver, I didn’t pay much attention to the front office. But the last few years in my journey, leaving Hendrick and going to IndyCar, I was able to see the other side and how exhilarating and rewarding it is. Maury, I love drafting him and learning from him in this process. It’s a great journey. I’m a competitor at heart, and I’ll put in the time and do what it takes to win.”

Johnson and his business team brokered the Carvana sponsorship that secured his IndyCar ride — one of many examples in his growth as a businessman off the track. Chip Ganassi encouraged Johnson to pursue team management and ownership after being impressed by Johnson’s diligence.

Wilson, who said he has enjoyed getting to known Johnson on a personal level after being a garage acquaintance, echoed that viewpoint Tuesday in recalling his reaction to the announcement of Johnson becoming a team owner last November at Phoenix Raceway.

“I was honestly skeptical,” Wilson said. “Ehhh, Jimmie’s going to put his name on it? Good for him. What has impressed me to no end is the level at which Jimmie is committed to this organization and to Maury. He is working his butt off, and it’s really impressive. It’s given us the confidence that he and Maury are going to continue to build and get better and are the right partners for Toyota.”

‘It’s gnarly, bro’: IndyCar drivers face new challenge on streets of downtown Detroit

IndyCar Detroit downtown
James Black/Penske Entertainment
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DETROIT – It was the 1968 motion picture, “Winning” when actress Joanne Woodward asked Paul Newman if he were going to Milwaukee in the days after he won the Indianapolis 500 as driver Frank Capua.

“Everybody goes to Milwaukee after Indianapolis,” Newman responded near the end of the film.

Milwaukee was a mainstay as the race on the weekend after the Indianapolis 500 for decades, but since 2012, the first race after the Indy 500 has been Detroit at Belle Isle Park.

This year, there is a twist.

Instead of IndyCar racing at the Belle Isle State Park, it’s the streets of downtown Detroit on a race course that is quite reminiscent of the old Formula One and CART race course that was used from 1982 to 1991.

Formula One competed in the United States Grand Prix from 1982 to 1988. Beginning in 1989, CART took over the famed street race through 1991. In 1992, the race was moved to Belle Isle, where it was held through last year (with a 2009-2011 hiatus after the Great Recession).

The Penske Corp. is the promoter of this race, and they did a lot of good at Belle Isle, including saving the Scott Fountain, modernizing the Belle Isle Casino, and basically cleaning up the park for Detroit citizens to enjoy.

The race, however, had outgrown the venue. Roger Penske had big ideas to create an even bigger event and moving it back to downtown Detroit benefitted race sponsor Chevrolet. The footprint of the race course goes around General Motors world headquarters in the GM Renaissance Center – the centerpiece building of Detroit’s modernized skyline.

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Motor City is about to roar with the sound of Chevrolet and Honda engines this weekend as the NTT IndyCar Series is the featured race on the nine-turn, 1.7-mile temporary street course.

It’s perhaps the most unique street course on the IndyCar schedule because of the bumps on the streets and the only split pit lane in the series.

The pit lanes has stalls on opposing sides and four lanes across an unusual rectangular pit area (but still only one entry and exit).

Combine that, with the bumps and the NTT IndyCar Series drivers look forward to a wild ride in Motor City.

“It’s gnarly, bro,” Arrow McLaren driver Pato O’Ward said before posting the fastest time in Friday’s first practice. “It will be very interesting because the closest thing that I can see it being like is Toronto-like surfaces with more of a Long Beach-esque layout.

“There’s less room for error than Long Beach. There’s no curbs. You’ve got walls. I think very unique to this place.

PRACTICE RESULTS: Speeds from the first session

“Then it’s a bit of Nashville built into it. The braking zones look really very bumpy. Certain pavements don’t look bumpy but with how the asphalt and concrete is laid out, there’s undulation with it. So, you can imagine the cars are going to be smashing on every single undulation because we’re going to go through those sections fairly fast, and obviously the cars are pretty low. I don’t know.

“It looks fun, man. It’s definitely going to be a challenge. It’s going to be learning through every single session, not just for drivers and teams but for race control. For everyone.

“Everybody has to go into it knowing not every call is going to be smooth. It’s a tall task to ask from such a demanding racetrack. I think it’ll ask a lot from the race cars as well.”

The track is bumpy, but O’Ward indicated he would be surprised if it is bumper than Nashville. By comparison to Toronto, driving at slow speed is quite smooth, but fast speed is very bumpy.

“This is a mix of Nashville high-speed characteristics and Toronto slow speed in significant areas,” O’Ward said. “I think it’ll be a mix of a lot of street courses we go to, and the layout looks like more space than Nashville, which is really tight from Turn 4 to 8. It looks to be a bit more spacious as a whole track, but it’ll get tight in multiple areas.”

The concept of having four-wide pit stops is something that excites the 24-year-old driver from Monterey, Mexico.

“I think it’s innovation, bro,” O’Ward said. “If it works out, we’ll look like heroes.

“If it doesn’t, we tried.”

Because of the four lanes on pit road, there is a blend line the drivers will have to adhere to. Otherwise, it would be chaos leaving the pits compared to a normal two-lane pit road.

“If it wasn’t there, there’d be guys fighting for real estate where there’s one car that fits, and there’d be cars crashing in pit lane,” O’Ward said. “I get why they did that. It’s the same for everybody. I don’t think there’s a lot of room to play with. That’s the problem.

“But it looks freaking gnarly for sure. Oh my God, that’s going to be crazy.”

Alex Palou of Chip Ganassi Racing believes the best passing areas will be on the long straights because of the bumps in the turns. That is where much of the action will be in terms of gaining or losing a position in the race.

“It will also be really easy to defend in my opinion,” Palou said. “Being a 180-degree corner, you just have to go on the inside and that’s it. There’s going to be passes for sure but its’ going to be risky.

“Turn 1, if someone dives in, you end up in the wall. They’re not going to be able to pass you on the exit, so maybe with the straight being so long you can actually pass before you end up on the braking zone.”

Palou’s teammate, Marcus Ericsson, was at the Honda simulator in Brownsburg, Indiana, before coming to Detroit and said he was shocked by the amount of bumps on the simulator.

Race promoter Bud Denker, the President of Penske Corporation, and Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix President Michael Montri, sent the track crews onto the streets with grinders to smooth out the bumps on the race course several weeks ago.

“They’ve done a decent amount of work, and even doing the track walk, it looked a lot better than what we expected,” Ericsson said. “I don’t think it’ll be too bad. I hope not. That’ll be something to take into account.

“I think the track layout doesn’t look like the most fun. Maybe not the most challenging. But I love these types of tracks with rules everywhere. It’s a big challenge, and you have to build up to it. That’s the types of tracks that I love to drive. It’s a very much Marcus Ericsson type of track. I like it.”

Scott Dixon, who was second fastest in the opening session, has competed on many new street circuits throughout his legendary racing career. The six-time NTT IndyCar Series champion for Chip Ganassi Racing likes the track layout, even with the unusual pit lane.

I don’t think that’s going to be something that catches on where every track becomes a double barrel,” Dixon said. “It’s new and interesting.

“As far as pit exit, I think Toronto exit is worse with how the wall sticks out. I think in both lanes, you’ve got enough lead time to make it and most guys will make a good decision.”

It wasn’t until shortly after 3 p.m. ET on Friday that the IndyCar drivers began the extended 90-minute practice session to try out the race course for the first time in real life.

As expected, there were several sketchy moments, but no major crashes during the first session despite 19 local yellow flags for incidents and six red flags.

Rookie Agustin Canapino had to cut his practice short after some damage to his No. 78 Dallara-Chevrolet, but he was among many who emerged mostly unscathed from scrapes with the wall.

“It was honestly less carnage than I expected,” said Andretti Autosport’s Kyle Kirkwood, who was third fastest in the practice after coming off his first career IndyCar victory in the most recent street race at Long Beach in April. “I think a lot of people went off in the runoffs, but no one actually hit the wall (too hard), which actually surprised me. Hats off to them for keeping it clean, including myself.

“It was quite a bit less grip than I think everyone expected. Maybe a little bit more bumpy down into Turn 3 than everyone expected. But overall they did a good job between the two manufacturers. I’m sure everyone had pretty much the same we were able to base everything off of. We felt pretty close to maximum right away.”

Most of the preparation for this event was done either on the General Motors Simulator in Huntersville, North Carolina, or the Honda Performance Development simulator in Brownsburg, Indiana.

“Now, we have simulators that can scan the track, so we have done plenty of laps already,” Power told NBC Sports. “They have ground and resurfaced a lot of the track, so it should be smoother.

“But nothing beats real-world experience. It’s going to be a learning experience in the first session.”

As a Team Penske driver, Power and his teammates were consulted about the progress and layout of the Detroit street course. They were shown what was possible with the streets that were available.

“We gave some input back after we were on the similar what might be ground and things like that,” Power said.

Racing on the streets of Belle Isle was a fairly pleasant experience for the fans and corporate sponsor that compete in the race.

But the vibe at the new location gives this a “big event” feel.

“The atmosphere is a lot better,” Power said. “The location, the accessibility for the fans, the crowd that will be here, it’s much easier. I think it will be a much better event.

“It feels like a Long Beach, only in a much bigger city. That is what street course racing is all about.”

Because the track promoter is also the team owner, Power and teammates Scott McLaughlin and Indy 500 winner Josef Newgarden will have a very busy weekend on the track, and with sponsor and personal appearances.

“That’s what pays the bills and allows us to do this,” Power said.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500