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Johnson Finds Fast Comfort Zone As Indianapolis 500 Rookie

Johnson Finds Fast Comfort Zone As Indianapolis 500 Rookie

A year ago, seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson sat in NBC’s Peacock pit box on the south side of the pit lane at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, watching the first NTT INDYCAR SERIES high-speed car enter Turn 1. Johnson’s old friend Steve Letarte, who worked with him at Hendrick Motorsports, nudged him. Go for it, Letarte said.

Letarte wasn’t alone in encouraging Johnson to pursue the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge. So was two-time ‘500’ winner Juan Pablo Montoya, who spent more than seven seasons in NASCAR battling Johnson.

“I said it’s crazy with your background that you decided not to do these ovals because it’s where you did well,” Montoya said. “This is his nature. He drives smart.”

Knowing that the aeroscreen was there to protect NTT INDYCAR SERIES drivers, Johnson decided to try the “500”, and it has adapted well to this side of the sport. On Sunday, the 46-year-old stock car legend will take the green flag from 12th starting position, and it could be argued that he has a faster car than some of the drivers in front of him.

Johnson is one of five Chip Ganassi Racing drivers entered by Chip Ganassi alongside pole sitter Scott Dixon (No. 9 PNC Bank Honda), No. 2 starter Alex Palou (No. 10 NTT DATA Honda), No. 5 starter Marcus Ericsson (No. 8 Huski Chocolate Honda) and No. 6 starter Tony Kanaan (No. 1 The American Legion Honda). Kanaan and Dixon are former 500 winners and Palou is the reigning NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion. Johnson’s teammates have won 73 series races and eight season championships together, a figure that speaks to the experience they continue to share with him.

Johnson, who drives the No. 48 Carvana Honda, has been a whopping third on the speed map in practice this month, and he might have earned a place in the Firestone Fast Six qualifying round if his car didn’t wobble too much on the first lap. from his four-round run in last weekend’s PPG presents Armed Forces Qualifying.

Still, Johnson was impressive in qualifying and he should be on Sunday.

“He will certainly do well,” Montoya said. “In NASCAR you really have to put the car in the right place to hit and pass people. Jimmie is very good at that; therefore he won at everything he won at. (Ovals) are his baby.

“You could see at (Texas Motor Speedway in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES’ race on March 20) that he had patience and that he understands long races. Indy isn’t for kids, but these kids we have in this race are used to running road races where it’s flat chatting (on the accelerator) all the time. They don’t understand that this is an endurance race.

“Indy is different and Jimmie understands that as well as anyone.”

Johnson finished sixth in his only other NTT INDYCAR SERIES race on an oval, at Texas Motor Speedway in March. He was fifth until the last lap when Dixon passed him because he was saving fuel.

Stockcar racing is certainly a different challenge to what Johnson is facing here, but ovals are still ovals and 82 of his 83 Cup Series wins came on such tracks. He has only competed in 661 point-paying oval races in NASCAR’s top division, and according to Montoya, most NASCAR races last as long, if not longer, as the “500,” meaning Johnson has the training to get to the necessary level. to concentrate.

Ganassi, who has had five cars to win the “500”, has judged Johnson by his calm, confident voice, which tells him he is ready for the task ahead and to perform when victory demands it. .

“You can tell by talking to Jimmie at the end of the day that he is very comfortable in the car and has no surprises,” Ganassi said. “I think that’s the best thing a car owner can ask…that when you talk to your drivers at the end of the day, they aren’t excited or nervous or talking in a high-pitched voice or talking really fast or down and out or so.

“They seem very comfortable and quiet. That’s Jimmy.”

Johnson has been comfortable in his IMS skin since he hit the track. Johnson, a four-time Brickyard 400 winner here, was up to speed in his Ganassi car just minutes after his October test debut. When last month’s two-day Open Test was held at IMS, Johnson set the eighth fastest lap with the Texas race to his name.

In May there were no signs of trouble except for the corner 1 bobble in qualifying.

“I just feel like I’m getting more reps, more high-quality reps, and understand how to use my tools,” he said. “I’ve felt some lower resistance settings, which I’ve never felt before.

“I’m still playing with mechanical grip and stuff like that, but I’m getting (better). We’ll see what happens when that happens.”

That time comes at 12:45pm on Sunday when 33 cars, including Johnson, roar towards Turn 1.

Johnson will ride to a place in history. Mario Andretti and AJ Foyt are the only two drivers to have won the Indianapolis 500 and the Daytona 500. Johnson has won the last two.

Can he win? He certainly can if he doesn’t go up against someone with considerably more experience later, and there aren’t many of them in this field.

“Look, that’s how (Helio) Castroneves beat Palou last year – with more experience – but if Jimmie is on the hunt with a few laps to go, he will For real good chance,” Montoya said. “When it comes down to that, it will probably take someone special to beat him because he learned a lot about this race.”

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