Johnson is reintroduced to WWTR

Johnson is reintroduced to WWTR

Excuse Jimmie Johnson if he forgot a few races in his decorated motorsport career. He has registered over 800 starts in a stock car and now 26 in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES.

So when the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion rolled into the World Wide Technology Raceway for this weekend’s Bommarito Automotive Group 500 presented by Axalta and Valvoline, he couldn’t remember how many times he’d raced here. He thought the answer was a one-off, but he was told it wasn’t.

“I had a fight with my social media team,” Johnson said. “(They said, ‘We’ve got these stats that show you’ve been here three times.'”

All three were in NASCAR’s Xfinity Series, with records finishing 15th in 1998 with Tad Geschickter’s team and 13th and 14th in 2000 and 2001 with Herzog Motorsports, respectively.

“I remember my first race here in, I think, ’98 or ’99 in the (No) 59 Busch car, (but) I can’t remember being here the other two times, in the Herzog ( no.) 92 car, which is a little weird,” Johnson said. “I remember the 59 car because myself, Ryan Newman and Adam Petty were all fighting for that seat. Adam Petty was sitting in the stands watching me.”

Johnson also tested a Cup Series car just before the track was resurfaced, and he tried the 1.25-mile oval in a simulator in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES configuration.

On Friday, Johnson qualified 21st out of 26 for Saturday’s 260-lap race. Live coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on USA Network, Peacock Premium and the INDYCAR Radio Network.

Johnson has posted his best NTT INDYCAR SERIES results on oval tracks — he was sixth at Texas Motor Speedway and eleventh and fifth in the two races at Iowa Speedway — but this track may not suit him very well.

“When I look at my oval performance (in this series), when there are multiple lanes, I seem to run well,” he said. “Indy is a single-file track, (and) I wasn’t able to pass and use my experience as I had hoped.

“Last year’s race (at WWTR) looked like there were about 10 or 15 laps with a few lanes, then it quickly went to a single file. Until I go out (for Saturday’s race), it’s hard to say. ”

As part of post-qualifying practice, nine drivers invested a 30-minute drive in the high track of the track to add track rubber to help develop the second groove. A similar session was offered at Texas Motor Speedway to reasonable ratings, and there were 284 passes to position.

Johnson also noted that he tested at Iowa Speedway prior to the doubleheader; this event did not afford him that luxury.

“Here I think I’m up to 50 laps,” he said after qualifying. “I just need more laps to find my groove here.”

New contract, new day for Castroneves

With the NTT INDYCAR SERIES back in action with this weekend’s Bommarito Automotive Group 500 presented by Axalta and Valvoline, it’s wise to remember which driver knows World Wide Technology Raceway as well as anyone else. His name is Helio Castroneves.

Not much has been heard of the 47-year-old Brazilian on the track this season at Meyer Shank Racing, with his No. 06 AutoNation/SiriusXM Honda deeper in the standings than he’d like – he’s 18th after 14 out of 17 races. But this is a track where Castroneves often excelled, winning the 2003 race and finishing second twice. In six starts at the 1.25-mile circuit in Madison, Illinois, he has never finished outside the top 10, with three different teams.

And ovals have also been his thing throughout his long career, with 16 of his 31 wins at such circuits.

“Very nice,” Castroneves said, reminding him of those facts. “I really appreciate that.”

With a contract extension in hand for 2023, Castroneves is hoping for a smoother Saturday night than he experienced 20 years ago with his win. In that race with Team Penske, his car was plagued with a series of dashboard problems – “no information on my dashboard, to be honest, absolutely blank” – and yet it still delivered.

“Technology sometimes helps, but technology didn’t do anything for me that day,” he said with a laugh. “I remember even turning up the lights didn’t work. I had to do everything on time – literally old school.”

Castroneves put this season’s difficulties before the challenge of laying a foundation for the team that has grown to two full-time cars this season. Yes, he has had to adapt to the downforce changes caused by the installation of the aeroscreen since he last raced some of these tracks in 2017, the last time he competed in all series races. Also consider that this weekend’s event at WWTR is only his second at the track since 2003.

But Castroneves believes MSR is building something special with him and 2019 series champion Simon Pagenaud, his former running mate at Team Penske.

“Look, I’m just going to put it this way,” he said. “When you start a business, (and) have learned a little bit with Roger (Penske) here, sometimes you make a (car) dealer (and) the first year you lose money. It’s kind of like that in the race team.

“Sometimes you put together a team(s) even though the team has experience or shares information with another group, it takes time to follow the process, to put everything in its place. Some people come and go, so it takes time. You just have to trust the process.

“I am confident that we will get our deserved result and hopefully we will break through this weekend.”

‘The Wall of Smack’

WWTR officials have decorated the wall of Turn 2 with the label ‘The Wall of Smack’.

Several NTT INDYCAR SERIES drivers have hit it off over the years, including Alexander Rossi in Andretti Autosport’s No. 27 NAPA AUTO PARTS/AutoNation Honda last year.

Rossi was asked about the board and tried to downplay it at first. But he confessed.

“I probably know more about it because I crashed there,” he said.

Felix Rosenqvist (No.7 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet) came close in NTT P1 Award qualifying, but avoided it.

Josef Newgarden (No. 2 PPG Team Penske Chevrolet) on the signage: “I love it. It could be an incredibly ironic place to have a wreck. I’ll try not to hit it, (but) I’m sure people would love it if I did.”

Odds and Ends

  • Graham Rahal was the fastest driver overall in final practice on Friday night, setting a top lap of 177.728 mph in the No. 15 iPacket Honda. Rahal starts the 13th Saturday. Johnson spun into the pits with about a minute to go into practice, stroking the wall with his nose cone.
  • Newgarden, who will start third, is going for a third consecutive win at this track. The last time an INDYCAR driver won three in a row on any of the tracks on the 2022 schedule was Sebastien Bourdais at Long Beach (2005-07). Colton Herta has a shot at three wins in a row at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca with the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey on September 11.
  • The top seven drivers in the standings took the top seven positions for Saturday’s race, and it’s fitting that series points leader Will Power (No.12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet) starts from pole.
  • Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge winner Marcus Ericsson (No.8 Bryant Honda) took his highest starting position in his NTT INDYCAR SERIES career. His previous best had been third at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course last year.
  • Romain Grosjean of Andretti Autosport, who qualified ninth in the No. 28 NAPA AUTO PARTS/DHL Honda, will start the race in 18th place due to an unapproved engine change prior to this event. On oval tracks, the penalty for such an action is nine positions; on road courses and street circuits that is six positions.
  • Rookie Devlin DeFrancesco qualified in 10th position and will start ninth due to Grosjean’s penalty, making this his highest starting attempt of the season. The previous best driver of Andretti Steinbrenner Autosport’s No. 29 PowerTap Honda was 15th in Race 2 at the Iowa Speedway.
  • The NTT INDYCAR SERIES continues a tradition at WWTR by offering a pair of three-wide “Salute to Indy” parade laps. The drivers in positions 17 through 24 will drive next to the first eight rows, making the drivers in positions 25 and 26 row 9. At the green flag, the cars come back in rows of two based on qualifying performance.
  • Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires points leader Linus Lundqvist, who drives HMD Motorsports’ number 26 with Dale Coyne Racing, took his leading sixth pole of the season at WWTR on Friday with a speed average of 160.259 mph over two laps. It will be Lundqvist’s seventh time at the front of the field, as he also held the No. 1 grid position earlier this month in Nashville, where the field was determined by participant points after qualifying rained out. Benjamin Pedersen (No. 24 Global Racing Group with HMD Motorsports) was second at 160.124 mph. The 75-lap race is scheduled for 4:20 p.m. ET on Peacock Premium, INDYCAR Live! and the INDYCAR radio network. Lundqvist has won five series races this season and has an impressive 95 point lead in the championship.
  • Salvador De Alba of Jay Howard Driver Development led the Indy Pro 2000 tests Friday at WWTR with a fastest lap of 140.471 mph. The 45-lap race on Saturday is scheduled for 3:15 PM ET.

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