By David Morgan, Associate Editor
When the green flag drops on Sunday’s XPEL 375 at Texas Motor Speedway, Jimmie Johnson will be in familiar territory.
The seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion has had his hands full since moving over to the NTT IndyCar Series last year, struggling to get a handle on driving an open-wheel car during his part-time schedule that focused only on the road and street courses.
With the addition of the ovals to his schedule in 2022 allowing him to run the full season, Johnson is hoping to turn things around starting this weekend in the Lone Star State.
Having scored seven wins on the 1.5-mile track during his NASCAR career, on both the original layout and the reconfigured layout, the driver of the No. 48 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda is hoping some of that success will carry over to his oval debut.
“Excited for it,” Johnson said. “Excited as I am to be on an oval, I still haven’t been in traffic in an INDYCAR. I still have plenty to learn coming to a track I know and love. Really excited to get there and work.”
Along with his NASCAR experience, Johnson had the opportunity to run an IndyCar test at the track last August as he was deciding whether or not to run the ovals in 2022. He was also supposed to have participated in another test at Texas in recent weeks, but inclement weather wound up cancelling that test.
Despite the limited track time he has had in an IndyCar at Texas, Johnson noted that he has been able to target some of the similarities and differences between open-wheel cars and stock cars around the high-banked track.
“I really believe all tracks have their own rhythm to them,” Johnson said. “Ovals are a little easier to find in some respects, maybe come quicker just because the lap is shorter. It’s easier to pick up the rhythm of a track with four corners versus one with 17 or something like that.
“There is a rhythm to Texas. It is much different than what I have felt in the Cup car. But where it is similar is just how aggressive you can be in turns three and four, then really how cautious you need to be turn one, kind of getting the car pointed and heading off the back straightaway for turn two.
“It’s a lap where you start tiptoeing, making sure you really hit your marks, to then really moving down the back straightaway and throwing all the aggression you can at turns three and four.
“I did find that the line is a little different in the INDYCAR. Just the potential of the car’s cornering ability allows you to run a little narrower entry and exit. With that you don’t have to flirt with the transitions of the corners in and off as much.
“Speed was up tremendously. Also, a slight adjustment in my line. But as the test session went on, I was really excited to see how many similarities there were from my NASCAR driving experience and car setup to what we had going on with the INDYCAR.”
Even with the added optimism that comes with carrying previous experience into Texas, Johnson was quick to temper early expectations heading into the weekend, given the unknowns of racing will a full field of IndyCars vs just making single car runs in testing.
“I certainly have higher expectations for myself, but I’m not thinking I’m going to show up, qualify on pole, lead the most laps and win the race,” Johnson said.
“I still have so many unknowns with this first race that I’ve given myself a break. Certainly, I’m a racer. I want to win. That’s ultimately why I’m out there. I’m just trying to be realistic with this journey, how different it is, how tough the competition is, all those elements that play into it.
“Ultimately that’s why I want to do this, I want to win. I want to be on the podium at a minimum, if not win. Know that ovals are the best opportunity for myself.”