By David Morgan, Associate Editor
Seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson may only be running the road/street courses in his first season in the NTT IndyCar Series, but as the future for the driver of the No. 48 Chip Ganassi Racing comes into focus, that future could include the addition of oval races to his schedule and a possible attempt at the Indianapolis 500.
Addressing the topic ahead of last Sunday’s Big Machine Music City Grand Prix in Nashville, Johnson noted that he and his team are taking a methodical approach to the issue and have a gameplan they are following heading into the home stretch of the 2021 season.
“I’m probably going to be more careful in this decision than anything I’ve done,” Johnson said. “I feel like there’s this history of saying no that’s following me. It’s an interesting conversation in my head of safety versus desire to be in the race, but as I’ve said, the more I’m around these cars, the more I’m at the track, the more I realize how safe these cars are. The addition of the aeroscreen in some crashing incidents is safer than the roof of a NASCAR vehicle.
“I say all that and I’ll talk myself into running the full schedule next year, so I’m trying to be smart about it and be calculated. CGR has been super helpful with saying let’s just put a stake in the ground and we’ll see how it goes with the next step. We’re methodically working through that and it’s good because it’s tempering my competitive desires and allowing me to learn more and educating my family too. Because Chani and the kids are going to have to sign off before I finally decide to do it.”
First on the checklist would be getting out on track in an IndyCar on an oval, which Johnson indicated would likely take place at Homestead-Miami Speedway sometime this fall. Though he has tons of experience on ovals in a stock car, rules are rules, and Johnson will follow the procedures that have been laid out for him and others in similar situations.
“From IndyCar’s perspective, and they laugh when they tell me this, and I laughed as well, but they have to see me drive on an oval first,” Johnson said. “It’s just the way the rules work no matter who you are. I believe even Montoya had to come back through and recertify to run the speedway, so there is a process. They need to see me on an oval and then I need to go drive the oval and work through my rookie orientation.
“Depending on how schedules work out, there’s a chance I could do that this fall, which would then allow me to be ready for the open test spring of next year and then work my way into May. So, there is a pathway for if things start to work out, there is a pathway to certify and get a lot of laps at the Brickyard and build toward trying that race.”
Though there are certain steps that will need to be followed if an attempt at Indianapolis is in his future, Johnson added that there are some things he personally would like to find out about how open wheel cars will differ from stock cars on an oval.
“I need to hit something,” Johnson joked. “I want to know what it’s like to crash one of these things. I sure as hell don’t want to do it in a test session and draw the attention to it and all that, but that’s the million-dollar question to me.
“I just want to know, how bad does it hurt? I know what it feels like to have all that steel around you and have the crush on an impact. I don’t know what knocking off a couple of wheels supported by toothpicks feels like, so that’s part of it.
“That knowledge falls into the category of the safety side and just trying to make sure I’m making smart decisions. Good decisions, in that respect.”
In addition to gaining the knowledge of how an open wheel car would hold up in a crash, Johnson also explained that he would like to see just how much his oval experience in stock cars will help him when it comes to racing an open wheel car on an oval.
“After that, just understanding how different the car is versus a NASCAR vehicle. Montoya is convinced with my years of experience on ovals – there’s just a way to drive the car and use the line through the corner that is very efficient – I’d be very competitive, and I’m eager to see what that is. He’s not a man of a lot of words, so it’s hard to extract what that is, but I absolutely believe him and look forward to find that competitive piece that comes with it.”
Following a rough go of things in Nashville, Johnson has four races remaining in his rookie season in IndyCar, with road/street course stops at Indianapolis, Portland, Laguna Seca, and Long Beach up ahead.