By David Morgan, Associate Editor
While Jimmie Johnson is in the midst of his final full-time season in the NASCAR Cup Series, the seven-time champion is taking the opportunity to also look toward his future racing endeavors.
On Wednesday of next week, Johnson will climb behind the wheel of a Chip Ganassi Racing Honda at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for a test at the track’s 2.439-mile, 14-turn road course, which also hosts the NTT IndyCar Series and NASCAR Xfinity Series this weekend for a historic doubleheader.
Johnson had originally planned his first on-track test in an open wheel car to come back in April with Arrow McLaren SP, but the COVID-19 pandemic put a hold on those plans, leading to him teaming up with Ganassi for the test next week.
Even with the manufacturer conflict that comes as a result of Ganassi fielding Hondas and Johnson being a Chevrolet driver in the stock car ranks, he noted that Chevrolet was understanding of him just wanting to get on-track as much as possible to feel out if racing in IndyCar is something he really wants to do in the future.
“Everybody’s been super understanding that I just want to get on track and experience an IndyCar and see if it’s something that I want to do in the future,” Johnson said. “I feel like it is. My great relationship with Chevrolet – they were understanding that laps for me and any experience I can have in an IndyCar is really the most important thing.
“Honestly, any test date I can get, I want to take right now just to get every lap that I possibly can. I’m thankful that things came together so quickly with CGR and certainly there is the manufacturer conflict. But Chevrolet was very understanding of the situation and we’ll see where this all leads in the future.”
So, what exactly will Johnson be looking for when he hits the track on Wednesday for the test?
“If I’m about four seconds off the pace, then that’s probably a quick sign that I don’t need to be in one of these cars,” Johnson said with a laugh. “It’s really how I can feel the car and what my pace is like. Of course, it’s unrealistic to think that I’ll be in a race-winning pace in the first test session. But if I’m within a certain amount of time and I have a good feel of the car, then for me, I feel like that’s an important first step that I need to know that I can be competitive.
“I do not want to go race in any series and not be competitive. It’s really in those lines of sensing and feeling the car. Of course, lap times always plays a role in things. From my standpoint, that’s what I’m looking at. And on the team side, I would say it’s pretty similar. They might have a few more things that they’re looking at, but on my side, it’s really about competitiveness.”
While Wednesday’s test is with Ganassi and he has worked with McLaren in the past, Johnson explained that he has a lot of avenues his IndyCar future could take as he has had conversations with more than just those two teams about possibly driving for them at some point.
“I have a lot of options – I’m very fortunate to have many friends in the garage area,” Johnson said. “I’ve had a lot of conversations with more teams than just McLaren and CGR. And it’s very early days – there hasn’t been any serious conversations. It’s really just been about going to the track for the team to look at me and form their opinion of my abilities in one of their race cars.
“And certainly, I have that same opportunity to see what I think of each team and what an IndyCar even feels like. So, very early stages of all this. It’s hard to read too far into things at this point. But most importantly, I’m just thankful the teams are listening, willing and able to take me to the track just so I can learn.”
Should Wednesday’s test and any future tests be a success, what would Johnson’s preferred open wheel schedule look like? For now, he seems to be concentrating on the road and street courses on the IndyCar circuit.
“My true desire right now is to just run the road courses,” Johnson said. “There are 12 on the schedule right now and I would be open to run all 12 if the right opportunity came along.
“When I was a kid growing up, the closest IndyCar racing for me was at Long Beach. So, one of my hopes is that I am able to race at Long Beach. I hung on the fence a lot as a kid watching and dreaming. I had a lot of meetings as my professional career developed at the Long Beach Grand Prix with Chevrolet, thinking about what would be next for me transitioning from off road trucks to asphalt. For me, there’s a lot of sentimental value with that race and I hope to race there.
“But I’m open to all – when you think of COTA, when you think of Road America, there’s just so many good ones to think about. Indy, obviously I’m going to have a chance to test there. I’d be highly interested in every one that they have on the schedule right now.”
Johnson has staunchly been against running an oval in an IndyCar in the past, but noted Friday that the tide may be turning on that front with the introduction of the windscreen this season, opening up the possibility of making a future run at the Indianapolis 500.
“I’m going to keep a close eye on things,” Johnson said. “Their safety on ovals has dramatically increased this year with the windscreen they have. So, I’ll keep a close eye on things there and see how the safety level looks. I’ve always wanted to race the Indy 500 – I’d have to do a lot of selling to my wife to get that pass to do it (laughs).”