By David Morgan, Associate Editor
INDIANAPOLIS – Jimmie Johnson is already part of an exclusive club with a membership of three, having won seven NASCAR Cup Series championships, but if all goes to plan on Sunday, he could be joining another elite fraternity of drivers – those that have won both the Daytona 500 and the Indianapolis 500.
Currently, only two legendary drivers, Mario Andretti and AJ Foyt, have accomplished the feat of winning the biggest race in open wheel and the biggest race in stock cars. Johnson will be looking to become the third.
“I’ve heard the stat. Would love to be one of three,” Johnson said. That’s kind of where it’s at. I’ve just not been one to think about what it might feel like or what it might possibly do for my career legacy or, you know, those types of questions, but I know it would be so, so amazing to join those guys if I could.
“I have no idea what that moment would be like, but it’d be a huge honor to join them. And I know from my past in NASCAR, a few different moments that I’ve had to join the greats, it just means so much.”
To get there, he will have the monumental task of tackling one of the biggest – if not the biggest – races of his career when he straps into the No. 48 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda to take the green flag for the 106th running of the Indianapolis 500.
Building on his success earlier in the year at Texas, Johnson has shown speed throughout his time during the Month of May, learning both on and off track how to navigate the 2.5-mile Indianapolis oval with hands on experience in the various practice sessions that have taken place leading up to the main event.
Based on the results thus far, Johnson is optimistic he can be in the hunt on Sunday.
“I think my laps on track and practice, racing around the other cars, making quality passes on drivers I think that’ll be favorites for the race is helping my confidence,” Johnson said. “I’d say the thing that helps me the most is the performance we had in Texas. To really drive through the field and race with everyone really helped me. And I’ve got a lot of laps on an oval since then. So you know, I do think I have a chance.
“The laps have helped me understand the equipment, the track, the speed, the line, you know, all the things that are really exclusive to IndyCar. And since I’ve had so many laps with these long practice sessions, I’ve honestly been able to go into my kind of list of ideas that worked for me here in a Cup car. Different sensations that I liked, different geometry settings and shock concepts or dampers as they call ’em here, damper concepts. I do feel like in the two weeks here and the laps that I’ve had, I’ve been able to play with the setup some and a few things have worked.”
However, he has had some close calls along the way, slapping the wall in practice last week, followed by a near miss and a brilliant save during qualifying in which he turned in a time fast enough for 12th on the starting grid.
Despite all that, Johnson noted that those incidents are just additional data points for him to learn from as his build his open wheel knowledge base for racing at Indianapolis.
“They’re learning moments for sure,” Johnson said. “And I’m understanding these subtle cues from the car. Just how early they are in the corner. Like before both of those incidents, I knew I had a little bit of under steer. I just didn’t realize how quickly it would compound and go to shit and then like really have a problem on my hands. So those subtle cues, I’m much more alert in waiting for them.
“I haven’t analyzed it, but in our career, we’re always in this conversation with the right foot. Will it stick? Will it hold? Can I hold more throttle? That’s just part of what we do. And especially in qualifying trim with how light the aero balance is on the car. I learned a couple quick lessons that if you get that early sign, you need to change directions fast. Because you’re covering so much distance, you’re just gonna run out of room and be in the fence. That’s kind of what happened in both of those incidents.”
Aside from the confidence inside the No. 48 camp, Johnson’s Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Tony Kanaan, with whom he shared a car last season, expressed his confidence that Johnson will be in contention on Sunday.
“I’ve been saying for a long time that Jimmie is going to be a contender in this series and I think he proved that at Texas,” Kanaan said. “I actually said that Jimmie is going to have a shot, a real shot, at winning this race. His progress has been remarkable. Obviously, he still knows he has a long way to go on the street and road courses, but can’t blame the guy. It’s totally new territory in a series that’s so competitive.
“His best shot to win a race is on an oval, right now, and he will win. I have no doubt.”
Six-time IndyCar champion and polesitter Scott Dixon echoed those comments, spotlighting how Johnson so quickly rebounded from his close calls earlier in the month.
“I think my expectations of what he has done are true,” said Dixon. “You know, I think a lot of the moments he’s had, I’m not sure I would’ve saved a lot of those moments that he saved. Especially the one in qualifying, I’m pretty sure I would’ve hit the outside wall and the inside wall.
“Just his composure, I think is not unexpected. It’s what I would expect, but to see it, how he was unfazed on lap one of his qualifying run and then to complete the other ones flat out, you know, that’s tough to do for anybody. Especially for someone that’s maybe doing it for the first time.
“He’s actually been really interesting on even set up things that they do in Cup around this place. Actually, a couple of things have transferred to what we are doing for race running… He continuously lifts this team, in many areas, but performance wise, definitely for the 500.”
Even Andretti himself has his eye on Johnson heading into the 500, noting that he will be a “force to be reckoned with” in the battle for the Borg-Warner trophy.
“I’m a big fan,” Andretti said earlier in the month. “I’m watching it as close as I can, and he has progressed tremendously this year. I think there are a few glitches for the road courses, yet. Come the 500, he’s going to be a force to be reckoned with.
“What I saw at Texas in Jimmie, he felt right at home at that point. He knows enough about the car and yeah, he’s definitely a dark horse.”
Should Johnson win the day on Sunday to make his mark in motorsports history, how would the moment rank in his illustrious career that has spanned more than two decades?
“Man, life changing, just the first thing that comes to mind,” Johnson said when asked to describe what an Indy 500 win would mean. “Championships, Daytona 500 win, Brickyard 400 win. I mean, they’re just life-changing moments.
“I think where I am in my career and all the success I had in NASCAR, if I was to win Indy, it would at least be equal to the most impactful, life-changing win I’ve had. I don’t know which one that would exactly be because I’ve been very fortunate to have some moments, but it’d be life changing.”