By David Morgan, Associate Editor
The rookie class for the 2021 NTT IndyCar Season is certainly an unconventional one, with the drivers making their series debuts not being fresh-faced drivers that have been climbing the open-wheel ladder, but decorated veterans from different facets of the motorsports world looking to try their hand at IndyCar.
Included in the class is seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson, along Romain Grosjean, who brings 10 years of Formula 1 experience with him, and last, but not least, three-time V8 Supercars champion Scott McLaughlin.
Sunday’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park marked their season debut, with the challenging 2.3-mile. 17-turn road course proving to be a worthy challenge for the trio.
When the checkered flag flew, Grosjean led the way among the three rookies as the only driver among them to finish in the top-10, with McLaughlin finishing the day in 14th, and Johnson crossing the line in 19th, two laps down.
Romain Grosjean – No. 51 Dale Coyne Racing with RWR Honda
Driving the No. 51 Honda fielded by a partnership between Dale Coyne Racing and Rick Ware Racing, Grosjean started the day in seventh-place after a stellar qualifying run on Saturday afternoon and climbed as high as third-place by lap 32 before making his first of two pit stops.
Despite a hiccup or two on pit road, Grosjean was able to cycle back into the top-10, where he would remain for the rest of the day. With a top-10 finish under his belt, the No. 51 team will move on to St. Petersburg to take a crack at a street course in an Indy car.
“What a day,” Grosjean said. “First race in IndyCar. First top-10, so we can be very upbeat with that. We fought at the front for some time and we did our best, so a lot that we learned today. We can be very proud of our weekend – P7 in qualifying, P10 in the race. We’ve learned a lot and I guess now we move on to St. Pete and we try and do better.
Scott McLaughlin – No. 3 Team Penske Chevrolet
Starting the race in 12th place, McLaughlin looked to kick off his first full-time season with Team Penske with a strong run, but didn’t quite have the performance he was looking for at the end of the day.
As a result of the Lap 1 crash triggered by his Team Penske teammate Josef Newgarden, McLaughlin was able to climb into the top-10 by the completion of lap 1 and made steady progress up to sixth-place before the first of his three pit stops on lap 25.
In the end, it would be that three stop strategy, along with issues in traffic that would wind up holding him back from being able to score a top-10 finish, with the New Zealander settling into 14th after his final pit stop, where he would remain until the checkered flag flew.
“End of the day for the PPG Chevy No. 3 for Team Penske. Ended up P14, I think,” McLaughlin said. “I got held up a bit mid race, which is a little bit disappointing. Just didn’t have the capacity in the car and was a bit nervous. I just wanted to get one race under my belt. Ended up doing a reasonable move, but it just took too long. The guys gave me a great car. The pit stops were fantastic.
“Can’t wait for St. Pete. We’ve got another two weeks of IndyCar racing, back-to-back, all on NBC. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”
Jimmie Johnson – No. 48 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda
While the other two rookies had a quiet day, it was anything but quiet for the seven-time champion, who had the simple goal of not finishing last in his series debut
Rolling off 21st, Johnson found himself in the middle of the fray mere moments after the green flag dropped when Newgarden spun to trigger a multi-car crash in Turn 5. Johnson did his best to work his way through the chaos, suffering no significant damage despite bouncing off another car in the process.
On lap 10, Johnson had another eye-opening experience when he had a single car spin in Turn 13. Though he didn’t hit anything, Johnson would lose a lap as a result and for the remainder of the race just logged laps, doing his best to stay out of the way of the faster cars.
When the checkered flag flew, Johnson was two laps down in 19th, but still had a smile on his face after completing his first IndyCar race.
“Very happy to have finished,” Johnson said. “There were a couple of pretty scary moments in the race. One at the original start going into Turn 5 where there was chaos. I bounced off a few cars, but nothing happened to mine evidently. Very fortunate there. Then I spun in traffic following somebody up over the hill in (Turn) 13 and unfortunately lost a lap at that point.
“Just a ton of learning experiences throughout the day today. Once again, I’m very thankful for this opportunity that Chip has given me, everybody at CGR, and the great support from Carvana and the American Legion.”
In a nod to his inexperience behind the wheel of a high-horsepower Indy car, Johnson noted just how much being able to complete the entire race on Sunday will help his learning curve as he works his way through the rest of the season.
“These laps are so important to me,” he said. “Actually, in the middle of the race I got lost in the adjustments in the car and was going the wrong way with the bars. The guys saw it on the stand, reported back to me what was going on, I got it tuned in and my pace picked right back up. I just can’t say too many times just how different this is and how specialized this craft is and how good these drivers are in this series.”
Team owner Chip Ganassi was impressed with the work ethic Johnson brings to the organization and expressed no doubt that he would be able to improve on Sunday’s result in the weeks and months to come.
“What a great leader he is,” Ganassi said. “I mean, what a great guy. Really makes me mad to know what I was up against in NASCAR all those years. Now I understand why he won seven championships. The guy is the hardest worker I know. He never stops. He’s having a great time. You know, he’s got a hill to climb, but he’s going to do it.”