The lofty expectations started with Chip Ganassi. He is the one who said Jimmie Johnson would win a race during his rookie IndyCar season.
And even after his first two races — Johnson has spun, stalled and caused three of the five cautions called — Ganassi hasn't changed his mind. He still thinks the seven-time NASCAR champion is going to find himself at the right place at the right time and get to victory lane this year.
“Above all, he's a racer,” Ganassi said. “He understands race craft. Is he going to win a race on all-out speed? You'd probably say that's a challenge. But things happen in these races and I don't think it's out of the question.”
His next chance comes at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where Johnson is a four-time winner. But those victories are on the big oval in NASCAR races and Saturday will mark his debut on the road course in just his third career IndyCar Series start.
Johnson tested the IMS road course in July with Chip Ganassi Racing, the first step in this two-year deal that transitioned him from NASCAR to IndyCar road and street course racer.
The results have been, at least on paper, underwhelming. Johnson was 19th in his IndyCar debut on the road course at Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama and then 22nd on the street course in St. Petersburg, Florida.
At Barber he navigated through a six-car crash on the first lap of the race, but later spun to bring out the second caution. He brought out two of the three cautions at St. Pete, including one incident where he struggled to get his car into reverse.
Despite the challenges, Johnson said at St. Pete his “fun meter was at 11" and the new experiences have been invigorating after two decades in NASCAR.
He walked along the waterfront from his hotel to the track in St. Pete, dined with his wife, two daughters and friends at a patio restaurant and noted the would have been "sitting in Talladega right now, staring outside the motorhome window at the same patch of grass we’ve looked at for 20 years.”
Johnson has viewed every on-track session as a learning experience and doesn't focus on finishing position. His gains come in knowledge of the car, the tracks, the team, race procedures and simply adapting to a new series. Johnson is racing against drivers who have always competed in open wheel cars while he spent the last 18 years racing a full-bodied stock car.
Tony Stewart successfully made the switch from open wheel to NASCAR — and even went back to dabble in Indy cars — but other drivers have struggled with the transition. The 1997 champion of the then-Indy Racing League said technology has greatly advanced since his days in an Indy car that had old-school gear boxes with limited shifting.
“I think that’s why it is so hard for guys to make the jump now, these guys are running these cars on the ragged edge and they’re on a knife edge all the time,” Stewart said. “To be that close to the edge you have to have a good feel and be in tune with the race car, and the only thing that gets you there is just seat time."
Stewart said Johnson “has a ways to go” but will figure it out.
“I mean, he’s one of those guys that no matter what he does, he’s very dedicated, and he puts 120 percent effort into it," he said. "It’s just a matter of time of how long is it going to take him.”
Johnson will have two days in the car this weekend then turn it over to Tony Kanaan for the Indianapolis 500. He's not running oval races this year but plans to stick around for his first Indy 500 as a member of the NBC Sports broadcast team.
Although he had no plans to run ovals — out of respect for his wife, Chani, who fears the safety of Indy cars on ovals — Johnson now has the itch. Both he and his wife have been pleased with IndyCar's safety improvements and together watched replays of the first-lap crash at Barber where the aeroscreen cockpit protector deflected a wheel from hitting Ryan Hunter-Reay in the head.
“The crash on the first lap was right in front of their viewing area and of course she's worried about safety, so that sent her into a bit of a tailspin for a while,” Johnson said. “But she saw that and was like, ‘Oh my God, the aeroscreen is incredible.’ And I was like, ‘Yes, yes, it is.’"
Ganassi had a told-you-so laugh about Johnson's sudden oval interest. What's surprised him most is the effect Johnson has had on the rest of the Ganassi organization.
“The entire company has been elevated,” Ganassi said. “Anybody can play the part from time to time. He lives and eats and drinks and sleeps it. It's a surprise to me how hard he works on the track, off the track, all of the above.”
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