NASCAR, sports car champs expected for Garage 56 lineup

NASCAR, sports car champs expected for Garage 56 lineup

MONTEREY, California – When Jimmie Johnson pulled into his pit after a 16th in the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion just had completed his first full-time season in the NTT IndyCar Series. The finish in the season finale matched his career best for a street and road course event (in the July 3 race at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course).

At the other end of pit lane, Will Power and Team Penske was celebrating the 2022 NTT IndyCar Series championship. One of Johnson’s teammates at Chip Ganassi Racing, Alex Palou, was celebrating a dominant race victory.

Johnson remains quite familiar with those types of celebrations.

Seven times in Johnson’s NASCAR career, the driver from El Cajon, California, won the Cup Series championship to equal legends Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. Johnson also won 83 NASCAR Cup Series races, including two victories in the Daytona 500 and four in the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

When Johnson made the decision to retire from full-time NASCAR after the 2020 season and switch to IndyCar in 2021, he knew he had to lower expectations. He was starting over at 44 when he made his first IndyCar debut in April 2021 at Barber Motorsports Park.

Two years later, Johnson is 46 and realizes driving an Indy car is much harder than he ever dreamed it could be.

“This has been harder, for sure,” Johnson told NBC Sports before the season ended. “I did 12 races last year and 17 this year and four test sessions. Add up all the seat time, and maybe I had 50 hours in the car last year.

“It’s really tough for anyone right now coming along without testing, with short practice sessions, and if you don’t come up through the junior categories in any given sport, I think you are further behind than you realize. That’s the situation I’m in.

“I wouldn’t change it for anything in the world. I had a great career in NASCAR. I got plenty of test time then. I raced in the junior ranks and worked my way up. To make the switch now from the top of NASCAR to the top of open wheel, it’s a bigger gap that I first thought.”

And that is one reason why Johnson won’t commit to another full-time season in IndyCar, at least not yet.

Though he received positive news from major sponsor Carvana that the online automotive sales platform would sponsor him in 2023, the final decision is up to Johnson.

“I know that opportunity that I have in IndyCar way earlier than I have any other year,” Johnson told NBC Sports. “I’m very thankful to be in this position I don’t have any pressure from the team or sponsor.

“I’ll soak it all in and see what I want to do.”

Entering the season finale, Johnson said he wanted to go back to Colorado with his family, let the dust settle and think it over.

“It’s time to go home, look inside myself and what my goals are professionally and personally, spend some time talking to girls about it and make some decisions,” Johnson said. “I honestly think I’m not doing anything different this year than I did last, let the dust settle from the season and evaluate my options.

“I can go on record to say this year has been more of a time commitment on a full-time schedule basis than I expected. I don’t know where my IMSA plans sit. I don’t know where my IndyCar plans sit. I want to get to (the 24 Hours of) Le Mans. There are other things I want to do personally and professionally as well and see what works.

“I’m going to go through my normal process. Take a bit of time, digest it, think about it, meet with Team Johnson and see what works. But the good thing is Carvana sees how important this is all about and wants to support me in whatever way they do.”

He became a full-time IndyCar driver in 2022, adding ovals to his schedule and appeared to hit his groove. He drove a thrilling race at Texas Motor Speedway in the March 20 XPEL 375, racing his way to a sixth-place finish.

NASCAR, sports car champs expected for Garage 56 lineup
Jimmie Johnson, shown during practice at Laguna Seca, finished a career-best fifth during his first full IndyCar season (Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY Sports Images).

Johnson was among the fastest drivers during May at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and made the “Fast 12” qualifying session that would determine the front four rows of the 106th Indy 500.

On Johnson’s qualification attempt, he momentarily bobbled on his first lap, and despite three very fast ensuing laps, it was enough to keep him from contending for the pole.

On race day, Johnson started 12th, fell back in the field, and struggled with turbulence in traffic on the one-groove 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval. He ultimately crashed with six laps remaining and finished 28th.

Despite that, he was named 2022 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year.

He continued his oval expertise in the Hy-Vee IndyCar Weekend at Iowa Speedway. He led 19 laps in the July 23 race and raced to a career-best fifth in the July 24 event.

Showing tremendous progress on the ovals, Johnson admitted he has not measured up to his expectations on the street and road courses.

“It’s all to be determined,” Johnson said. “I love being here. I want to be here. I do feel like the other piece to this puzzle is Chip Ganassi Racing. The support I have from Chip and everybody in the organization.

“This is more about me wanting to figure out what I want to do in 2023. Chip is in the loop on all of these conversations and has been a great friend in all of this process. He is on board with whatever I want to do.

“This all happened last year after the season concluded. This is no different than what I’ve done in years past, it’s just we found out about it in September.”

Johnson wants to be part of the Garage 56 entry in next year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans, a NASCAR effort in the famed endurance contest.

Johnson, however, is waiting on the 2023 NTT IndyCar Series schedule so he can determine his racing plans.

Johnson’s major associate sponsor is The American Legion, but he indicated it’s a Chip Ganassi Racing sponsor. He believes The Legion would want to be on board with whatever decision he makes.

Johnson was asked point-blank if he definitely would attempt the Indianapolis 500 in 2023.

“It’s all part of the process,” Johnson said. “I feel like I just need to let the dust settle on the season and figure out what my personal and professional goals are.

“I also feel like professionally, there are new options developing for me that I’ve got to take a hard look at as well. Good options. In motorsports. They’re all motorsports.

“Chani (his wife) is looking to expand her gallery. We have some personal goals, too. We would love to live abroad for a year. There’s just a lot of elements that play into this.

NTT IndyCar Series Gallagher Grand Prix - Practice
Jimmie Johnson is considering multiple racing series for his 2023 schedule (Logan Riely/Getty Images).

“I feel very fortunate that I had my serious car racing career, and this is really about the experience. Equal the professional opportunities I have in ’23, I want to look at the personal opportunities for me and my family, and just need some to get that organized.

“I feel very good to have this news and know what I provide, what Chip Ganassi Racing provides, what this series is about, Carvana wants to be back and are willing to support a full IndyCar schedule if that is what I decide to do.”

Just one week earlier at Portland, this is what Johnson had to say about his desire to remain in IndyCar full-time in 2023:

“My priority is to be full-time IndyCar,” Johnson said on Sept. 2. “I’m open to it all. There are so many moving pieces. There is interest in my desire to drive here full time. I would love to go back to the NASCAR side for a race or two. I have interest in doing ‘The Double.’ This is no different than any other year. I want to take in the options that I have and see what feels the best for me first. After that, it’s about getting funding and pulling it off.

“I don’t have a drop-dead date. The team’s drop-dead date is way earlier than mine. We’ve had tons of open communication between Chip Ganassi and myself. Certainly, everyone is doing the best they can to be patient and to try to create the best situation possible.”

Fast forward to the Sept. 11 season finale. As Johnson stopped in front of his pit area, he was congratulated by his crew chief, Mike Le Gallic. His driver coach, sports car legend Scott Pruett (also a veteran of NASCAR Cup and CART/IndyCar), climbed down out of the timing stand to give Johnson a hug.

That was followed by a hug and congratulations from engineer Eric Cowdin and race strategist Blair Julian, who before this year was with six-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Scott Dixon for all but one of his victories entering the 2022 season.

Johnson invited a close friend and former teammate to watch Sunday’s race.

It was former NASCAR Cup Series winner and former CART and Indy Lights driver Casey Mears. Both Mears and his wife were special guests of Jimmie and Chandra Johnson, with Casey watching the race from the No. 48 team’s pit stand.

“To be on the box and really see and hear everything he did today, everybody on the team is pretty proud of what he has done, for sure,” Mears said. “It’s been a huge undertaking. He has done an amazing job. You have to be behind the scenes to see the work and improvement that was really done for a solid day like this. It’s pretty impressive, early.

“He made a lot of good passes and overcame some adversity early.

“The last time I was here, I was in Indy car filling in for Alex Zanardi. Sitting here watching, makes me want to hop back in watching my buddy do it. It’s been really cool and brings back a lot of memories.

“I can’t believe the number of people in the paddock that I haven’t seen in 20 years that are still here. It’s been quite a reunion.”

Mears and Johnson were formerly teammates at Hendrick Motorsports in NASCAR.

Was Mears his “Good Luck Charm?”

“We’ll see how tonight goes,” Johnson quipped. “He might be my ‘Bad Luck Charm.’”

In the very early laps of the race, Johnson had some wheel-banging contact with Dalton Kellett of A.J. Foyt Racing in The Corkscrew. Kellett ran into him on one lap, and Johnson returned the favor by nudging Kellett’s car off course on the following lap.

IndyCar race control officials ordered Johnson had to yield the position back to Kellett, but it wasn’t long before Johnson left the Canadian in his dust.

“No damage to the car, but he was blocking like crazy, on one of his blocks, we touched, and he spun, and I got called for avoidable contact,” Johnson said. “I had to drop all the way back behind him and start all over, which I disagree with.

“He was 10 seconds back, so I had to wait 10 seconds on him and give up that time.”

After that, however, Johnson and Cowdin believed pitting for fresh tires would be the key to the car’s advancement. The team entered the race with a three-stop strategy but changed that to a five-stop strategy to keep fresh tires on the No. 48.

“I really think Eric’s aggression on pit strategy and trying to keep fresh tires on, was the key,” Johnson said. “They found the right gaps to bring me in for fresh tires and I had great pace and able to eat away at the deficit and get right in this thing.”

After the race, Johnson shared some laughs with his crew, and posed for photos.

Was this a celebration of the end of a long season that saw Johnson become a threat on the oval tracks?

Or was this a chance to say goodbye in case Johnson decides to spend more time in Le Mans, the Rolex 24, IMSA, and other forms of racing?

“All in all, an amazing year,” Johnson said. “I’m thankful for the support of all of our partners, Carvana and The American Legion and for Chip Ganassi Racing for all they have done for me.

“It’s been humbling in some respects, but it’s also been a ton of fun.

“It was a bucket-list year. I was able to run a full season of IndyCar, do the Indianapolis 500, have a top-five finish. The high spots of this year were really, really high and I’m thankful for that.”

Chances are Johnson will have a blended schedule in 2023 that includes the IndyCar oval races along with a few of the major street races such as Long Beach and St. Petersburg.

He has left his mark in many areas off the racetrack the past two years, too. The American Legion was the team’s major associate sponsor in 2021 and 2022 and would like to remain with Johnson if he returns to IndyCar.

Johnson, whose father, and grandfather were both in the military and members of The Legion, was the face of the service organization’s “Be the One” campaign to help prevent veteran suicide.

Johnson, along with team owner Chip Ganassi, officially were inducted into the Sons of The American Legion at The American Legion National Convention in Milwaukee on Aug. 31.

“It was great; in that setting on the stage, it was something really special and a default situation,” Johnson told NBC Sports. “I had been given coupons to join and had been given coupons by Legion members when I had my firesuit on. I lost the coupons and never followed through, so to have it happen in that fashion on the big stage was super cool.

After a two year hiatus, Torontos annual race, the Honda Indy, roars back to the streets
Jimmie Johnson smiles during the race weekend at Toronto, which marked IndyCar’s return to Canada afte a nearly three-year absence (Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images).

“It’s a huge honor. My grandfather served and a brother-in-law served. It’s an honor to be a part of Sons of the Legion and excited about the years we are going to spend together and the support I want to offer The American Legion. Being as close as I was to The Legion this year and the great work they do compelled my wife and I to step up and go out and fundraise for them and make a big contribution.”

It was certainly a big contribution as Jimmie and Chandra Johnson pledged a $1.5 million donation to The American Legion.

“I know the great work they do and to make that pledge to give that amount of money over time, Chani and I are always looking at ways to give and causes that are important,” Johnson said. “To represent The American Legion at the Indianapolis 500 with the level that I did. I have the last couple of years, but to carry my grandfather’s faces on my helmet really started the conversation and brought this along and here we are.

“This is through Jimmie Johnson Racing. The Foundation has its mission statement and the things it is involved with. This is separate from that.”

Johnson received a standing ovation from a room packed with several thousand Legion members.

“What is wild is the folks in attendance that stood up and applauded me are all men and women that have served our country and defended the freedoms that I’m able to enjoy,” Johnson said. “As they stood, I took great pride in it. I wish there were a way I could say thank you back to them. Maybe it’s through the support I’m giving. But they have done far more than I could ever do and I’m so thankful to them.”

Johnson took a big risk to pursue his racing dream of comping in IndyCar. It all began when he was a teenager and once attended the CART Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach with his father.

When he arrived in IndyCar, he knew he initially was seconds off the pace and simply wanted to say out of the way when he was able to get lapped.

Two seasons later, Johnson was able to challenge big-name IndyCar drivers on the ovals. But at tracks such asLaguna Seca, he finished ahead of 2016 IndyCar champion and 2019 Indianapolis 500 winner Simon Pagenaud, IndyCar winner Graham Rahal, four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves and two-time Indy 500 winner Takuma Sato.

“I’m light years ahead of where I was when I started my first race at Barber in 2021, but I still have a long way to go,” Johnson said. “I feel like I’m in a better place now. I feel the car correctly, give the right input, know where the turns are, know where to park my rental car when I show up at the track.

“There are many elements of this that are much easier now and I feel a part of IndyCar.”

Before the end of the weekend at Monterey, Johnson posed with his race crew, thanking them for their efforts this season.

“I thought I would have started the season further up the field,” Johnson told NBC Sports on pit lane. “I did make a lot of improvements. We have the data to show it, but the whole field got better.

“Overall, from an experience standpoint, it exceeded expectations, especially with running the Indy 500. I had a little higher goal for myself on the street and road courses. I felt like on the ovals, I met expectations in my head.

“All in all, an amazing year. I’m thankful for the support of all of my partners and for this great team that Chip Ganassi Racing put behind me.”

Johnson is one of the few racers in this era that wasn’t afraid to go outside of his comfort zone and try something different.

He wasn’t afraid to fail and because of that, his journey can still be considered a success.

“It is really different,” Johnson said. “Someday, maybe I’ll get back in a NASCAR Cup car and see how far I’ve evolved. I’ve had to forget most of what I knew and start over on this journey.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500