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NASCAR Legend Johnson Exceeds All Expectations – Including His Own – in First INDYCAR Test at IMS

Seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson fulfilled a lifelong dream Tuesday, July 28 by testing an Indy car. He described many new experiences driving on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, including one that surprised him.

“All the aggression you try to remove driving a Cup car apply to driving an Indy car,” he said. “You really do get rewarded for aggression and commitment. Then finding that limit and trying to figure out how to operate on that edge is what I spent most of the day trying to figure out.

“The amount of time you have to respond to the car getting out of control is so much smaller in one of these (cars). I ended up spinning out twice trying to find the edge. But as the day went on, I was really able to identify the early cues from the car and (understand) what was taking place.”

Johnson completed around 125 laps – 1.5 times the length of a typical IMS road race – on a warm, sultry day. Driving Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 10 NTT DATA Honda that Felix Rosenqvist used in the GMR Grand Prix on July 4 at IMS, Johnson completed an installation lap at 9 a.m. and finished up about 5 p.m.

Johnson has won four Brickyard 400s on the iconic IMS oval track, but these were his first laps on the road course.

On hand to assist Johnson was five-time NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion Scott Dixon, who drives for Chip Ganassi Racing. The two legendary drivers have been friends for years.

“Scott coming out and being able to hang and talk and shoot me straight and lead me down the right road was really, really helpful,” Johnson said.

Said Dixon: “He did a fantastic job. The hardest part is knowing baselines (because) when you don’t have a teammate with you during the day, you don’t know really where you stand. But the biggest thing for me was when we started going through the data and the video, how he was able to replicate ‘Jimmie do this or do that’ is really difficult to do and comprehend, especially when it’s not your comfort zone.

“Honestly, he did a terrific job … he did a mega job.”

Johnson admitted being somewhat intimidated by the presence of team owner Chip Ganassi, who made a surprise appearance.

“When he (arrived), I think my heartbeat went up a few beats, there’s no doubt,” Johnson said.

The session was permitted under INDYCAR’s “driver evaluation” program, which allows each NTT INDYCAR SERIES team one per year. Johnson wants to compete in an INDYCAR race “even more now,” although no timetable has been set.

“Today was incredible,” he wrote on his Instagram account. “Sign me up for more!”

Mike Hull, the longtime managing director of Chip Ganassi Racing, said there have been no specific discussions about what’s next for Johnson, but the team “absolutely” would want him driving one of its cars. Hull said he thinks most INDYCAR teams will inquire about Johnson’s availability.

Chip Ganassi Racing is fielding Hondas for Dixon, Rosenqvist and Marcus Ericsson this season. Dixon is the series points leader heading to the Honda Indy 200 doubleheader Aug. 8-9 at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. Dixon and Rosenqvist have combined to win four of the season’s six races.

Johnson got his first look at INDYCAR as a youngster attending the Long Beach Grand Prix. He became a fan of Rick Mears since they shared a path through off-road racing, and like Mears, Johnson figured one day he would race at IMS in an Indy car. Of course, his path veered to stock cars.

Years ago, as Johnson was completing a record five Cup championships in succession, he and Roger Penske discussed the possibility of him competing in the Indianapolis 500, but nothing came of it. Then last fall, after announcing that 2020 would be his final Cup season, Johnson emphasized that INDYCAR was still on his racing bucket list.

Johnson attended INDYCAR’s February test at Circuit of The Americas as a guest of McLaren’s Zak Brown. Johnson attended the drivers meeting and watched the test from the Arrow McLaren SP pits. Soon after, his test with that team was set for April 6 at Barber Motorsports Park.

The start of the pandemic spoiled those plans, and his positive COVID-19 test in early July led to the cancellation of another INDYCAR testing opportunity – this time with Chip Ganassi Racing on the IMS road course July 8. His pursuit of an experience seemed cursed until this test happened.

“(This) was a really special day,” Johnson said. “I’m thankful to Chip Ganassi Racing, Mike Hull, Scott Dixon, Barry (Wanser), everybody involved that really helped this come together and give me a great experience.

“I grew up wanting to be an Indy car racer in Southern California, going to the Long Beach Grand Prix and watching races there and wanted to be on the inside of the fence in one of these cars. So, this was really fulfilling a childhood dream to being in an Indy car ripping around, and I had a blast doing it.”

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