Johnson energized by first IMS oval test

The lingering presence of rain and frequent interruptions couldn’t dampen Jimmie Johnson’s enthusiasm during his first day of driving an IndyCar on the big Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval.

The seven-time NASCAR Cup champion and four-time winner of the Brickyard 400 finally got to dance at IMS in an open-wheel car, and once it was over, the Chip Ganassi Racing driver was all smiles as he spoke about the Rookie Orientation Program run. The first subject he broached was the sensation of firing the No. 48 Honda into Indy’s Turn 1 at warp speed and processing the information faster than his brain has been asked to compute in a race car.

“I feel like (the previous test on the oval at) Texas really helped me get my eyes up high enough and look far enough down the road,” Johnson told RACER. “Even recalibrated my body to the lateral Gs; you know the potential of the car so it still was extremely fast. But I think Texas for me was that that first moment of like, ‘Whoa, you know this this is way faster than I thought it would be.’

“Turn 1 was really the challenging turn. Once I settled into it and had that conversation with my right foot and convinced him to stay down, it was a dream to drive. And we actually quickly got into trimming the car out and got to a pretty aggressive place with trimming the car and felt very comfortable in it.”

Thanks to the rain, Johnson was unable to complete the third and final ROP speed stage before the day was flagged by IndyCar officials. Even so, RACER understands Johnson and fellow ROP participant Romain Grosjean from Andretti Autosport did well enough during the first two speed phases to be told by IndyCar that they would be able to run with the veterans during April’s Indy 500 open test.

Compared to the bigger, heavier, and constantly rolling Cup cars Johnson drove at the Speedway, his IndyCar was swift and planted throughout each lap, with the bare minimum of suspension movement to tell the No. 48’s driver about its plans entering each corner. It’s here where Johnson’s vast oval experience – even in a wildly different type of vehicle – came to the fore.

“I can hear that voice much better than I do on the road courses,” he said of listening to the open-wheel machine’s oval needs. “And you know, for obvious reasons, it’s much more controlled environment. You don’t have the big braking moments, big acceleration moments. It’s really just falling into the car and sensing the lateral G’s and trying to figure out where the weight sitting on the tires.

“And that’s much easier for me to feel on an oval in an IndyCar; I still have a lot of work to do to get there and the road courses. That’s been the thing that I’m taking away and what makes me smile the most is how I can feel that.”

Johnson’s committed to another season of road and street courses with CGR. Will he add the Indy 500 and maybe the rest of the ovals on the 2022 calendar? It’s a question he’s been asked many times, and it’s one he’ll need to answer privately before sharing it with his legion of fans.

“Being here today is definitely a step closer to doing that,” he said. “First step was Texas, next step was here today. Honestly, I wish I could have run more laps and gotten up to a faster pace to feel the car on the edge, because I’m still trying to understand what it’s like living on the edge in one of these cars. But absolutely, I’m closer. I’m closer than I’ve ever been to running the Indy 500. I still have a lot to work through – family, sponsors, team – but definitely a step closer.”