From NASCAR great to IndyCar rookie, Jimmie Johnson rides ‘vertical’ learning curve into Detroit

Johnson won seven NASCAR Cup Series championships but hasn’t experienced much success in…

From NASCAR great to IndyCar rookie, Jimmie Johnson rides 'vertical' learning curve into Detroit 1

Jimmie Johnson is a self-described planner, and about four years ago he began to consider his end date in NASCAR. Initially, he didn’t see it as the conclusion of one career and the start of another, but that’s what it has become.

The seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion retired after last season and has moved into the IndyCar Series, competing in street- and road-course events this season for Chip Ganassi Racing (CGR). He will compete in the Detroit Grand Prix on Belle Isle which features back-to-back IndyCar races Saturday and Sunday.

Johnson’s motivation to pursue open-wheel racing came in the fall of 2018 when he and Formula One driver Fernando Alonso swapped cars. Johnson, 45, grew up in California and was an open-wheel enthusiast long before he became a stock car champion. When he drove Alonso’s McLaren F1 car, he was hooked.

“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I need more of that,’” Johnson told The Detroit News. “So there was definitely a shift in course in this energy and inspiration that came along. I just thought truly of this as an experience and opportunity for a cool experience. And then the story started to build into, ‘Wait a second, you want to stop this, reinvent yourself, and do that?’”

Johnson is tremendously accomplished as a race car driver. He won seven series championships, including five straight (2006-10), but driving a stock car clearly is different than driving an open-wheel car. His learning curve has been interesting.

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“I have moved from different vehicles through my career and have found that there’s not a lot of crossover, but I unexpectedly thought that wouldn’t take place here from NASCAR to IndyCar,” said Johnson, whose car is sponsored by Carvana. “I couldn’t have been more wrong.

“There are aspects that my experience in life and under pressure is helping me and helping process the magnitude of the switch and the spotlight that’s on me and all that stuff. But when you get down to the technical side of the car, I’m literally starting over. So it’s been quite a journey, and literally a vertical learning curve. There hasn’t been really any angle if you were to plot it on a chart. It’s just been vertical.”

He has had a strong relationship with CGR for years and knows many people who work for the organization in their NASCAR and IndyCar shops. For that reason, joining Ganassi Racing seemed like a logical fit. He also has been friends with CGR IndyCar star Scott Dixon for years and now relies on Dario Franchitti, the retired four-time IndyCar Series champion who works for CGR as a mentor/coach. Franchitti’s assistance has been vital for Johnson in this race series transition.

Top speed in the open-wheel car, he said, is similar to the stock car.

“But from a standing start through the turns, hit the brakes, accelerate again, they are totally different,” Johnson said, laughing. “The Indy car is probably three times the speed in a turn just as a rough guess. So that’s what makes it so fun. I mean, it is such an adrenaline rush driving this car. I’m literally recalibrating my senses, because when I think I’m doing it so well and going so fast, I’m realizing I’m nowhere near the limit. I’m trying to find that limit safely right now.”

Johnson said he circled the Detroit Grand Prix at the start of the season. He has heard about the physical nature of the track and having to race it on back-to-back days. He ran two race distances during a test at Elkhart Lake last week and was dealing with soreness in his forearms and neck, and that’s a more forgiving track.

More: Sebastian Bourdais looks to reverse recent fortune at Belle Isle

“I can’t imagine getting in today and needing to be at 100% and going again,” Johnson said of the Detroit Grand Prix. “In a lot of ways, I’ve been excited for it because I love a physical challenge with all the triathlon and marathon stuff I’ve done in the past. I think it’s gonna be a very fun, physical, and mental challenge for me. What I hear about the circuit and the commitment level of driving, it’s gonna take a lot out of me mentally.

“I’m ready to go. I’ve had my eye on this one out of fear and excitement at the same time for months now.”

In three races this season, Johnson has finished 19th, 22nd and 24th, respectively. This is not where race fans are used to seeing him finish. Could he win this season? He is realistic.

“Anything’s possible,” Johnson said. “To straight out win a race, I’m not there. I continue to shave time, and now I’m within that one-second category. And it just gets exponentially tougher from here. And in a race itself, I’m finding that we don’t have cautions in IndyCar. It’s pretty common to go flag to flag without a caution, so every fraction of a second lost, you would have to overcome somehow. You don’t have the field bunched up. You don’t have these wave-around situations where you’re put back on the lead lap if you were unfortunate at some point.

“There’s a lot. It’s more than just going fast. The race craft is a piece that I need to understand what these cars do and how to work my way through traffic. And then the format of the race, I still have a lot to learn on top of learning tracks I’ve never even seen before. My learning curve is literally vertical. I mean, there’s just no way around it.”

Several of his former NASCAR colleagues have made fun on social media of Johnson wearing the straight-leg, fitted cut of the IndyCar fire suit rather than the boot-cut suit worn in NASCAR. Other than that, his fans and stock car drivers have been supportive.

“I feel like people get it,” Johnson said. “There’s always going to be haters, and that is what it is, but I feel like more people have opened up to rooting for me because of the way I’ve exposed myself and my honesty in this journey and just kind of starting over. I think a lot have been able to identify with it and are curious about how the journey is gonna go for me.

“I’m very thankful that I’m able to experience both. I was able to experience NASCAR around its peak and I feel like IndyCar is going to peak again, and I’m part of that journey with them. I really feel very fortunate to live the motorsports life that I have and have this opportunity.”

achengelis@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @chengelis

Detroit Grand Prix

► When: First race, 2 p.m. Saturday; second race, noon Sunday

► Where: Belle Isle


► TV: Both races are on NBC

► Tickets: Go to www.detroitgp.com/tickets

Our special thanks to:detroitnews.com

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