INDIANAPOLIS — If not for a bobble on the opening lap of his qualification attempt on Sunday, seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson has had a nearly flawless debut as an Indianapolis 500 rookie.
His oval expertise has been on display since practice for the 106th Indianapolis 500 began on May 17. He has been among the fastest drivers in every session at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
He will start Sunday’s Indy 500 12th after running a four-lap qualification average of 231.264 mph.
That is in stark contrast to his struggles on road courses. Although he has acclimated better to the No. 48 Carvana/American Legion Honda on those courses, his results remain off the pace.
But Indianapolis Motor Speedway has put Johnson back in the spotlight. He is part of the powerful five-driver lineup at Chip Ganassi Racing. All five are starting in the top 12 with four of the drivers in the front two rows, including Scott Dixon, who won his fifth Indy 500 pole.
Tony Kanaan (left) chats with Chip Ganassi Racing teammate and Indianapolis 500 rookie Jimmie Johnson. (IndyCar photo)
“I felt so bad for Jimmie Johnson that he had that blip on his out lap,” team owner Chip Ganassi said. “He is a smart guy.
“He can win this race, too.”
When Johnson was in NASCAR, he was one of the greatest oval drivers in history. Of his 83 career Cup Series wins, 82 were on an oval.
Johnson ran laps at better than 233 mph during Sunday’s practice.
Not bad for a 46-year-old rookie.
“It makes me laugh when I hear that, but I’ll take it,” Johnson told SPEED SPORT. “Honestly, I still feel like a rookie on the street and road courses I see need that yellow gearbox cover. I’m starting from such a low spot compared to these other formula drivers and their journey to IndyCar.
“I feel like I’m being thrown into the deep end of the pool on those courses.”
At Indianapolis, though, Johnson has found the fast lane and has legitimately established himself as a “challenger” in Sunday’s 106th Indianapolis 500.
Much of that will be determined by how the race plays out.
But Johnson has an Indianapolis 500 dream that began when he was a youngster, sitting on the couch with his grandfather and father.
“I have many vague memories being very young watching it on television,” Johnson recalled. “My grandfather was a Foyt fan. I always had a tie towards Rick Mears because he grew up in California and raced motorcycles and off-road, so there was an attachment there. Robby Gordon for similar reasons.
“I always had something for Al Unser, Jr. I just loved trying to understand what it would be like to race against my dad. My dad was more mechanically inclined and I never raced against him.
“I loved that Al and Al Jr. had moments on the track at the same time and I thought that storyline was super cool.”
Johnson was eager to learn when he hit the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but he also was surprised at how much he already knew.
He had developed a knack and rhythm for the oval in the No. 48 Chevrolet stock car as a four-time Brickyard 400 winner for Hendrick Motorsports.
Pato O’Ward (left) and teammate Jimmie Johnson talk during Indianapolis 500 practice. (IndyCar photo)
“It’s definitely different, but I feel like the more seat time I get, the more I gain confidence in myself and understanding the car and then certainly understanding changes,” Johnson said. “I’ve had a few ‘aha moments’ where I think adjustments have crossed over from what I would do with a Cup car here setup-wise to the Indy car.
“I’m still very new to it all but gaining experience and gaining confidence in what I’m feeling, gaining confidence in what I’m looking for, and gaining confidence in the adjustments we’re making on the car.”
Johnson’s ability to get up to speed and then run consistent laps, has impressed Johnson’s team owner.
“His is just a nice curve of improvement,” Ganassi said. “I think more importantly, just a nice — you can tell by talking to Jimmie at the end of the day or whatever that he seems to be very comfortable in the car and no surprises.
“I think that’s the best any car owner could ask for is, when you’re talking to your drivers at the end of the day, they’re not amped up or nervous or talking in a high tone of voice or talking real quickly or down and out or something. They seem very comfortable and calm.
“I’ve been known to speak at yes, some high levels.”
Johnson’s popularity as a seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion, has brought new fans to Indianapolis.
“I think I’ve been well received and I’ve had quite a few fans come up to me and say they’ve never been to an Indy car race before and this is their first experience, so that makes me happy knowing we’re bringing more fans to this awesome sport,” Johnsons said. “But man, I hope that the actions on track create a lot of excitement. I hope to be fast.
“I hope to be a contender in all this, and whatever wave of excitement that comes with it, I welcome it.”