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When Jimmie Johnson climbs into the No. 48 Carvana/American Legion Honda for Sunday’s XPEL 375 NTT IndyCar Series race at Texas Motor Speedway, he will compete in an IndyCar race on an oval for the first time in his career.
It’s the next step toward Johnson competing in his first Indianapolis 500 on May 29.
Johnson’s major sponsor, Carvana, has used Sunday’s race as a chance to strengthen its relationship with the racing legend.
Carvana is giving racing fans unique behind-the-scenes access to Johnson through an eight-episode documentary series called, “Reinventing the Wheel:”
The first two episodes are currently on YouTube as Johnson explains why his love for trying something new and how his fascination with IndyCar racing led him to make a dramatic career switch when he retired from NASCAR after the 2020 season.
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Video Courtesy of Carvana
Video Courtesy of Carvana
“It’s really important for Carvana, myself, Chip Ganassi Racing, The American Legion, all the partners that are involved and onboard,” Johnson explained of the tremendous activation from his sponsors. “I’m very thankful that they’ve all wanted to help tell the story. Certainly, Carvana stepping up to the level that they have, their interest in documenting my journey.
“From day one Ernie Garcia (Carvana CEO) has believed in this crossover and the journey that I’m trying to make moving from stock cars to IndyCar. They liked to tell the story. I think my story relates with many people in life that are looking for career change, that 2.0 moment. They’ve loved to be on this journey with me. I’m very thankful.
“I certainly do have higher expectations of myself moving on to the ovals. Excited to get there, get going and see where I stack up.”
The documentary series has impressed the star of the show with the message that he is trying to deliver to his fans and why he made the decision to switch gears to IndyCar after becoming a NASCAR legend.
“I certainly hope people can identify with where I am in life, what I’m trying to do,” Johnson said. “If it’s a younger fan, maybe they haven’t been in their 40s yet, experienced one career, looking forward to a second career, something different.
“But I do find that the majority of the people, including my partners that are involved, really do identify with the path and journey I’m on, are honored and happy to be a part of this journey and help tell the story and support this dream that I have to be an IndyCar racer.”
Johnson’s arrival in IndyCar has been a financial success for the series and Chip Ganassi Racing. It enticed an aggressive and innovative sponsor in Carvana to join the series, creating an opportunity to use outside of the box thinking to attract new fans to an old sport.
Johnson already established himself as a legend in NASCAR. It was a career that included a record-tying seven NASCAR Cup Series championships, 83 Cup wins including Daytona 500 wins in 2006 and 2013 and four wins at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the Brickyard 400.
That is in his rear-view mirror. Johnson is focused on an IndyCar career ahead of him.
An IndyCar Series race on a high-banked oval encapsulates everything that is spectacular about this form of racing. The high-speed cars, exceeding 220 miles per hour racing inches away from the wheels of another car is thrilling, breathtaking and awe-inspiring.
An IndyCar race on a high-speed oval is also risky business. It’s extreme racing where the rewards are sometimes outweighed by the potential for disaster.
Danger lurks around every corner and IndyCar drivers are fearless in their pursuit.
They look danger in the eye and don’t flinch.
Johnson understood those risks when he decided to begin an IndyCar career at the age of 45 in 2021. The driver from El Cajon, California actually grew up dreaming of racing in the Indianapolis 500. As a teen, he attended the annual Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, watching the cars and stars of CART.
These were the same drivers that competed in the Indianapolis 500 back then. Names like Michael Andretti, Al Unser, Jr., Bobby Rahal and many more.
Johnson decided it was going to have a rebirth to his career by leaving NASCAR and joining IndyCar, it would be on the street and road courses of the schedule. He wanted to experience the cars and develop a sense of safety for the initiatives that IndyCar has introduced in recent years.
That included the cockpit protection system known as the aeroscreen. It’s a partial canopy that comes above the driver’s helmet and has already proven to a major factor in preventing potential serious injury from crashes since it was introduced in 2020.
Johnson’s rookie season may have been rough on the race track but was a huge success from a sponsorship standpoint. Chip Ganassi Racing lined up an enthusiastic sponsor primary sponsor in Carvana and a historic relationship with The American Legion as the major associate sponsor.
Johnson started off slow but showed steady improvement throughout 2021. He ended the season actually racing and passing some of the more successful drivers in the series at such tracks as WeatherTech Raceway at Laguna Seca and the streets of Long Beach to end the 2021 season.
By the midway point of 2021, Johnson felt confident in the safety of the high-speed cars and lure of competing in the Indianapolis 500 was becoming even stronger. Johnson tested at Texas Motor Speedway on August 30 and immediately adapted to the higher-speed car on one of his most successful tracks from NASCAR.
Johnson was so determined to make that test a reality; it began at 6 a.m. Central Time so that it could be completed by 12 noon. Johnson wanted to ensure the test did not interfere with his commitment to appear at The American Legion National Convention that same day in Phoenix, Arizona.
Johnson recalled that test that finally pushed him over the edge to become a full-time IndyCar competitor in 2022.
“I did find that the line is a little different in the Indy car at Texas,” Johnson said. “Just the potential of the car’s cornering ability allows you to run a little narrower entry and exit. With that you don’t have to flirt with the transitions of the corners in and off as much.
“The speed was up tremendously. Also, a slight adjustment in my line. But as the test session went on, I was really excited to see how many similarities there were from my NASCAR driving experience and car setup to what we had going on with the Indy car.”
After the end of the 2021 season, Johnson and Chip Ganassi Racing decided to complete the Indianapolis 500 Rookie Orientation Program (ROP) last October. Johnson was in Phase 3 of ROP before rain ended the day, but he will be allowed to finish his ROP during a two-day Indy 500 open test April 20 and 21 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Returning to an oval felt normal again to the driver who won 82 of his 83 Cup Series races on an oval. When Johnson revealed his intention to compete in the 106th Indianapolis 500 on December 15, he did it on “Today” on NBC.
But there was a surprise to that announcement.
Johnson decided to compete in every race on the 2022 IndyCar schedule, which meant all of the oval races including Texas on Sunday, a doubleheader at Iowa Speedway July 23 and 24 and World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway on August 20.
It’s a chance for the 46-year-old Johnson to display what he did best as a seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion. That’s racing on an oval, and it comes at one of his most successful tracks from his NASCAR career.
Johnson won a NASCAR-record seven races at Texas Motor Speedway in a career that began in 2002 and ended at the end of the 2021 season. His track-record seven wins rank fourth among his career victories at a single track (Dover-11, Martinsville-9, Charlotte-8) and no other Cup driver has won more than four at Texas.
Johnson also owns the track’s series records for consecutive wins (3), laps led (1,152) and top-five finishes (16) in 35 career starts.
Although Johnson’s No 48 Carvana/American Legion Honda at Chip Ganassi Racing is a much different racing machine than the famed No. 48 Chevrolet he drove at Hendrick Motorsports, Johnson is hopeful he can translate his oval racing expertise to the Indy car.
Ironically, Johnson’s first IndyCar oval race will come at a track where he was so successful, they named Victory Lane after him.
It’s the “Jimmie Johnson Victory Lane” at Texas Motor Speedway.
“It does feel really good to come back to a familiar track, certainly a place I have so many great feelings for,” Johnson said.
Johnson is able to explain the sense of racing on an oval, and it’s easy to tell by his comments that he has a tremendous understanding of the similarities, and the differences, between the two cars on an oval.
“I really believe all tracks have their own rhythm to them,” Johnson said. “Ovals are a little easier to find in some respects, maybe come quicker just because the lap is shorter. It’s easier to pick up the rhythm of a track with four corners versus one with 17 or something like that.
“There is a rhythm to Texas. It is much different than what I have felt in the Cup car. But where it is similar is just how aggressive you can be in turns three and four, then really how cautious you need to be turn one, kind of getting the car pointed and heading off the back straightaway for turn two.
“It’s a lap where you start tiptoeing, making sure you really hit your marks, to then really moving down the back straightaway and throwing all the aggression you can at turns three and four.
“As excited as I am to be on an oval, I still haven’t been in traffic in an Indy car,” Johnson continued. “I still have plenty to learn coming to a track I know and love. I’m really excited to get there and work.”
Johnson’s goals for his second season in IndyCar is to race in the top-15 on the street and road courses. But he has much higher expectations for himself at the four oval tracks where he will drive five races in 2022.
That starts with Sunday’s XPEL 375 at Texas.
“I really feel like I need to be further up in the field or would like to be further up in the field,” Johnson said. “I certainly feel like qualifying, having the opportunity to qualify on the oval this weekend, in the equipment I’ll be in, I should be able to have a career-best starting position, then look forward from there, try to understand traffic, race my way into the top 10, top 5 if possible.
“I’m definitely more comfortable in my few days on an oval than I’ve really been on a street or road course yet. That experience certainly gives me a ton of optimism. The fact that things felt more familiar between the Cup car and an Indy car on an oval, that just helped build my confidence and really kind of the feel needed.
“Again, I have not been in traffic yet, so I know I still have a huge hurdle there with race craft, getting into things. For qualifying I feel more optimistic than I have for any oval qualifying session. I haven’t been in an oval qualifying session yet.
One driver that expects dramatic improvement from Johnson this weekend is Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Scott Dixon.
Dixon is a six-time NTT IndyCar Series champion who is just one win away from Mario Andretti’s 52 wins for second on the career victory list behind AJ Foyt’s 67 so his assessment should be taken seriously.
“Yes, absolutely, Jimmie has improved, and I expect more of that on the ovals,” Dixon said. “His progression throughout the season, some places didn’t show it as much, either, but if you look at the breakdown and the analysis of the races and lap times and the speed and different situations he was in, he really started to adapt and do some great things.
“I think that progression will continue on the road and street courses, but I think the oval situation will help his confidence, too. Something where he feels a little more at home. We saw that at the test at Texas, his first oval. He loved it. He was smiling from ear-to-ear. He couldn’t believe how fast the cars were, but he felt completely at home at how the car moved and the different changes he could do.
“I’m excited for this first season. I know he will improve, keep improving. His work ethic is great. Jimmie is a tremendous human being and a superb guy.”
The expectations are higher, and Johnson is confident he can deliver. But he is also realistic and doesn’t expect to contend for the victory.
“I don’t think that’s realistic,” Johnson said. “Some people may have that expectation and that’s fine. I would love that to be the case.
“Whenever you enter the new series, you’re with the regulars, they’re so good at what they do. We have seen it when drivers try to cross over from various series.
“I certainly have higher expectations for myself, but I’m not thinking I’m going to show up, qualify on pole, lead the most laps and win the race.”