Jimmie Johnson successfully passed his Indianapolis 500 rookie orientation test Wednesday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, meaning he now is eligible to attempt to qualify for the Greatest Spectacle In Racing next May.
But Wednesday’s successful test is only part of the process for the seven-time NASCAR Cup champ. One of the biggest things he has to do is consult with his wife and family to see if they support his desire to not only run in the 500, but also compete on the other oval tracks on the IndyCar circuit.
Essentially, Johnson, who just turned 46 years old last month, has three overall choices to mull for 2022:
• He can compete in all 12 of the road course and street course races, plus the Indy 500, and skip the four other oval races (Gateway, Texas and two at Iowa).
• He can compete in all 12 road and street course races and skip not only the 500, but also the other oval races.
• He can run the entire 17-race season, which means all ovals, road course and street course events.
“(It was) just a special day to drive an Indy car at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway,” Johnson said in an afternoon teleconference. “I have truly, truly enjoyed it. It was a childhood dream come true. The experience is more than expected and something that I really, really enjoyed.
“My CGR (Chip Ganassi Racing) family was keeping a close eye on me, helping me get up to speed, which I think came in pretty easily, especially through these phases take place. … (I) certainly didn’t run as many laps as I hoped to. In the crunch, (it) felt like I got up to a great pace and had a good sense of the car around the track.”
To be exact, Johnson passed Phase 1 (205 to 210 mph), Phase 2 (210 to 215 mph) and Phase 3 (over 215 mph), seemingly with ease. While that’s enough to earn his Indy 500 stripes, so to speak, per Indy 500 and IndyCar rules he still has a few more laps to run at another time in the near future.
Those laps would be run during the open IndyCar test at IMS on April 20 and April 21.
“I was trying to adapt to the speed, just how fast things were coming at me,” Johnson said. “As we worked out of Phase I into Phase II, started into Phase III, the car was just more stuck. Running flat was very easy to do. We trimmed out quite a bit because we were getting ready to make our final run when the clouds opened up on us.
“Things felt surprisingly similar. Once I got through the notion of downshifting and upshifting through the course of the lap, the speed at which things were coming at me, the driving line, the technique, even the behavior of the car in different turns around the racetrack was all very familiar to me. I was very excited to see that.”
IndyCar did not release Johnson’s top speed other than to say he exceeded the Phase 3 requirement to be over 215 mph.
Unfortunately, rain prevented Johnson from running the entire length of the day that he had hoped for, thus requiring him to finish his final laps on April 20-21.
“Yeah, (I) definitely wanted to complete it,” Johnson said. “It’s so hard to get laps in an Indy car on the racetrack with the right tire. We didn’t even get into our third set of tires.
“Thirty or 40 laps more, that, I could have run that, I didn’t get to experience. At this stage of my IndyCar career, every lap makes a difference. Certainly on the ovals it makes a huge difference for me.”
He called what he was able to accomplish before the clouds opened again, ending his day, as “a tease.
“I feel a little shorted,” he said. “IndyCar did a great job of getting the track ready the first time. Then the second time. …. It (didn’t stop) raining, so there really was no chance to get back on track today.”
Johnson ran a total of 55 laps, but still short of what he had planned on running until the rain brought things to a halt. Even so, what he did achieve in less than ideal conditions were enough to further whet Johnson’s appetite to compete in the 500.
“I was excited personally to go through that and understand what minus rear wing feels like, less front wing feels like,” Johnson said. “While I stood and watched last year, I would hear those changes being made. It would make me pucker up. It was nice to get out there and attach a feeling to that.”
As for increasing his desire to race in the 500, Johnson didn’t mince words.
“Definitely, definitely increased,” he said. “I think the look I had at Texas (he tested at Texas Motor Speedway this past August 30 to get a feel of racing on an oval) increased it and brought me here. A little short on laps for what I wanted to experience today.
“As comfortable as I felt, my interest is at the highest it’s been, certainly my comfort is at the highest it’s been. All that said, there’s still a lot of work between now and really pulling through with this opportunity.”
Even though his excitement and confidence level increased significantly after Wednesday’s test, Johnson said he doesn’t necessarily regret bypassing the ovals in his rookie season.
“I don’t know if I regret,” Johnson said. “I think it would have been a much easier pathway for me. Now that I’m looking to do it, there’s still a lot of work to be done. Even if I say, Hey, everyone, I’m in, we still have a lot of work to get done just to pull it off.
“That aspect, it would have been easier to make this decision a year sooner. But I really had to go through what I have to get comfortable with IndyCar, hit a couple walls. Hitting the wall at 180 (mph in) Nashville (on his first qualifying lap, August 7), as much as I hated doing it, it was a good data point for me.
“Also for my family to be around these cars, the industry. Seeing a couple bad crashes this year, seeing what the aeroscreen has done to protect Ryan Hunter-Reay at Barber when the wheel assembly came back into the windscreen.
“It’s not that I regret it. It would have been an easier path. But I had to go through this journey on my own.”
So, now the obvious question: is Johnson ready to commit to running the 106thrunning of the Indianapolis 500 next May?
“I can’t just yet,” Johnson said. “I need to leave here today, go home, sit down, get a good bottle of wine open.
“I’m as close as I’ve ever been. The racer in me is taking a real serious look at this, but I still need to sit down and have that conversation at home.
“I have a lot of work to do on street courses, to be in the mix, to be competitive. I think it’s fair to have higher expectations on the ovals if I do make that decision, the 500 or more, whatever that might look like.
“I know myself, that’s all I’m caring about in this journey is what I feel like I can do, what I’m capable of. If I choose to do it, I will raise my expectations and expect to be much more competitive.”
Follow Autoweek contributor Jerry Bonkowski on Twitter @JerryBonkowski
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