For the first time in two decades, Jimmie Johnson is not chasing a NASCAR Cup Series championship—or any championship, for that matter.
Unlike a year ago when Johnson was taking one final shot at an eighth NASCAR Cup championship, he’s turning back the clock. At 45, he’s the rookie again, this time in the No. 48 Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing running a part-time schedule of road courses and street circuits and in the NTT IndyCar Series.
One thing is certain. Johnson is making quite a first impression on those racers in his new surroundings.
“Jimmie’s appetite for details and work, him and Scott (Dixon) are very similar in that way,” four-time IndyCar Series champion and three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dario Franchitti told Autoweek. “I like to think I was like that. I love details. The more details you can give me, the harder you have to work, that’s fine. Jimmie’s that guy. “
Franchitti retired from racing in 2013. He works with drivers in an advisory role at Chip Ganassi Racing, where he won three of his four championships and two of his three Indy 500s. He likes what Johnson brings to the table and says that the 83-time NASCAR Cup Series winner is doing that it takes to be successful in IndyCar.
“He’s closed the gap to where he needs to be,” Franchitti said. “Percentage-wise, he’s getting to those last few tenths. He’s trying to recalibrate 20 years of driving stock cars. He’s not coming from zero, he’s coming from less than zero because of his stock car habits.
“Talent-wise, you’ve seen what he’s done. It’s ridiculous. He’s got so much talent. His work ethic is incredible.”
Franchitti hopes Johnson’s fans who want to see him race up front with the best in IndyCar are willing to be a little patient, however.
“It’s going to be difficult at the beginning, it’s going to be hard, let’s not beat about the bush,” Franchitti said. “He’s never been on a street course before. When he gets to St. Pete that’s’s going to be hard. He continuously wants to test himself and to push himself, and we being Chip Ganassi Racing are giving him everything we possibly can to succeed.
“It’s a really cool thing to watch–his development, watch the way his mind works. He’s a hard-working smart guy.”
Sebastien Bourdais, a 37-time winner between the CART and IndyCar Series, respects the challenge that Johnson is taking on.
“I have a huge amount of respect for Jimmie,” Bourdais said during IndyCar preseason media availability on Thursday. “I think his passion for racing is absolutely undeniable. He’s one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet. He’s super passionate about it.
“It’s great to see he’s taking that leap. It’s a huge challenge. It’s so far from what he’s done and knows. But he doesn’t care, he’s going to do it anyway and give it his best shot. I really hope that he’s successful because it would be great for the series.”
Johnson’s quest also has two-time IndyCar champion Josef Newgarden’s attention. Newgarden has thought more than once about maybe crossing over in the other direction from IndyCar to NASCAR one day.
“Similar to what you see going on with Jimmie Johnson and other guys from that series, they’re interested in driving in our world, and vice versa, we’re interested in driving in their world,” Newgarden said. “I only see that as a positive. This crossover stuff is fantastic for the sport. We’re all racers at the end of the day. We all kind of want to drive anything we can, have new experiences.
“I’m really hopeful at one point I can get an opportunity to cross over and dabble a little bit over there. Not take away from my IndyCar commitments, but just kind of add to it.”
Helio Castroneves, a three-time Indy 500 winner, has also come away impressed from what he’s seen so far from Johnson and the series rookie’s preparation for the 2021 IndyCar season.
“First of all, incredible. I can see that he’s passionate about it,” Castroneves said. “I believe he felt his time in NASCAR, probably it was time for him to move to something else. He decided to achieve this challenge. By the way, which is a huge challenge for someone entire life working with a heavier car, different type of car, and going to a very fast one, which is an IndyCar.”
Castroneves, who is running a partial schedule that includes the Indianapolis 500 for Meyer Shank Racing Honda, said that if anyone can make a transition this late in a career, it’s the driver of the No. 48 Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing.
“First of all, I admire people like that because they like to challenge themselves and go for it,” Castroneves said. ” Second, I know Jimmie for a long time. He’s a good friend of mine. I know how he feels because even I had that experience for so many years going back (when I started). It feels a little bit overwhelming; so much to learn, so many things to do.
“Once you’re a champion like him, I don’t feel that he’s going to have any (problems)—especially having the teammates he has with Scott Dixon, that he can learn so much, it will definitely help. Yeah, maybe one or a few races or tests might (not go) the way probably he wants. But trust me, he will figure it out. For the beginning of the season, he’ll be ready.”
OK. What do you think? What’s a realistic goal for Jimmie Johnson in IndyCar in 2021? A race win? A couple of top-10 finishes? Let us know what you think in the comments section below.
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