Ganassi on Johnson’s INDYCAR potential: ‘He’s going to get there.’ 
INDYCAR team owner Chip Ganassi (left) in a Fireside Chat during The American Legion 102nd National Convention. (Photo by Ben Mikesell)

Ganassi on Johnson’s INDYCAR potential: ‘He’s going to get there.’ 

It was midway through the 2021 NTT INDYCAR SERIES season and team owner Chip Ganassi was sitting in his motorhome at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course talking about a variety of subjects.

It was Fourth of July Weekend and, naturally, the owner of the No. 48 Carvana/American Legion Honda was asked about the progress of Jimmie Johnson in INDYCAR. Johnson, one of just three drivers to win seven NASCAR Cup Series championships, had started off the season slowly as he methodically tried to learn the dramatically different form of racing.

When asked about Johnson’s progress, the INDYCAR team owner gave a very thought-provoking answer.

“Jimmie is climbing a mountain in the fog,” Ganassi said. “When you are climbing a mountain, and you’ve never been up in the fog before, you don’t know how close you are to the top.

“If you call the top being there (as Ganassi held his hands one foot apart), he’s a lot closer than the time sheets and results would lead you to believe. That’s coming from a lot of people within the team.”

Throughout his career, Ganassi has always had the ability to recognize talent and analyze progress. Drivers named Alex Zanardi, Juan Pablo Montoya, Scott Dixon, and Dario Franchitti flourished at Chip Ganassi Racing.

“Look at how Jimmie started in the session yesterday and look at what he did today,” Ganassi continued at Mid-Ohio last July. “He makes leaps and bounds, but it doesn’t look like much when you look at the results sheet. “The guy’s never been here before, and he’s in an Indy car, first time in an open-wheel car. He’s making leaps and bounds, and he’s going to get there.

“When you’re in the fog, you don’t know where the top of the mountain is, and he’s closer than he thinks.”

When told of Ganassi’s comments about climbing a mountain in the fog and not realizing how close he is to the peak, Johnson smiled.

“I think that’s a great analogy for it and helps explain some of the mistakes I’ve made in races,” Johnson said. “My effort level keeps going on up and I don’t realize I’m at the peak of the car’s ability and sometimes step over. But, I’ve been very controlled and smart how I approach things and it has given me the confidence to push.”

One of Ganassi’s favorite mottos is “#ChipLovesWinners.” Ganassi also likes champions, and that is one of the things that attracted Ganassi to Johnson when the former NASCAR great wanted to switch to INDYCAR.

“Champions are just that, champions,” Ganassi said. “Champions are champions for a reason, and guys that are multi-time champions are multiple time champions for a reason.

“Usually it’s their work ethic.”

In 2021, Johnson competed on the street and road courses on the INDYCAR SERIES schedule. Tony Kanaan took over the No. 48 American Legion Honda in the 105th Indianapolis 500 and the three other oval races on the schedule.

After learning the tricks of the trade in INDYCAR, after the Mid-Ohio contest Johnson was confident, he could make some forward progress in the latter half of the season.

Take away the disappointing weekend in the Big Machine Music City Grand Prix in August, Johnson began a streak of racing that showed continued improvement from one-race to the next. He started 22nd and finished 19th in the Big Machine Spiked Coolers Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in August. He showed continued improvement at Portland in September and saved his best for the last two races of the season.

He started 25th and got very racy, particularly in the famed “Corkscrew” at Laguna Seca. He passed such star drivers as Will Power, Alexander Rossi, Takuma Sato, James Hinchcliffe, Rinus VeeKay and the latest four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves to finish 17th.

The following weekend at in the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, Johnson saved his best for last. He started 27th but advanced 10 positions on the tricky street course to finish 17th.

His rookie season was complete, and he drew high praise from the boss.

“He was fabulous,” Ganassi said. “It went just about as expected. Par for the course. He did great. Now, we are going to take him to the ovals, do some testing and his career is still on a climb.

“I see his trajectory at the beginning of the year, the angle of his trajectory has increased, not decreased. In other words, instead of doing that, it’s doing this,” Ganassi said with more hand motions. “The angle of his attack and trajectory is increasing, not decreasing.”

There is more to come for The American Legion, Johnson and Chip Ganassi Racing in 2022. In December, Johnson announced he would compete in every race on the 2022 NTT INYCAR SERIES schedule including the 106th Indianapolis 500 on May 29.

The American Legion will continue to be the major associate sponsor on Johnson’s No. 48 Honda with Carvana as the primary sponsor for every race except the doubleheader at Iowa Speedway, where the Legion will be the primary sponsor for one of the races.

The Legion will also serve as primary sponsor for some of the other CGR drivers, including 2021 NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion Alex Palou and “oval ace” Tony Kanaan. Those deals will be announced in the future.

The relationship between The American Legion, Chip Ganassi Racing and INDYCAR continues to grow.

“It’s an honor,” Ganassi said. “I didn’t realize how important The American Legion was to our country and what they meant for things like the GI Bill and Agent Orange and all the initiatives they have done.

“It’s not just a smoky bar where guys drink cheap beers; it’s really, really a great organization and I can’t wait to do more with them.”