Johnson leads 19 laps before 11th-place finish in Iowa opener
Jimmie Johnson put on a clinic for the other drivers in NTT INDYCAR SERIES, showing the competition the art of running the high line on an oval.
Johnson used the highest line on the 0.894-mile short oval to race his way through the field after spinning in Turn 4 on Lap 16 of Saturday’s Hy-Veedeals.com 250 at Iowa Speedway. Johnson kept his No. 48 Carvana/American Legion Honda off the wall and was able to make a quick pit stop and continue in the race.
Johnson was able to pick off positions and was in the lead on Lap 63. He led 19 laps before making a pit stop and giving up the lead.
“This is a blast,” Johnson radioed to his crew on Lap 126.
After the stop, Johnson got his way back into the fourth place late in the race before aggressive driving burned up the grip on his Firestone tires. Johnson faded to an 11th-place finish, but it’s his ability to use the high line that impressed his fellow drivers after the race.
“Jimmie had his own line – he had lane three or four,” said six-time NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion Scott Dixon, one of his teammates at Chip Ganassi Racing. “He did an amazing job today and was really fun to watch. He was constantly trying stuff. Maybe I need to do a little more of that.”
Pato O’Ward of Arrow McLaren SP finished second to race winner Josef Newgarden, but also marveled at how well Johnson was able to make the high line work and keep his car out of the wall.
“I think he is doing a phenomenal job in the ovals,” O’Ward said. “In Texas, where I had my issues, I got to follow him for a bit. I thought it was really, really cool to see him explore in areas where no one else was exploring. He was making the car work in areas where no one else was. I think that's why he was so strong.
“I think that NASCAR experience paid off in how those guys are just continuing to explore and see where the grip is. For us, I guess sometimes if you go off of what you know, it can be a big price to pay. But, yeah, it was really cool to see that he was kind of thinking outside the box versus everybody else. Yeah, I think he's just going to keep getting better and better.”
“That was a huge performance for Jimmie,” said former driver Scott Pruett, who serves as Johnson’s driver coach at Chip Ganassi Racing. “It was inside, outside, he had great confidence in the car. Great moves around the outside. We just ran out of tires at the end. That was the longest run we have done so far. He has learned huge amounts as a driver, knowing how hard he can push the car early on and save the car to get that many laps under it.
“We had a great race under our belt today. We were hoping to get that top five, but we were just outside P10. Once you lose tires here, you are done. We just needed to get the checkered flag, finished it off today, and we’ll do it again tomorrow.”
Pruett said after Johnson’s spin on Lap 16, he was able to refocus and get back to doing what Johnson does best – driving a race car on an oval.
“He had great confidence in the car, the car replacement was awesome, he made solid moves and had an impressive day,” Pruett said. “It was pretty awesome to see him out front, doing what he is doing.
“Between Mid-Ohio, Toronto and here, we are seeing a new Jimmie and he is doing a great job. Without a doubt, he spent a lifetime in NASCAR going around in ovals. It would be great to have some more and I’m excited to see what he does on Sunday.”
Johnson will drive the No. 48 American Legion Honda in Sunday’s Hy-Vee Salute to Farmers 300. His Chip Ganassi Racing crew went to work after Saturday’s race to re-wrap the Honda into The American Legion livery.
“I’m so excited to have our race in The American Legion car,” Johnson said. “They have been a great partner of ours. I personally contributed to their fundraising and hosted the ‘Helmet of Heroes’ for them at the Indianapolis 500. It will be a big honor Sunday to race for The American Legion and get that baby up on the podium.”
Johnson’s best finish in INDYCAR was sixth place in the XPEL 375 at Texas Motor Speedway on March 20, but Saturday’s race was easily his most entertaining race in INDYCAR.
“The first half of the race, I had some lines working that nobody else had working yet,” Johnson said. “The spotters are awfully good here and cued up every driver I was catching and then I tried to find some new stuff. The last run, we went so far, I burned the right rear tire off the car. It was really a lot of fun today in the race.
“On the spin, I tried to run the painted line and as soon as I touched up, I thought, ‘Why did you do that?’ Luckily, I was able to bump start it once I got going on the front stretch. I was able to get the outside lane working, racing hard with the regulars out front, it was just a lot of fun.”
Having a car out front again was reminiscent of Johnson’s career in NASCAR, when he won 83 NASCAR Cup Series races and seven NASCAR Cup Series titles.
“It was a lot of fun to be out front again, but I was kind of pissed that I didn’t finish better,” Johnson said. “That’s the racer in me and that’s a great place to be, especially knowing that we get to do it again on Sunday.
“I learned a lot out there. I have a better idea what to do with the car over a long run. I was a little too aggressive on the setup and that is what burned up the tire.”
One of the most exciting parts of his race came in a fierce battle with Rinus VeeKay late in the race as the two drivers went wheel-to-wheel, on the high line without lifting.
“That was great,” Johnson said. “It was understanding how to be forceful in one of these cars without making contact. You take lines away from the other driver. I learned a lot from many guys, but the most fun I was racing VeeKay. He was trying to pinch off my angle for the corner on the outside and I was trying to mess him up in the corner and pinch off his angle.
“I learned some race craft that is specific to INDYCAR racing. With fenders, you just lean on somebody or use the bumper to get them out of the way, but without fenders, it’s a different style of racing.”
VeeKay enjoyed his battle with one of NASCAR’s all-time greats. “It was fun battling Jimmie Johnson, he definitely knows what he is doing on an oval,” he said. “He was super comfortable on the high line, and I wasn’t at all. It shows his skill as a driver. Coming from a stock car to (open-wheel racing) on a street and road course is difficult.
“But this is his jam. This is what he is good at and what he has done all of his life. He was fast. I enjoyed racing with him.”
It’s obvious that Johnson’s expertise is in oval racing. He wishes there were more ovals on the NTT INDYCAR SERIES schedule.
“I’m definitely leaning that way now,” Johnson said.