SEVEN-TIME NASCAR CHAMPION JOHNSON LOOKING FORWARD TO TEXAS MOTOR SPEEDWAY RETURN FOR INDYCAR OVAL DEBUT IN NEXT WEEK’S XPEL 375
FORT WORTH, Texas (March 10, 2022) – Jimmie Johnson reveled in Texas Motor Speedway’s Victory Lane celebration of cowboy hats and six shooters an unrivaled seven times during his illustrious NASCAR Cup Series career.
When the former seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion returns to the Fort Worth venue for next weekend’s XPEL 375 NTT INDYCAR SERIES race, he’s hoping he still has a bit more firepower left at this challenging, high-banked 1.5-mile oval.
After a 2021 NTT INDYCAR SERIES rookie campaign in which Johnson competed in just the road course and street circuit races for Chip Ganassi Racing, he has expanded to a full season this year and will make his much-anticipated series oval race debut Sunday, March 20, in the XPEL 375 (11:30 a.m. CT, TV: NBC).
Johnson could not have hand-picked a much better race track for his oval debut given his NASCAR success at Texas Motor Speedway. 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.
Johnson and his CGR teammates – six-time series champion Scott Dixon, defending series champ Alex Palou and Marcus Ericsson – were scheduled to test Monday with Team Penske and Ed Carpenter Racing but cold weather forced a cancellation. While Johnson was disappointed in not getting more Indy car seat time at TMS, he did glean some confidence off his test here last year.
“My test here in August, I felt more comfortable on the second set of tires than I have period in INDYCAR on a road or street course,” Johnson said Monday. “It was really surprising to me that there were some similarities because on a road course there are none between a NASCAR and INDYCAR vehicle. Granted, the pace is much quicker around here than a Cup car, tools are different, car is different, but I did find that some of the basic changes to a car cross over from NASCAR and the way you generate lap time, the way you carry momentum, the way you set up the passes, a lot of that is much more in my wheelhouse. My expectations parallel that and to what the others think my expectations are much higher on ovals.”
The transition to INDYCAR for the 46-year-old native Californian has been challenging to say the least in his familiar No. 48. In his 13 starts last season, his best finish was 17th and those came in the final two races of the season (Laguna Seca, Long Beach). He opened this season Feb. 27 with a 23rd-place finish at the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg street circuit. Given that Johnson was not a dominant NASCAR road-course racer with just one of his 83 career wins coming on that type of track, he has tempered expectations.
“I think realistically on street and road courses I’m trying to battle for the middle of the pack,” Johnson said. “I don’t think it would be realistic to say I’m going to be able to race for a win. I think on the ovals that shifts further forward. I don’t have a really good sense of how far forward, but in my heart of hearts I hope I can get in top-five territory, if not better.”
His teammates can definitely sense the anticipation and confidence Johnson exudes when it comes to returning to his strength of oval racing and at a familiar track such as Texas Motor Speedway.
“I think we are all excited to see him on the ovals this year because at least I feel like even though he has driven other cars he has so much experience on the ovals from all of his years in NASCAR,” Ericsson said. “I really feel like he can add something for us as a program on the ovals. I think he is just going to make us even stronger. I think he will be very strong on the ovals and surprise some people.”
Added Palou: “I’m looking forward to sharing a day on the oval with him. I have not had the opportunity yet – it will be an amazing opportunity.”
While the track is the same, the parallels of running a 3,200-pound stock car around the layout versus a nearly 1,700-pound, open-wheeler are drastically different.
“I think anyone seeing the transition he made, this would be the most natural switch for him,” said Dixon, who owns a TMS-record five INDYCAR wins. “Granted, it’s still very much at the other ends of the spectrum and I think for him it will be an eye opener. Obviously, testing here and running laps by yourself is very different than running in traffic. … so, it’s still a steep learning curve for him, but I feel like he feels much more natural, for sure.”
Johnson admits to all of those challenges but does feel there are a few tricks of the trade that carry over.
“There is a rhythm to an oval and maintaining your minimum speed, how to set up a gap and close a gap using the draft so there’s race craft that I think will be useful,” he said. “But the worlds are pretty far apart, further apart than I anticipated.”
TMS is the first of four ovals and five races with the others being the Indy 500 (May 29), Iowa Speedway (July 23 & 24) and World Wide Technology Raceway (Aug. 20) on the 17-race schedule.
“I think it (oval debut at TMS) is a really good situation for me and then certainly me getting the experience here at speed will get me better prepared for going to Indy,” Johnson said. “Granted, a much different track but starting off in a new environment in a comfortable track, then moving to a different situation at Indy I think it works really well for me.”
While the results have not come as yet, Johnson will continue to methodically tackle the intricacies of this sport and further his growth through the same hard work and determination that propelled his NASCAR career.
“When I look back through my career, I’ve been here before and I know there is a pattern to my learning, there’s pattern to adapting to the cars and tracks, so I’m not as nervous about it,” Johnson said. “I know there’s a natural process and I just have to give it time. And I know myself and it’s really energized me, and I love the time and effort I’m putting in to try and cover as much ground as fast as I can. It’s been a familiar process but also a fun one and one I’m really enjoying.”
The XPEL 375 weekend opens Saturday, March 19, featuring NTT INDYCAR SERIES qualifying (1-2 p.m.) and a pair of practices (10-11 a.m., 4-5 p.m.). On Sunday, March 20, the Fan Zone opens at 8 a.m. and the gates at 9 a.m. for the XPEL 375 that takes the green flag at 11:45 a.m. For ticket and race information, please visit www.texas.motorspeedway.com.