Jimmie Johnson goes deep on his Indy 500 debut: ‘We have a real shot to win this thing’

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INDIANAPOLIS – Heading into one of the biggest races of his storied career, there is virtually no pressure for Jimmie Johnson in his Indy 500 debut.

The seven-time Cup Series champion is well aware what winning the 106th edition of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing would mean to a career that already is a first-ballot lock for the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

But on the eve of having a chance to join racing legends A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti as the only drivers to win the Indy 500 and Daytona 500, Johnson said it’s been as much about soaking in the moment than goal-setting.

HOW TO WATCH THE INDY 500Details and schedule for Sunday’s race on NBC

STARTING LINEUPWhere the 33 drivers will take the green flag

“I haven’t felt really any pressure that I felt with the championships and other major moments,” Johnson told NBC Sports. “There’s not that pressure of ‘I’ve got to perform’ on top of this is a really awesome opportunity, and I want to enjoy it and all that. Who knows, race day might be different.

“So far it’s all been about how much fun I’m having and really savoring the opportunity I have here to run an Indy 500 and obviously be this competitive. So I’ve enjoyed this quite a bit. I think I’ve savored it far more than my real job and those real moments that I had shooting for those seven championships.”

While he never dreamed of racing NASCAR growing up, Johnson has fond memories of watching the Indy 500 annually with his father and grandfather on the family couch in El Cajon, California.

During Sunday’s parade lap, Johnson will be waving to his father, Gary, who will be spotting from Turn 3 at the 2.5-mile oval and attending the first Indy 500 of his life.

While Jimmie Johnson hopes he can race the Indy 500 again, he is having the time of his life if 2022 is the first and only shot he gets.

“I think if I have a chance to come back next year or can do it multiple years, that pressure of expectations would continue to rise, and that’s ultimately what I was feeling in the Cup Series,” said Jimmie Johnson, who will start 12th in the Indy 500 and has been fast all month at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in his No. 48 Dallara-Honda. “I do think I’m a different man today than I was in Cup, and I’m enjoying these moments more.

“But we have a real shot to win this thing. So I’m happy I’m this relaxed about it and enjoying it as much as I have so far.

A gathering of nearly 100 people – including Darius Rucker, Andy Roddick, Brooklyn Decker and Jamin Davis of the Washington Commanders — will be at IMS to watch Johnson, who of course will have his wife, Chandra, and daughters Genevieve and Lydia on hand.

The entourage also will include Hendrick Motorsports vice president of competition Chad Knaus, who guided Johnson to all 83 of his victories before the pair split after the 2018 season.

“I’m excited for him to come,” Johnson said of Knaus. “Without a doubt. I have talked to him a few times just about some chassis stuff. Making sure I was thinking the right way with stuff we were trying here. We got into some stuff the other day that worked really well here. I was like, ‘Hey, did we try that here (in NASCAR?), and is this why it worked?’ And he’s like, ‘Yep, yep.’ I was like ‘Sweet! It’s working here, too!’ ”

Their easygoing rapport now is a stark contrast to the 19 seasons in NASCAR’s premier series that often were marked by crushing expectations that Johnson often managed to fulfill despite the enormous weight of history.

Though Johnson took his place alongside Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt as the only seven-time Cup champions in history, it came with untold stress and strain – particularly as he struggled through the final three winless seasons in Cup.

“I didn’t realize the pressure I was putting on myself or the pressure our success had put on us as a team until I stepped away from it,” Johnson said. “It’s inevitable. It’s a great thing to have. No complaints. I wouldn’t want it any other way, but it is nice to not have that around right now.

“(The last few years in NASCAR) were not fun. They were a grind. I look back and wonder if I could have handled it a little bit differently and hung on longer and enjoyed it more, but I don’t know. Stuff happens, and things were meant to be.”

In an interview largely conducted by Marty Snider in a suite beside Gasoline Alley, Johnson sat down exclusively with NBC Sports for more than 30 minutes Thursday morning to discuss fulfilling his childhood dream of racing in the Indy 500.

Here is the conversation (lightly edited for clarity):

Q: How was doing the Jimmy Fallon show last night and being accompanied on set by your youngest, Lydia?

Johnson: “Guy has such amazing energy. I’ve met him in passing a couple of times I’ve gone on the show, but I swear you meet that guy, and his energy is like you’ve been high school buddies with him. He just has such a unique energy about him. Lydia charmed him into a guest appearance. I watched it all unfold and was like ‘Oh my God.’ ”

Q: It seemed as if Lydia handled it all very well?

Johnson: “She did! And I told Chani it was coming, and she’s like, ‘Don’t let her speak.’ ‘They’ve already mic’d her!’ Who knows what is going to happen. There’s no telling what would come out of her mouth. But he offered coming on stage to her. They said no one could go in the audience and come back because of COVID (protocols). Jimmy said, ‘I’ll sneak you around, and you can watch. I know you don’t want to be on camera, but you can watch.’ She goes, ‘I can be on camera. Of course I’ll be on camera!’ That was it. Off they went.”

Q: So why are you racing the NTT IndyCar Series full time this season?

Johnson: “The experience. In the car, the experience with the people at Chip Ganassi Racing. Being a part of this team. There is a whole part of this that is really experience-based. It’s not that I need to make a living from this. I think there is upside potential for my legacy. That’s kind of in the distance. It’s not like the NASCAR days where I really had to prove myself. I’ve got nothing to prove. This is solely about the experience. And I’ve got a good chance to have the ultimate experience. Which makes it a little more exciting.”

Q: When it comes to your legacy, do you worry about anything else you’ve done in IndyCar affecting that?

Johnson: “I don’t care. I care about the feelings I have when I leave the track knowing that I did my best. People that are close enough to the sport know how hard this challenge is. But I have my own accountability in this process. But I really, ultimately, don’t care like I did in the Cup Series and worried about what people might write on social, what they might think. I’m not here for that. I’m here for me.”

Q: Was it all about getting to this moment, the Indy 500, or just trying something different when you first went to IndyCar?

Johnson: “(The Indy 500) was not on the table from me. I just didn’t want to do it. Obviously for safety reasons. Being around the sport last year and understanding things on a deeper level clearly changed all that. Chip (Ganassi), Doug Duchardt, (Tony) Kanaan. In the early days of putting this together, they all joked ‘Give it a year, you’ll want to run the 500 and do the ovals.’ I’m like, ‘No.’ The year happened, and I was like, ‘Hey guys, guess what?’ They were right.”

Q: And it was truly the moment of being on the Peacock Pit Box with Steve Letarte last year that you realized you wanted to do the Indy 500?

Johnson: “It was that last practice before qualifying last year. And in typical Stevie form, he was licking his fingers and snapping them and saying, ‘Wait until you see these things come by! You’re either in or you’re out!’ They went by and he goes, ‘And?’ I’m like, ‘I’m in.’ ‘Really?’ ‘I’m in.’ ”

Q: Knowing that your wife had expressed some reservations about ovals, what was it like telling Chani?

Johnson: “It wasn’t as black and white as on that weekend. But a week or so after the 500, I said, ‘I’m kind of thinking about the 500,’ and she’s like, ‘Oh no, here we go again.’ It took some time. It’s easy to put it on her, but through this process, she’s really looked at me and what my thoughts on safety are. Seeing (Alex) Palou’s crash (before Indy 500 qualifying last year). Being around the aeroscreen. I started becoming more comfortable and verbalizing that far more often to her. Then eventually she’s like, ‘I’m going to support you in whatever you want to do. You truly feel it’s in the safety window you want it to be, I’ll support you 100 percent.’ ”

Q: Without the aeroscreen, this doesn’t happen?

Johnson: “No, I’m not here. It’s a nonstarter.”

Q: Is the hard part of qualifying over and the racecraft now should be easier for you?

Johnson: “Yeah, I think so, too. And I think my inexperience showed up in qualifying and just knowing what I needed from a trim setting in the car. And also managing that situation. There were a few early signs in Turn 1 that it wasn’t going to turn out well, and I stayed with it. So after the fact, I learned the 8 car with (Marcus) Ericsson had a similar issue on the second lap and needed to lift, and he made it to the Fast Six. I agree; trying to be in the Fast Six was uncharted territory. And more difficult as a result. Getting into race trim going into the race … it’s hard to say it’s easier, but I think I’m more experienced in that world.”

Q: You finished a career-best sixth in your IndyCar oval debut March 20 at Texas Motor Speedway. Was there a moment at Texas of ‘I’ve got this, I understand this,’ and you started processing information like you would when you were driving the 48 in NASCAR?

Johnson: “The second-to-last pit stop, I think I was near the top 10. OK, I’m feeling this. After the last pit stop, I’m like, ‘I’m going to the front. We’re going to go up here and try to win this thing.’ Sadly, we had some issues with telemetry, and I got pulled back, but I literally got to Will Power’s gearbox for fourth, and I could see the group up ahead, and my eyes were forward. ‘Here I come boys. Let’s go.’ I don’t think I had enough time to get to Josef (Newgarden) and Scott (McLaughlin), but I think I could have been messing with Marcus (Ericsson).”

Q: Did you learn enough finishing sixth at Texas to be viable here as a winner and understand passing?

Johnson: “For Texas I did. It’s different here. There are similarities, but this place is different than Texas. The timing is different than Texas. I’ve got the timing sorted out pretty well and had a corner where you can run two wide to the outside. I don’t think at speed that two wide is really an option around here. Understanding restarts and what that aggressive level is. I’ve been watching a ton of playback stuff, and you see guys around the outside of Turn 1 advancing many rows, and OK that looks cool, but it could be really bad as well.

“So I think about the halfway point of the race, you’ll see another big step and confidence in what I think I can do. To finish first, first you must finish. And if I get to the end and (an aggressive move) needs to happen, then yes. I think Texas was a good approach. I expect to have the confidence earlier in this race because we’ve had so much track time here and so much traffic running. Where Texas literally that was my first go was in the race. I hope that all comes sooner.”

Q: How much of a factor will the 500-mile experience help you? You have more 500-mile wins than the entire field combined.

Johnson: “Another mark showing I’m old! I feel good about it, but I feel like you’re not going to pull a fast one on Dixon. He’s going to figure out a 500-mile race. Just because I might have more starts than him in 500-mile races doesn’t mean count him out. I think some of the field, rookies I’m trying to beat for rookie of the year honors, yes, I would agree with that. But when you get to the pointy end, I don’t know how much that is going to help me.”

Q: Have you thought about how you will manage the race?

Johnson: “Strategy-wise, I’ve never been in that conversation, even in Cup. Just tell me when to pit, and I’ll tell you what’s going on. I have that here, too. Largely because there’s so much more to consider, and it’s all foreign. Short pit stops. Very few caution flags. For me it’s just very different. My mindset so far has been about running as well as I can in traffic; 12th is a great starting spot but trying to sit at the tail end of a 12-car draft around here. You can’t go anywhere. You just can’t. So I feel like it’s a track position race. Strategy and/or defending your spot.

“I’m trying to tell myself in the first part of the race, don’t worry about being the aggressor. Watching plenty of races back, you see someone that’s faster. They get the timing wrong. They don’t make the pass. The car behind is sitting there, shuffles them back and now you’re in a worse situation. So directionally I want to be smart and take advantage of ill-timed passes in front of me, gaining track position. That’s really where my head space is now.”

Q: You have been so open on social media since moving into IndyCar. Is the Jimmie we see now who you always were? And we just saw a more filtered version for two decades in NASCAR?

Johnson: “Yeah, definitely this is me. I think I’ve been able to be me more inside of my team environment. Chad was very smart in trying to be reserved and not lead on too much about things. I think my own confidence, too, and who I am and what I’ve accomplished, also helps with that. Early in my career, social media started to explode, and in the beginning, it was something that bothered me that I’d open myself up and shared more private and personal things. I’d read about it somewhere and somebody slamming me or having an opinion that I didn’t like. I think I’m calloused now. I have more confidence. There are a few things that kind of play into that.”

Q: Why work so hard to do this? Could you get the same fulfillment out of a triathlon or something else that wasn’t racing at 230 mph?

Johnson: “I don’t know. It feels good? It truly makes me happy. I don’t know if triathlons would make me happy. I could eat a lot more. I guess I haven’t satisfied that urge yet ultimately.

Q: But you have seven championships?

Johnson: “So I don’t know if this will come across the same when I experienced it, but I just taped a show with Blake Shelton (who also collaborated on Johnson’s Indy 500 helmet). He has a new TV show called ‘Barmageddon.’ It’s in his bar in Nashville. We played five drinking games. Me and (Clint) Bowyer were teamed against each other. We started taping at 11 and just passing out beers and vodka and let’s get in the spirit here. These bar games are like super-sized.

“So we’re playing cornhole, and they have a bean-bag launcher, shooting bean bags 40-50 yards away, all this stupid stuff. And in between one of the takes, we’re sitting in Blake’s green room. I’ve got a Jack and Coke. His guitar is sitting behind him. And he asked the same question, ‘What the hell you want to work so hard for? Why do this?’ I saw his guitar sitting behind him and said, ‘Do you think you’ll ever stop playing that?’ He goes, ‘(Expletive) not.’ Right.”

Q: Isn’t racing a car different, though?

Johnson: “But there is something similar there. There’s some common ground. It’s your instrument. Your form of expression. It fills some bucket nothing else does. There’s something to that. I know it’s not a direct comparison.”

Q: So when will you quit racing?

Johnson: “When I have to. That’s why I’m still going. (IndyCar) is a higher level of work. I still want to go off-road racing. I still want to end up at Le Mans someday. I think sports car racing would be a great way for me to kind of slow things down at some point in time. So if the financial or team part can’t come together here, I’ll be able to just channel it somewhere for a few years to come.

Q: So you’d do IndyCar again full time in 2023?

Johnson: “I would in a heartbeat. Absolutely. It’s awesome. Man, I’m having the (expletive) best time. The only thing that would make it easier is if the (Honda simulator) was in Charlotte (instead of Indianapolis). That additional trip to the sim every race. That’s the only thing.

Q: What kind of off-road racing do you want to do?

Johnson: “The short course trucks. They’ve evolved so far. I’m just eager to drive one. But short course racing would be fun. To feel that speed and rush again. I’d love to go share a truck with Rick Johnson somewhere. If it’s Rick or another friend from that time. They’re all still out there bouncing around.

“It would be an opportunity to be with a friend. It’s really experience based. Ultimately the most general way to put this in a bucket is experience. I just want meaningful experiences. I never thought I’d win a damn race. I really didn’t. That was the goal. The first one I honestly didn’t know what to think after that. I was just like, ‘Really? Now what?’ ”

Q: Your father, Gary, is here as your second spotter for practices and the race. We saw a lot of him early in your NASCAR career when he was your bus driver, but less of him recently. How did it work out that he became your spotter for this race?

Johnson: “Ultimately, when he (stopped) driving my bus, there were two factors. One, he slipped a disk in his back, and then two, I just felt like I needed to have a little space just as I was getting older in my mid-20s. None of that was easy to work through, but he’s always been at the track. He’s always been around. He spent a bit more time helping my brothers and then through it all, he was always spotting.

“But as I went sports car racing, it was like, ‘Man, this is the perfect fit for us to hang out, be together, have these fun experiences.’ So that’s been going on the last two years, and then we always knew we needed a second spotter here. It was real easy to put that together.”

Q: Did you invite him to be the spotter, or was this always the plan if you did this?

Johnson: “I invited him. I called him and asked if he’d want to do it. He was super moved by it. Then it was like, ‘Wow, you’re going really fast there. I need to make sure I’ve got my stuff locked down.’ ”

Q: What was the Chip Ganassi Racing reaction to having Dad as the second spotter?

Johnson: “They were relieved they didn’t have to look for another spotter. That’s not easy to do. Especially wanting to make the first spotter happy, the driver happy. So they were like if you know somebody, great. I think Mel (Harder, Ganassi team manager) was pretty happy about that.”

Q: We saw you waving at him in practice, and it seems as if you really have relished this. Has this been an even better father-son moment than expected?

Johnson: “It’s funny I’ve always waved at him or if he was at the track working with us, and I knew where he was, there was always some gesture. The fact they caught it on TV and pieced it all together in the opening practice session, was pretty wild.

“I do remember as a kid, he’d always stand on the side of the motorcycle track and (points to head) ‘Think.’ And he would always find some little quiet spot where no one would see just making sure I wasn’t lazy in the turns and not charging as hard as I could on the back half of the track as the front half where everyone could see you. He’d always just be in the back. Somewhere. Throwing that ‘Think’ sign up.”

Q: How many times has that cropped up in your memory these two weeks?

Johnson: “All the damn time. When I hear his voice, the first thing I think is “Think” on the radio. It’s just been a childhood of seeing that.”

Q: Has the adaptation to IndyCar, particularly on ovals, been smoother in some ways than you expected?

Johnson: “No, everything about it has been more difficult. I’d also add that the experience has been more than I expected, and that’s been the key part of it all. If the experience wasn’t as fun, I’m not sure I’d be willing to expose myself so often. But I really am having the best time in the car, out of the car, with the team. The schedule. I know I’m getting better, I just need to show it on the road courses. I keep not showing it or making too many mistakes and trying too hard. If you look back through my Busch Series days, I had a lot of these similar moments. So I do feel I’m in familiar territory, and I’ve been here before at different stages of my career and why I think I’m so open to continuing on and trying one more year, I just know it takes me a while to pick stuff up, but when I do, I’ve got it. I know it’s coming.”

Q: Dale Jr. said this week that he watches you and gets nervous because he worries you’re trying too hard. Your thoughts on that?

Johnson: “He’s got a good eye for it. It’s such an interesting position to be in because these cars have such a high level of grip if you really commit to it. So trying to find that balance of commitment at the right time, that’s what I think I’m getting wrong is at times I’m putting in too big an effort in the wrong area of a turn or at the wrong time. The track’s not there. I look back at the Fast 12. My commitment in the car and our turn setting was just a round early. If we’d been more reserved for the Fast 12, I think we would have easily made it in (to the Fast Six).”

Q: Have you envisioned what an Indy 500 victory and drinking milk might be like?

Johnson: “I’m not against it, I just don’t know what it would look like. I just don’t know what that vision would be. No. I just want to run good. And of course I want to finish as high as I can and have a shot to win. But we were talking earlier about the pressure, and going into (the championship finale at) Homestead or the Daytona 500, I was expecting to win. Here, I really want to win and think I can, but I don’t have any expectations yet. So it’s free. And I felt like Texas was free, and I kind of got going, and I was able to take advantage of it.

“I hope it stays that simple.”

Jimmie Johnson goes deep on his Indy 500 debut: ‘We have a real shot to win this thing’ originally appeared on NBCSports.com