MOORESVILLE, N.C. – In six days, seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson will compete in his final race as a full-time NASCAR driver in the season finale at Phoenix Raceway.
On Monday at Barber Motorsports Park, he took the next step in his new career as an NTT IndyCar Series driver in a full-field test session.
The private test session was arranged by Chip Ganassi Racing, but open to all competitors in the series. Johnson, who tested a Chip Ganassi Racing Honda on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course on July 28, was on track with other Indy car drivers for the first time Monday.
“First of all, I just want to be courteous on track, not be the rookie that makes mistakes,” Johnson said in response to a question posed by SPEED SPORT. “I feel like I’ve probably been a bit too worried about my mirrors, making sure I let guys by.
“Now that I’m closer on pace, it takes them a lot longer to get to me, catch me, they can pass me in a traditional braking area. Everything is sped up, it’s so much quicker, from the car speed everything, so much quicker, closing rate, braking distance. All those things just compound, things happen a lot quicker.
“Each time I go on track, things seem to slow down a bit more for me. I’m able to work through all that stuff to get faster and get more comfortable.”
Because of chilly temperatures in Central Alabama on Monday morning, the test session was delayed until ambient conditions allowed on-track action. Once the track went green, it created a high-speed traffic jam.
“There’s so many cars here, to get there out on the track, find a clean spot to run, take my time getting up to speed has been a bit challenging with the heavy traffic and how fast these guys are,” Johnson said during a break Monday at the road course located in Leeds, Ala. “I was able to get probably 20 and 30 laps this morning.
“I’m shaving seconds off at a time, so I’m still a ways off. I’m looking forward to the second half of the today, getting down to a much smaller window on track.”
For a veteran Indy car driver, the goal is to trim tenths of a second off their lap times. But for a newcomer such as Johnson, his improvement level is measured in seconds off the fastest driver.
“They handed me a sheet that compared me to, I believe, Scott Dixon,” Johnson said of his Chip Ganassi Racing teammate. “The slow-speed stuff I was really trending well, didn’t have a lot to work on there. It was the high-speed corners, the flat-out corners where you have to trust the vehicle, trust the downforce that the vehicle provides. That’s where I had my biggest gap. I assume that’s still the case.
“I look forward to more reps really to help close that gap today.
“I would love to be within a second of the guys. I’m not there quite yet. Taking big chunks out of it each time I’m on track. There’s really no runoff. If you go off, you’re in the grass, into a barrier. More important to me is logging every lap I can just because I’m starting at ground zero.
“I feel like that’s more important than anything, although I’m eager to look at the sheet, see how far I’m off, how much ground I need to make up. I’ll keep a close eye on that.”
Johnson has another test coming up at California’s WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, but won’t be able to test again until January at Sebring Int’l Raceway.
“Those are only one-day events, not two-day events for testing,” Johnson said. “The weekend schedules are getting more and more condensed. They released some data how these practice sessions are going to be less next year even if we have a traditional style weekend.
“It’s a bad time to be a rookie, even a 45-year-old rookie with all the years I have in racing. To learn these cars and tracks, it’s going to be a real steep learning curve for me.”
Meantime, he is using Tuesday’s test session at Barber Motorsports Park to adapt to the new environment, team and competition.
“Honestly I’m just trying to find my own approach and rhythm right now, set a realistic pace,” he said. “It’s easy to overwhelm yourself with information, get lost in the details.
“On the Cup side, I’ve been fortunate to spend a lot of time there, understand exactly what I’m looking for. Much more detail oriented. I’m not there yet. Looking for big pieces and broad strokes than getting into those fine details.”
Throughout his career, Johnson has been a regular visitor to Alabama, having raced at nearby Talladega Superspeedway 38 times in the NASCAR Cup Series. Monday was the first time he has driven a race car at Barber Motorsports Park, located about 40 miles west of Talladega.
“It’s a beautiful facility,” Johnson said. “I’m highly impressed. It’s a very technical track, very attractive. It rewards bravery and aggression. I just don’t have that yet. I’m still trying to get comfortable in these cars.
“These blind corners, the approaches to turns that are on an uphill, you can charge them a lot harder, extract a lot more speed out of the car.
“I’m trying to figure out where the edge is, where to push the car. But it’s a beautiful track. It really is a one-of-a-kind race track.”