MOORESVILLE, N.C. — A strong argument can be made that Jimmie Johnson is the best NASCAR driver ever, although that will fire up a fervent debate from fans of Dale Earnhardt, Richard Petty, David Pearson and Jeff Gordon.
With seven NASCAR Cup Series championships and 83 victories, Johnson is deserving of being in that conversation.
But Johnson’s racing days are far from over. With his full-time NASCAR Cup Series career coming to an end, he is ready to embark on something he dreamed about as a kid.
When Johnson was growing up in El Cajon, Calif., his dream was to become an IndyCar Series driver and compete in famed races such as the Grand Prix of Long Beach and the Indianapolis 500.
He won’t be driving in the Indy 500 any time soon because his wife, Chandra, believes it’s too risky. But Johnson will realize his dream of racing an Indy car next season.
Johnson and team owner Chip Ganassi announced last month they would pursue a 12-race deal for Johnson that will include all street and road courses for the next two years.
“When I tested Chip’s Indy car earlier in the year, it only lit the fire more,” Johnson said. “I found that I wanted to do it more than ever before. As part of a natural progression, I wanted to publicly show the alignment with Chip Ganassi Racing to kick the sponsorship program into high gear.
“The goal is to run the full road and street program and this is a very important first step in accomplishing that goal.”
SPEED SPORT caught up with Chip Ganassi Racing managing director Mike Hull at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in mid-September to discuss the move.
“Any time you can be associated with a person who has won seven championships, it’s a rare opportunity for a race team,” Hull said. “The time we spent with him at the race track, which was just one day, it’s easy to see why he is a seven-time champion.
“He understands race craft. He understands what he needs as a driver and he understands how to work in a system like the one he has come from,” Hull added. “I’m very impressed how hard Hendrick Motorsports works together as a team. We fit well with him, but so would many other race teams in our paddock. We are happy to be together with him. We have a partnership with him going forward and will try to achieve what he wants to achieve next.”
Hull says the team wants to hire an additional driver to wheel Johnson’s car in the oval races, including the Indianapolis 500.
“It’s not fair to talk about drivers today,” Hull said. “It’s way too early. I don’t want to single anyone out other importance who could drive for us going forward.
“We would like to have a full season entry and the reason for that is it’s about the people who support the program. We have to have quality people working on each entry we have in the IndyCar Series, one of which would be this entry. In order to create financial stability for the people who work for us, it has to be a full-time effort.
“But any time you add Jimmie Johnson and Chip Ganassi Racing together, you have opportunities that are important to you moving forward. We are working on that now.”
Johnson admits his racing hero as a young Southern California kid was Rick Mears. Mears, who is from Bakersfield, Calif., began his career as an off-road racer before becoming a four-time Indianapolis 500 winner.
Johnson was also a driver who loved racing in the desert, including motorcycles before his career path took him to NASCAR.
Johnson is prepared to show his versatility as a driver.
“I know that his heroes are people like Dan Gurney and Parnelli Jones or Rick Mears in terms of their ability to crossover,” Hull said. “That’s what they have in common. All of us guys in Southern California are like his demeanor. We’re easy going and we take it as it comes, but it doesn’t mean we aren’t ultra-competitive people. Maybe that personality trait crosses over between all of us. But when it comes time to be passionately competitive, we are all right there.”
One of Johnson’s teammates at Chip Ganassi Racing will be Scott Dixon, who is closing in on his sixth NTT IndyCar Series championship.
“It is always difficult to find great drivers, but for them to be great guys too makes it even that much more challenging,” Ganassi said. “To pair Jimmie with the likes of Scott Dixon is quite an opportunity. They are truly in rarified air and I think everyone knows by now that ‘I like winners.’
“The goal right now is for us to run Jimmie in an Indy car for at least the next couple of seasons, and we want to show people we’re serious about the program. We felt it was important to get the partnership done and start putting the financial building blocks in place to make this a reality.
“Jimmie’s record speaks for itself and we feel a championship-level driver of his caliber can only make our team better.”