ST. PETERSBURG — Even as Jimmie Johnson made the three-minute walk between the media center and his Chip Ganassi Racing team transponder Friday afternoon, he was greeted by encouraging cheers and autograph requests from excited fans standing behind the wire-fenced walkway.
The seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion, dressed casually in a golf shirt emblazoned with his sponsor Carvana, khaki pants and loafers, smiled and offered thanks to the excited fans as he made his way to a team briefing in advance of opening practice for Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg – the second NTT IndyCar Series race of the season. The second IndyCar race of Johnson’s new racing career.
Johnson, who completed a 20-year NASCAR career last season, has pivoted to this new form of major-league racing. And the stock car champion, 83-race winner and certain NASCAR Hall of Famer is impressed with his new surroundings, enthused about the opportunity and genuinely humbled by the work he – at age 44 – must now undertake in the sleek, open-wheel IndyCars to replicate his established racing resume.
The St. Petersburg Grand Prix – which takes place on a 1.8-mile, 14-turn temporary circuit along the city’s downtown shoreline – will be another big test for Johnson, who started 21st and finished 19th out of 24-entries in his series debut last weekend at Alabama’s Barber Motorsports Park.
It was a learning experience – the first of many humbling tests Johnson anticipates.
“Race day was a big eye-opener for me, just how different the procedures are and how the racing plays out,’’ Johnson said. “It is so much more a singular, solo event for the driver. I was only on pit road three times – because I spun – most guys only twice. And the entire flow of the race was so different.
“So I felt like I did a good job in practice and qualifying and test sessions. But the learning was the race day format and the way traffic works, pitting, and you don’t really get a chance to bunch up and try again. Every tenth of a second you give away, chances are you aren’t going to get it back. So, it’s really just a different mindset that I’m better prepared for going into this Sunday.
“I think professionals do a really nice job of making their sport look easy. And I’ve been so used to it on the [NASCAR] Cup side and that was my safe place and now I’m in an unsafe place trying all over again. It just speaks volumes of how easy these guys make it look.
“They are so good at what they do and this is so different than what I’ve been exposed to that there’s no other way to get exposed other than diving headfirst. I look back at the first three [NASCAR] Cup races I ran in 2001. I crashed in all three and didn’t finish on the lead lap. So there is a process here I’m going to have to go through.”
The smile and gratitude was obvious even under his facemask, as Johnson spoke of all the messages from friends and family he received after his debut last Sunday. Even his fellow IndyCar drivers reached out, acknowledging the importance of that day.
And while technically, this weekend marks his second IndyCar start, he feels brand new again, considering he’s never raced on the St. Pete course. It’s actually the first time in his career he’s raced on a street circuit at all.
So, it should not surprise anyone that Johnson was the slowest driver in Friday’s opening practice. Two-time defending race winner Josef Newgarden, driver of the No. 2 Team Penske Chevrolet, was fastest.
But Johnson is in full learning mode. And good with that.
“I think until I come back to tracks that I’ve tested at, I really have to keep simplistic goals in mind and that’s just making laps,’’ Johnson explained. “The next race for me is the Indy Road Course and I did have a chance to test there last July, so I know where the track goes and have some expectations of what to do so I’m excited about that. But so many of these tracks, especially the street circuits, I really have to start over from ground zero from an expectation standpoint.”
His fans, even those that might not have cheered for him in NASCAR, say they have massive respect for Johnson’s venture way outside the comfort zone.
Race fan Steven Dingler, 44, has driven to the St. Pete race from his home outside Orlando for the last four years. He loves racing. He loves being a Jimmie Johnson fan. Wearing a bright blue t-shirt with Johnson’s photo and former NASCAR car on it, Dingler smiled and said that just walking around the track Friday, he’s already received a lot of pats-on the-back in recognition of his Johnson leaning.
“This is something he’s always wanted to do, so I know he’ll be good at it,’’ said Dingler, who became a Johnson fan all the way back in 2001 after his previous favorite driver, Dale Earnhardt, was killed in a Daytona 500 last-lap accident.
“I think he’s going to be all right, maybe not Top-10 right away. He’s got a lot to learn and it may take a couple years before he’s competitive in every race. But I believe his NASCAR fans will support him here in IndyCar.”
It’s that kind of full-on, high profile support that makes Johnson one of the most popular drivers in the IndyCar paddock – already – and has attracted big corporate sponsors to his No. 48 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda. Just as importantly to Johnson, the welcome and the promise of his new quest has allowed him to bring worthy attention to causes and organizations he is passionate about such as the American Legion, which is featured on his car.
Longtime fans, corporate America, even his competitors want to see Johnson have success in this gutsy career pivot. And no one is more determined to deliver than Johnson.
“Right now, I understand the job I have ahead of me, and I am perfectly content with where I’m at,’’ Johnson said of his measured approach. “I think it will be more difficult near the end of the year and even next year once I have experience and I am in the mix more regularly.
“That’s when the traditional race pressure will set in. Right now, it’s just so different and I have so much to learn, I honestly don’t have any negative pressure or competitive pressure on me that I have to finish somewhere.
“It’s really about making laps and learning.
“And I’m loving it.’’
St. Petersburg Grand Prix