When it comes to professional athletes, the vast majority tend to focus on whatever brings them the most success, and race car drivers are no exception. In the world of car racing, if you’ve won and had success in a given circuit, you stay there.
Not Jimmie Johnson. Despite the fact that he’s a NASCAR legend, Johnson is determined to strike out on a new path in the sport, one that’s very different from navigating race tracks in behemoth stock cars.
Open Wheel Racing
Instead, he’s turned his attention to open-wheel racing, and Johnson has definitely gone all in.
He’s joined the IndyCar circuit and intends to drive a full schedule, despite the fact that he’s 46 years old, an age when most drivers are contemplating post-racing life in a rocking chair.
To get an idea of how unusual this is, it’s necessary to do a quick review of Johnson’s success in NASCAR.
A Championship Track Record
Jimmie Johnson actually started his racing career in motocross as a teenager in southern California, which definitely makes him an anomaly among NASCAR drivers. He was very successful, but when a broken leg temporarily derailed his budding racing career, he abandoned motocross and shifted over to NASCAR.
The level of success Johnson achieved in the world of stock cars was very different from what he enjoyed as a motocross champion.
Johnson was quickly branded as a rising wunderkind, and when he won the first of his seven championships, it was incredibly clear that a new legend in the sport had been born.
Life After NASCAR
Most drivers would have been content to compete hard while enjoying the spoils of a successful NASCAR driver, and to some extent, Johnson has done just that.
But he’s also a bit different than most of his NASCAR brethren. Johnson is both driven and curious-he’s run marathons, after all, and he’s occasionally dabbled in the world of open-wheel racing.
His NASCAR commitments prevented him from doing more than dabbling, but when it became clear that the shine was fading from his stock car career, he decided to “retire” and shift over to open-wheel racing.
His car owner, Chip Ganassi, happens to have a hugely successful track record in the open-wheel world, so from that standpoint, the transition was fairly seamless.
The IndyCar Shift
Johnson ran a full season as an IndyCar rookie in 2021, and to describe it as a learning experience would be a serious understatement.
The former NASCAR champ has no trouble turning fast laps, and he was able to do that early in on IndyCar as well, but Johnson also knew that fast laps don’t necessarily translate to wins and championships.
Johnson was responsible for over a half-dozen cautions in IndyCar last year, and he’s aware that he’s still in the middle of a steep learning curve. He’s described it as being like “going from football to baseball,” although he’s clearly tired of not getting the results he expected.
Conquering the Indy 500?
Johnson’s 2022 schedule includes a number of oval events, despite the fact that the driver has expressed hesitation about the safety of open-wheel cars on oval tracks.
But the upcoming Indy 500 is clearly another event entirely for the ambitious Johnson. He’s very focused on succeeding in one of auto racing’s signature events, and he’s raised eyebrows by running some seriously fast test laps that have put him on the map as a serious contender.
Those test laps included one in which he hit a speed of 227.9 miles an hour, which is the fastest lap Johnson has ever turned in his storied career.
He’s clearly juiced by the prospect of pushing his personal limits even more in the Indy 500, but Johnson knows it will take more than speed to win at Indy.
Johnson has talked extensively about his learning process in NASCAR, comparing his early spin-outs in a stock car with what he’s had to learn in the faster, more sensitive open-wheel vehicles he drives now.
He knows that mistakes get seriously magnified in the open-wheel world, and he’s also aware that he’ll have to drive with the same steely sense of strategic control that brought him so much success in NASCAR.
His chances to win the Indy 500
Can he win the Indy 500? Johnson is still an outlier because of his lack of experience, but no one would be surprised. He’s always looking for new challenges, and winning at Indianapolis would further cement his reputation as one of the most successful drivers in auto racing history.