Seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson is entering his second season in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES, this time as a full-time driver for Chip Ganassi Racing.
Johnson, 46, has heard the “criticisms” of his first season as an open-wheel driver in the No. 48 Carvana Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, a season that ended with no top-15 finishes, no qualifying performance in the top half and so no chance of a race win for the first time in his decorated career.
But as he said recently, the chatter about his results is just outside noise.
“It seems like a lot of people are saying I’ve lost it and don’t want to drive a race car anymore,” he said. “Fortunately, I have a thick skin (to criticism) after years of experience, and I honestly don’t care.
“I joke with friends that my give-a-sh*t meter is broken. (Match in INDYCAR) is not about anyone but me. What I’m doing now, I feel so free. It’s strange because it’s very similar to my teenage years where I just raced because I wanted to race. I’m doing it my way and doing what the hell I want to do.”
Johnson recognizes that the freedom to choose a religion is a rare gift, and he is grateful for his ability to do so.
“That’s what I’m trying to convey,” he said. “I’m (in INDYCAR) because I want to be here, because (racing) is what I love to do. Of course I want to be competitive; of course I want to do it right. But we’ll see what happens.
“This is a huge challenge, (and) I didn’t realize how different it is for my life in NASCAR. But I’m here for the purest reasons and I love every minute of it.”
Johnson has been under scrutiny since the day Jeff Gordon hand-picked him to join Hendrick Motorsports for the 2002 NASCAR Cup Series season, so he’s adept at keeping it from becoming a distraction. People have said he didn’t deserve the chance, that he always had a silver spoon in his mouth. The latter makes him laugh.
“Because it’s so far from the truth,” he said.
Yes, Johnson grew up in the San Diego area of desirable Southern California, but for years the family’s address was a trailer park in El Cajon. Even when they moved into a house, Johnson remembers thinking they’d taken a step back in terms of ownership.
But what he and his brother Jarit had was a commitment from their parents – Gary, a Vietnam War veteran, started out as a heavy equipment operator who made his way into motorsports through his parents’ motorcycle shop, while Catherine drove a school bus. for extra cash — to provide every opportunity to excel in motorsports, primarily on motorcycles.
“We had new bikes, we rode the local track (Barona Oaks Motocross Facility in Lakeside, California),” said Johnson. “We drove the regional events and when we qualified for national events we wrapped up in the summer and drove our 1979 Econoline bus across the country with a 10-foot closed box trailer behind it.
“They spent every dime on me and Jarit racing…and they paid a lot of hospital bills because I was prone to accidents.”
Johnson said some of the best advice he’s received in his life came from Herb Fishel, the former executive director of General Motors’ racing division, who was one of Johnson’s early advocates. Fishel often told Johnson to “be patient”, even if it goes against a driver’s mentality. Johnson is applying that to his INDYCAR chase, which will include five oval races this year, including the 106th running of the Indianapolis 500, presented by Gainbridge on Sunday, May 29. Johnson won four Cup races at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
“I try to be realistic with my excitement for ovals,” he said. “Of course I think ovals are my bread and butter – I’ve won 82 NASCAR oval races and one road race – (so) my odds of winning on ovals in INDYCAR are much higher than what I would expect on a street course or road course.
“I try to be measured, but I know my expectations are much higher. I hope the top five (finish) is realistic, I hope podium (finish) is realistic, and if I get the right chance I want to believe I can win. That’s my wiring, that’s who I am.”
The NTT INDYCAR SERIES 2022 season kicks off with the Firestone St. Petersburg Grand Prix, presented by RP Funding on Sunday, February 27, live at noon (ET) on NBC and the INDYCAR Radio Network. Johnson’s first oval race in INDYCAR will take place on Sunday, March 20 at the XPEL 375 at Texas Motor Speedway, where the victory track is named after him for winning seven Cup races on the track.