NEWTON, Iowa – Jimmie Johnson impressed his NTT IndyCar Series competitors with his exploration of the grip level of the Iowa Speedway in an 11thth-Placement – although Saturday’s search went a bit too far.
Attempting to apply the lessons he learned as a seven-time NASCAR Cup Series Champion to “chase the color,” Johnson pushed the boundaries by putting his #48 Dallara-Honda on the apron and into a spin at Turn 4 on Lap 16.
“In a Cup car, you can always hang your left front tire on the paint,” Johnson told NBC Sports, referring to the white line at the bottom of the track. “You may remember Richmond, it works. You can’t do that with an IndyCar. I only found that out during the opening run.
“I instinctively think I was trying to drive the painted line like a cup car and as soon as I touched it I was like you idiot. Luckily I kept it off the wall and was able to bump into it once I pulled off the front straight and pointed in the right direction. That was just a lot of fun.”
Johnson recovered quickly after pitting after fresh tires that put him out of line with the leading group. With laps a few seconds faster than the field at the 0.894 mile oval, Johnson took the lead on lap 61 and stayed first for 19 laps.
He appeared to be on course for the second top 10 finish of his IndyCar career before falling from eighth to eleventhth in the last 15 laps for “burning the right rear tire off the car.
“In the first half of the race I had some lines running that no one else was really working on and the spotters are terribly good here and taught every rider I caught how to defend and block,” Johnson said . “And before I knew it, the lines I had been working on had kind of run out and then I was trying to find some new stuff and on that last run we just went that far.”
“But still a very strong performance, super happy for everyone at Chip Ganassi Racing.”
Although it didn’t fit his career-best sixth on March 20 at Texas Motor SpeedwayJohnson (the also had a solid May at Indianapolis Motor Speedway before a late accident at the Indy 500) again showed his skills on ovals that he’s admittedly lacking on road and street courses.
“I think he’s doing a phenomenal job in the ovals,” said Pato O’Ward. “In Texas I had to follow him a bit. I thought it was really, really cool to see him exploring areas where no one else was exploring. He got the car to work in areas where nobody else was. I think that’s why he was so strong.
“I think that NASCAR experience has paid off because these guys just keep exploring and seeing where the grip is. For us, I think it can sometimes come at a high price if you deviate from what you know. It was really cool to see that unlike everyone else, he thought outside the box. I think he will keep getting better and better.”
Scott Dixon, Johnson’s Ganassi teammate, said: “Jimmie kind of had his own line. He was like Lane 3 or 4. He did a great job today and it was really fun to watch him because he was always trying things. Maybe I need to do that a little more.”
With 300 more laps available for Sunday’s Iowa race (3 p.m. ET, NBC), Johnson will have another chance to improve at a track he’s never raced in NASCAR. He still surpassed himself on Saturday “by just being able to be myself. It was really a lot of fun.
“I’ve seen so many great races at this track,” said Johnson. “Being here in person and driving an Indy Car on it is such a rush. For the first two thirds of the race I really felt like we had a car that was competitive enough to win. Then it kind of slipped away from us in the end. I think the longer run at the end also revealed a weakness in our car and I faded a bit more.
“We’re going to sleep on that tonight, work with our teammates and engineers, make some good changes and come back stronger. These cars really reward trust. A Cup car, I think they reward patience and finesse. There is another ability that comes with it. You ride so damn fast in these things, the more downforce it generates, the more confidence it rewards.
“I hope to have an even sharper performance tomorrow.”