INDIANAPOLIS ‒ Jimmie Johnson felt his IndyCar career was going backwards. He knew this journey would be tough – perhaps the toughest thing the seven-time NASCAR Cup champion has done in racing. But the gap to the front of the IndyCar field ‒ heck, even the mid-pack ‒ wasn’t getting smaller to start this season. His finishing results were getting worse.
As an IndyCar rookie running a road and street course-only schedule, his average starting spot was 23.6, qualifying last once, and he had an average finishing position of 22.5. On those same road and street courses this year? He was starting nearly two spots back and finishing almost 1.5 positions worse – with average grid sizes that were nearly identical. As he saw his qualifying results pop over the dash at Mid-Ohio – 27th out of 27, his fourth time starting last in 2022 – he’d had enough.
Johnson and his crew made the decision to start working on his own setup instead of primarily mirroring what the other drivers started with the next day’s warmup and race.
“At some point, we just had to have higher expectations (on the road and street courses). He was going back to places where he’d been before and tested before, and we’ve got to start bringing this together. And it wasn’t happening,” Johnson’s race engineer Eric Cowdin told IndyStar in an exclusive interview this week. “And the problem with not hitting your expectations is, people get frustrated, and they do things that don’t make sense. They start acting in desperation.
“You could tell (at Mid-Ohio), everybody was not happy. There was this sense of frustration evident, and so we sat down and asked, ‘Okay, what we’re doing isn’t working. What can we do to help?’”
Where the No. 48 Honda crew landed, as they stepped out of that heart-to-heart meeting and into a long night’s worth of work for Cowdin, was part counter-intuitive and part common sense. Johnson came out of preseason testing at Sebring elated that he could finally drive a somewhat similar package to his three championship-caliber teammates. A year after going, at times, in vastly different directions on engineering to accommodate Johnson’s lack of open-wheel racing experience, he left testing and headed to St. Pete with the training wheels coming off.
And they did, but as any child knows, you’re bound to fall a few times. But for Johnson, Mid-Ohio was one time too many.
“I’d taken some pride that I could finally drive their setups, but that didn’t mean I was driving them fast. But because I could at Sebring, I felt like then, ‘I’m here, finally. I’ve done it. I’ve made it over those hurdles, and this is where I need to be,” Johnson told IndyStar. “But sometimes, it takes that 30,000-foot view to say, ‘Hey, let’s try a different path this time, and let’s just see how it works this weekend.’ And I’m so glad they did.
“At times, a driver needs to be asked to open (his) mind and try something new and get off the path that we know. This right now is more just about not trying to drive my teammates’ setups and focusing on what I need to do to build confidence at the start of weekends when we hit the track when it has such low grip. Previously, as the track would evolve, I’d finally find my confidence in the warmup when the track is in a good place, but unfortunately, qualifying’s already happened and we’re just steps behind everyone.”
Last year’s philosophy was about finding comfort and building confidence. Whatever the on-track results were – great. And over his last four races of the year, he was on a roll: 19th20th17th and 17th, four of his five best finishes of the year. The change in approach this season, to start weekends with roughly the same car as Scott Dixon, Alex Palou and Marcus Ericsson, was meant to push Johnson and help him grow, while taking him out of his comfort zone at times. Ideally, in some initially uncomfortable places, he’d adapt and either drive those cars or help his crew navigate through a weekend to find an ideal starting spot for Sundays.
“What we wanted to do was parallel our setup philosophy with the rest of the team, so that we could communicate about the same changes throughout a weekend, all while still working on his driving technique,” Cowdin said.
But on green tracks in his weekend-opening Friday afternoon practices this year, Johnson said he’d often come away frustrated and unsure of himself. One more practice was never enough time. He might eventually get comfortable Sunday morning in warmup, but by then he’d be forced to knife his way through the field. That can lead to trying too hard such as at Long Beach, where he crashed three times and broke his hand in the process.
Instead of tearing him down a bit initially to build him back up in the long run, Johnson said he was growing more impatient.
“Of course you reflect back and think, ‘Damnit, why didn’t we think of this a little bit sooner?'” Johnson said. “But then again, why would you deviate from Alex Palou or Scott Dixon’s setups? But a lot of times, racing is about theories and ideas and concepts, and with so little practice and test time, you rarely have a chance to prove them, or prove them wrong.
“This is one of those instances.”
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It’s counter-intuitive, though, to what Johnson had been feeling in the Honda simulator, where he’s been spending loads of time of late. There, Johnson has often been able to match his Ganassi teammates lap for lap with similar setups, whereas last year, his gap on-track was the same he’d have off of it. That dichotomy, where this year’s race week simulator time was telling him one thing and his Practice 1 results another, made things worse.
“In real life, we know I don’t challenge as much in the braking areas as I do in the sim, so we’re trying to figure out what we can do in real-life to make the braking feel more comfortable so I can have the confidence to challenge there,” Johnson said. “Even if it hurts the performance in the turn, I’ve got so much more to gain in braking that I do in the turns.
“When the car had been reacting too quickly, I’d been getting nervous thinking, ‘Oh, I can’t spin. I’m gonna lose five minutes, or I’m going to lose a set of tires, or I’m going to tear up the car and not get any more practice time. With how condensed these practice sessions are, if I’ve got a very reactive car, I just start protecting, and I get behind.”
Coming into this weekend on the IMS road course where he’s tested, practiced and raced more than anyone in IndyCar, Johnson said he was eyeing a qualifying performance in the “high teens” and a finish on race-day in the mid-to-low teens. Friday’s qualifying performance didn’t pan out that way. He’ll start on the 23rdrd Saturday afternoon, right around his average in 2022. But if Mid-Ohio was any proof, where he only spent Sunday’s warmup practice in-tune with the car, started 27th and produced his best IndyCar road course finish (16th), he may still have a chance in Saturday’s Gallagher Grand Prix to turn some heads.
He’s done just that on ovals this year, finishing 6thth at Texas, running consistently strong in May ahead of the Indy 500 and taking 11th and 5th that Iowa last weekend. In achieving those results, Cowdin said, his team often notices Johnson “stops thinking and starts driving.”
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However the driver of the No. 48 can get there – whatever car he starts Fridays with and however he progresses through weekends – is all that really matters in the long run. Starting an IndyCar career in his mid-40s was never about conforming to the norm but about discovering and experiencing things for the first time and learning and growing along the way.
“Now, he’s able to learn without as much of the risk of some consequences,” Cowdin said. “The more experience he has, the more opinions he’ll have on what he wants, and if that takes us in a different direction, I think we have to be prepared to do that. Marcus, Scott and Alex, they don’t all drive exactly the same car. Everyone has their own sensation and feedback and references.
“As long as this feeds Jimmie’s performance level, that’s the most important thing.”
This article originally appeared on the Indianapolis Star: IndyCar: Jimmie Johnson searching for success on road, street courses