It was a beautiful Tuesday morning, July 28th, 2020. Under a clear blue sky in Speedway, IN, a dream was about to be realized for one of automobile racing’s franchise athletes. For on this day, everything went off without a hitch as a fire was re-lit towards the dream of competing in what is now known as the NTT Data IndyCar Series. On this day, a racecar driver from Hendrick Motorsports and the NASCAR Cup Series tested a Chip Ganassi Dallara on the road course inside the confines of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
From El Cajon, California, he is Jimmie Johnson.
Likening the session to a “first day of school,” Johnson told the Associated Press that as a result of the test, he wants to race in the NTT Data IndyCar Series now, more than ever before. “It was something new, something different. NASCAR has been so good to me and I am so proud of the success I’ve had, but to try something new, man, this was really cool.”
Said five-time NTT Data IndyCar Series champion and Chip Ganassi franchise athlete, Scott Dixon: “He was really impressive. There was no trying to do much. The passion he has for racing and trying something different…he’s never pushy. He was really methodical and he was really adaptive, which isn’t always easy.”
That was 43 days ago. How appropriate is it that on this day, a Wednesday morning, the seven-time champion of the NASCAR Cup Series announced on Twitter that he will be officially making the jump from the NASCAR Cup Series, to the NTT Data IndyCar Series, albeit in a part-time capacity, for Chip Ganassi Racing on road courses and street circuits for the 2021 and 2022 seasons.
I will be soaking up the next nine weeks of my full time @NASCAR career. I’m sad to see it coming to an end but I’m excited to announce a future partnership with @CGRTeams in @IndyCar. pic.twitter.com/Y4VdVN0UP1
— Jimmie Johnson (@JimmieJohnson) September 9, 2020
Ayrton Senna once said, “If (a racecar driver) is successful in (one racing league) then (a racecar driver) can be successful (in another racing league) and vice versa. There is no secret and no miracle. If you know how to drive a racecar, you can change the characteristics of it, but if you know how to do it, then you will be doing it one way or the other well, in any place in the world.”
Even though Jimmie Johnson’s statistics have been on a downward trend these past three NASCAR Cup Series seasons, specifically after Hendrick Motorsports’ re-assignment of Johnson’s crew chief, Chad Knaus to up-and-coming prospect William Byron, the seven-time NCS champion is still considered hot property in the world of automobile racing.
Team owner Chip Ganassi said “To pair Jimmie with the likes of Scott Dixon is quite an opportunity. They are truly rarefied air and I think everyone knows by now that I like winners. Jimmie’s record speaks for itself and we feel a championship level driver of his caliber can only make our team better.”
While we have seen athletes throughout the history of motorsports make the jump from one league to another (i.e.: Rubens Barrichello, Juan Pablo Montoya, and Fernando Alonso, just to name a few), Jimmie Johnson is the biggest franchise athlete to come to IndyCar on this type of basis since Nigel Mansell announced he would make the jump from Williams in Formula One to Newman/Haas Racing in what was then known as the CART IndyCar World Series. In the process, Nigel Mansell became the first reigning World Driver’s Champion to not only make the jump but captured the league’s series prize (at the time), the PPG Cup, becoming the only athlete in the history of the sport to hold both championships simultaneously.
Despite this being one of the biggest magnitude jumps the world of automobile racing has seen in fourteen years since Juan Pablo Montoya jumped from Formula One to the NASCAR Cup Series, the question now remains: Will Jimmie Johnson compete in the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race?
After the death of Dan Wheldon at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway on October 16th, 2011, Johnson was one of the league’s most vocal critics, saying to members of the media the following day, “I wouldn’t run (IndyCars) on ovals. There’s just no need to. (IndyCars) are fantastic for street circuits, for road courses. I hate, hate, hate that (Dan Wheldon’s death) took place, but hopefully, they can learn from it and make those cars safer on ovals somehow. I don’t know how they can really do it. Myself, I have a lot of friends that race in (IndyCar), and I’d just rather see them on street circuits and road courses. No more ovals.”
One can never say never. Pending the success of how the champion does on the road courses and street circuits, would he be enticed to become only the third driver behind Mario Andretti and AJ Foyt to have won the five-hundred-mile races?