By David Morgan: Motortsports Tribune
FORT WORTH, Texas – Jimmie Johnson is no stranger to success at Texas Motor Speedway and Sunday, the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion proved that success also applies to the NTT IndyCar Series.
It’s no secret the Johnson has struggled to get his feet under him while driving an open-wheel car, but with the introduction of the ovals to his schedule in year two with Chip Ganassi Racing, there was hope that things would take a turn for the better.
When the checkered flag flew on the XPEL 375 at Texas, that optimism was confirmed as Johnson, who had won at the 1.5-mile track seven times in his illustrious NASCAR career, crossed the finish line in sixth-place to claim his best finish yet in his open-wheel experiment.
Johnson started the day in 18th place, but methodically worked his way forward throughout the race and once he got a number of laps under his belt, it was game time and he was able to give it his best shot, running with and even passing some of the heavy hitters in the sport along the way.
“Once we hit the halfway point in the race, I could really sense and feel the car. It became second nature and off I went,” Johnson said of his progression during the race. “Just very thankful for the support I have from Chip Ganassi Racing, my teammates, team members, the fantastic support from Carvana that I’ve received, the American Legion, and Ally Bank.
“We knew going oval racing would help and today got us in a competitive mix.”
After emerging from his car on pit road after the race, Johnson received congratulations from his team, including car owner Chip Ganassi, who exclaimed “That was like a win!” before offering a celebratory hand shake to his driver.
Others including teammate Scott Dixon, who passed Johnson late to finish fifth, and fourth-place finisher Will Power also offered their congratulations to Johnson for his run.
“It feels good for all of my own reasons of the journey I’ve been on,” Johnson said. “It definitely feels good to be complimented by the other drivers, my teammates. The greeting I had from Eric Cowdin, seeing Chip on pit lane, that feels really, really good.
“It’s honestly the icing on top of the cake. The cake is I know what I did behind the wheel today, the growth I’ve had in the race car. That’s the part I’m savoring the most right now.
“I do enjoy the congratulations from others, but I’m almost speechless myself, just kind of savoring it and taking it in.”
Race winner Josef Newgarden also expressed his kudos to Johnson, explaining just how hard it is to make the transition from stock cars to open wheel cars and run that well out of the gate on an oval.
“That’s legit,” Newgarden said. “Hard to finish sixth at Texas. It’s hard. Like, that’s really good.
“Not to take away from Jimmie, but it has been a steep learning curve. He’s had to unlearn an entire career of operating procedures. The INDYCAR is so removed from what a stockcar is. For him to be able to get on top of that so quickly, it makes sense it’s going better here at Texas, it’s closer to what he’s used to procedurally. I don’t want to act too surprised because he is a seven-time champ, incredible worker and teammate.
“Man, that’s really good, though. First INDYCAR oval race, sixth at Texas. These cars are hard to drive. The way that we draft, the way the groove works for us, you can’t go up a lane or two like in a stockcar. They’re scrubbing the car before he gets there. I need to watch this race back, see how he got there. I’m sure he’ll be a huge threat at Indy then. Great news.”
The next oval that comes on the IndyCar schedule will be the Indianapolis 500, with Johnson and his team looking to parlay the success they had at Texas into equal or better success in the Month of May.
“I think today just showed what the 48 car is capable of,” Johnson said “We all know what the Chip Ganassi cars are capable of. I just haven’t been fast enough on the street and road courses to put the car in that window and get results.
“To be here on a track I know, an environment that I know, I was able to provide and do that for the team. I feel very excited about it, very encouraged about the remaining oval races that are on the books.
“I know I’m going to have a great car. We’ll see how it goes.”