The Rookie Orientation Program for the Indy 500 requires a driver to turn 10 laps of 205-210mph, 15 laps of 210-215 mph, then 15 over 215mph.
Johnson completed Phases I and II, but still had a few laps left of Phase III when rain, which had already delayed the process, returned to the Speedway and ended the day early. The Chip Ganassi Racing-Honda driver will be able to complete the requirements in the open test at IMS on April 20-21.
Asked if the experience had increased his desire to attempt to qualify for next May’s 106th running of the Indianapolis 500, Johnson replied: “It’s definitely, definitely increased. I think the look I had at Texas [Johnson’s oval rookie test] increased it and brought me here. A little short on laps for what I wanted to experience today.
“As comfortable as I felt, my interest is at the highest it’s been, certainly my comfort is at the highest it’s been. All that said, there’s still a lot of work between now and really pulling through with this opportunity.”
In terms of actually committing to the 500 – and indeed, adding all the IndyCar ovals to his 2022 diary after a road/street course-only diet in ’21 – he said: “I can’t just yet. I need to leave here today, go home, sit down, get a good bottle of wine open, maybe even pull [Jimmy] Vasser’s bottles off the shelf.
“I’m as close as I’ve ever been. The racer in me is taking a real serious look at this, but I still need to sit down and have that conversation at home.”
The 46-year-old said that doing the ovals this past year “would have been a much easier pathway for me. Now that I’m looking to do it, there’s still a lot of work to be done. Even if I say, ‘Hey, everyone, I’m in,’ we still have a lot of work to get done just to pull it off.
“That aspect, it would have been easier to make this decision a year sooner. But I really had to go through what I have to get comfortable with in IndyCar, hit a couple walls. Hitting the wall at 180 in Nashville – as much as I hated doing it, it was a good data point for me. Also for my family to be around these cars, the industry. Seeing a couple bad crashes this year, seeing what the aeroscreen has done to protect Ryan Hunter-Reay at Barber when the wheel assembly came back into the windscreen.”
Johnson, an 18-time participant in and four-time winner of the Brickyard 400, said: “Once I got through the notion of downshifting and upshifting through the course of the lap, the speed at which things were coming at me, the driving line, the technique, even the behavior of the car in different turns around the racetrack was all very familiar to me.
“I think I ran 55 laps or so, not only focusing on running lap times to work through the phases but also feeling changes we made on the car. I was excited personally to go through that and understand what minus rear wing feels like, less front wing feels like.
“While I stood and watched last year, I would hear those changes being made. It would make me pucker up. It was nice to get out there and attach a feeling to that.”
Johnson said that the racing line being the same in an IndyCar as it was in a NASCAR “brought some comfort as I was trimming the car out, going faster in Phase II.”
But he added: “One thing that is different, though, is the car has so much potential that you can run other lines. There’s really just one line in a Cup car. There’s probably two or three lines in the IndyCar.
“I started off with my traditional Cup line. Then Dario [Franchitti, Ganassi’s driver advisor] had me work on some options to work with the car, if the balance had too much understeer in it, some other options I could drive the track with. To my surprise, the car had the potential to do it.
“Turn 1 was really the challenging turn, the last one that I ran flat. It’s kind of a little different with the banking, the curb on the inside, a bit bumpy, kind of has you on edge. Once I settled into it, had that conversation with my right foot and convinced it to stay down, the car just was a dream to drive. Actually quickly got into trimming the car out, got to a pretty aggressive place with trimming the car, and felt very comfortable with it.”
Jimmie Johnson, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda
Photo by: Joe Skibinski