Johnson on Indy 500 qualifying: “The speed scared my kids!”

Jimmie Johnson, who has graduated to Sunday’s Top 12 fight for pole position in the Indy 500, says the experience was intense for not only himself but also his family.

Johnson on Indy 500 qualifying: “The speed scared my kids!”
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The seven-time NASCAR Cup champion, who ran only on the road and street courses in his first IndyCar season, arrived at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with just one oval IndyCar start under his belt – this year’s second round at Texas, in which he finished a fine sixth.

All five Chip Ganassi Racing-Hondas finished Day 1 of qualifying in the top 10, and so they will compete in the Top 12 battle tomorrow, which will then be narrowed down to a Firestone Fast Six shootout for pole. Impressively, Johnson’s Carvana-backed #48 car was sixth fastest today – behind two teammates (Alex Palou and Tony Kanaan) but ahead of two more (Marcus Ericsson and Scott Dixon).

Asked if there was a sentimental moment today, perhaps the posing with his family on the Speedway’s yard of bricks for the official qualifying photo, Johnson – who commentated on last year’s Indy 500 for NBC – cited two instances of reflection.

“I think the first moment I had was before I fired up to leave to start my lap,” said the 46-year-old who scored 83 wins in his NASCAR career. “I saw the NBC Peacock pit box that I was in last year commentating, and I sat there with so much FOMO [fear of missing out] watching these guys go. To just know what's happened in the course of 12 months and actually be in the racecar, that was a really neat moment.

“Then, of course, the photo with my family. I think the speed scared my kids! When they saw me, the look in their eyes… that or just the energy that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway brings to people. My kids have been to plenty of races, but they've never looked at me like that before. That was cool.”

On Fast Friday, the first time he’d sampled 1.5-bar turbo boost (up from 1.3-bar) and lowered downforce – qualifying trim – Johnson slapped the SAFER barrier at Turn 2. Yet later that day he delivered very strong and smooth four-lap qualifying simulation run, and he says the gathering of experience will help him in tomorrow’s run(s).

“I just think of the progress I made from yesterday morning,” he said. “Granted, the conditions were pretty tricky, but I have never done a qualifying sim lap around here and never felt the boost. There is a lot more power. When you turn the knob to that next level, it really goes.

“I just feel like I'm getting more reps [repetitions], more quality reps, understanding how to use my tools. I have felt some lower drag settings, which I had never felt before. Still playing with mechanical grip and things like that.

“I think tomorrow's practice session will be helpful, and then we'll see what happens when it comes time.”

Asked to compare qualifying for his first Daytona 500 (in which he started from pole) to qualifying so far at Indy, he said: “The lap itself, there's really not a comparison. This is so much more intense. Plus you have four of them you have to run, not just one.

“The process, the two weeks of being in Daytona, trimming the car out, the team really working their magic, worrying about temps, worrying about aero-efficiency – there are a lot of parallels. But there is much more on the driver here than what happens in Daytona 500 qualifying.”

On the subject of whether pole or the front row was possible, Johnson replied, “I’ve got a shot. I don't know what the odds are. I still feel like I'm learning and getting quality reps and getting better, so I'll send it, for sure, and see.”

Johnson also admitted he was taking care to absorb and draw pleasure from his time at the Speedway in an IndyCar.

“Instead of being so focused on just the work side, I'm enjoying the different moments,” he reflected. “I'm letting my mind relax a little bit, look around and smell-the-roses-type moments, which was not how I operated my Cup career. I was pretty focused and didn't take time to savor the experience and the moment.

“I feel like I'm doing a really good job of that, and today exceeded expectations. Not only performance on being track, but the fan support, the energy on pitlane, and everything that I experienced today was really more than I expected.

“I know it's nothing like what we're going to see on Sunday here next weekend. So just savoring every moment that I can.”

 

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