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The NTT IndyCar Series raced last weekend without Jimmie Johnson for the first time in 2021, but the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion still was racing – and with family.
Lydia Johnson, 8, climbed aboard a Supercross-style dirt bike and hit a local track for the first time with her dad.
“She’s talked about it for a while,” Johnson told NBC Sports, adding Lydia “has a little desire to race and will ride anything until it’s out of gas” and also has a go-kart along with her sister, Genevieve (who is more into horses). “So this is the first time we really kind of took a step in that direction.
“We’ve been slow-playing it just wondering if it’s something she’s really interested in. Her and her sister both ride horses quite a bit right now and have other activities that they’re caught up in, but she’s pressed long enough and worked hard to earn her dirt bike.”
Was Dad excited? Or nervous?
Johnson said “a little of both” watching the younger of his two daughters engage “in full send mode” at a dirt track the way he once did at the same age (albeit he was in Southern California).
“It was really fun to see,” a beaming Johnson said, pausing to laugh that his wife isn’t completely on board with the plan. “Chani has threatened to injure me if Lydia is ever injured on the dirt bike, and growing up on dirt bikes, it’s not if you fall, it’s when. It’s not if you get injured, it’s when you get injured.
“So I’m trying to prep Chani for any dustups that we have and (say) that it could happen on a horse, too! But we’re just having fun with right now, and it’s great to just have a Sunday off and load up the bikes and pack a cooler and go to the track and ride for 4 or 5 hours, come home, get the pressure washer out, clean the bikes and just hang with her. It’s not something I expected to do with one of my daughters.”
Experiencing the unexpected might be the theme of the year for Johnson, who is in the middle of a two-week break from his rookie season with Chip Ganassi Racing in the NTT IndyCar Series before returning next weekend for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course race (before handling a studio analyst role for NBC Sports at the Indy 500).
In a Zoom interview Monday with NBC Sports (one of his stops during a virtual promotional tour for a new personal endorsement), the seven-time NASCAR Cup champion discussed his IndyCar progression, what it was like watching Tony Kanaan race his No. 48 at Texas Motor Speedway and how he’s learned to embrace the slog of initially being a backmarker (the excerpts below were lightly edited for clarity):
Q: There has been a lot of chatter this year about the exertion required to drive in IndyCar, particularly during the heat of the Grand Prix of St. Pete, but you seem well prepared physically. How did your fitness training meet the goals for adapting to a car that stresses many new muscles?
Johnson: “I think it’s gone really well. I feel like getting out of the car, I’ve not been in a place of complete exhaustion or muscle give-up, so the folks at PitFit who I’ve been working with in Indiana have done a really nice job of getting me physically in place with the new demands of the IndyCar.
“I still feel like there’s room for improvement with my high heart rate stuff, and I’m doing a lot more interval work, even since the season has started, to really keep up with the pace that the IndyCar can handle. There really is no rest time, and every lap on track you seem to get faster and faster, where it’s the opposite in the stock car, and you can actually catch your breath. But I’m holding up well. My schedule is plenty busy. I’m not necessarily slowing down by any means, but many things are different and many things are new and certainly it’s part of the new challenge I’m enjoying.”
Q: Now that you’ve had a week to decompress and take account of where things stand, how do you think your first two IndyCar starts went?
Johnson: “You can get into the statistics and clearly see where I’m improving and how I am improving. And we look at a lot of that stuff internally at CGR and inside the 48 car, but until I get more in-race experience, it’s just hard to practice those things that take place in the race. And I look back at my first two events, there’s marked progress in the practice day and qualifying sessions and how I handled those and my improvements, but in the race, I’ve faced new experiences and sadly have made some mistakes along the way.
“ And the other thing is I’m going to keep making mistakes, because I’ve literally only had 10 days ever in an IndyCar and two days in race conditions and traffic. So it’s just a tough day to be a rookie right now. It doesn’t matter if you’re a seven-time former NASCAR driver or one of these young guys coming in that are showing up in all sports right now. I think because of COVID and then also the natural progression of motorsport and trying to make it more cost effective is really reducing the amount of days you get in the car and makes that learning curve all the steeper come race day.
Q: You told us in March you were about 60 percent acclimated to driving in IndyCar, and you might not get to that 100 percent. After Barber and St. Pete, what is the percentage now? Are you above 70 percent acclimated now?
Johnson: “Yeah, that’s a great question. I feel like the single-car stuff, I’m in a pretty comfortable place. I know what to expect. I know how to adjust the car. I know the warmup cycle of the tires and getting the pressures there and trying to find peak grip and all of that is really improving, and I’m doing really well in it. It’s the newness of racing and traffic and of the fact that you might not have any cautions in a race. The strategy that you need to be on with fuel savings and how to really stretch the fuel in these cars to make it a two-stop vs. three stop.
“So there are just nuances there that I’ve just got to live through and experience. So come race day, I feel like I’m probably at the 40 percent mark, but the 60-70 percent mark is much more single-car related, much more practice and qualifying related.”
Q: Did you watch Tony Kanaan race the No. 48 last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway?
Johnson: “I caught Saturday. I did not catch Sunday while at the dirt bike track and missed most of it.”
Q: I’m sure you enjoyed watching him come through the field Saturday, and then Sunday, even though he was involved in the Lap 1 crash, he said it was important still to make some laps to give your new team reps with pit stops. What’s it like to watch someone else drive your car for two races but also know that he’s helping with the growth of your team?
Johnson: “It’s much easier watching somebody that’s intended to drive your car drive it, vs. what I went through last year when I had COVID. Somebody else was just in my car when I felt I was fine and should have been in it myself, but it’s really important for Tony and his experience to help lead this new team. We really did start this team up from scratch. There are some familiar faces on the car. Eric Cowdin who is the engineer worked with Tony in the past and was over at Dale Coyne Racing and came to join us at the 48. It’s a tough time in Indiana right now to find all the right people to put together a race team. There’s so much going on with IMSA, IndyCar that we’re still putting all the right pieces in place with the race team. And I think Tony’s expertise. Tony’s competitiveness compared to where I’m at was really able to show everyone on the 48 where to focus next and inside of CGR.
Q: After Barber qualifying, you tweeted “We’re not last!” and you had a big smile on your face after that race and St. Pete. You knew going in that this would be a slog, but it seems as if you are really enjoying that and embracing the adversity, and it seems as if the fans appreciate that, too, on social. To hear a seven-time Cup champion say, “I’m not going to win, but I’m still going to have fun.” Have you noticed their reaction and did you have prepare yourself to have that attitude?
Johnson: “Ultimately, I quit worrying about what people think a handful of years ago, and my life has improved dramatically since then. I had so much success in Cup, and as things started to slow down, it was easy to be distracted or disappointed by what you read in various places. And I just got over it.
“I didn’t get into racing for anyone else. And I’m not still racing for anyone else. This is me. This is who I am. This is my journey. This is something I’ve always wanted to do. And it’s a series I’ve always wanted to compete in. So that’s a big part of it. But in the truth of it all, in the test sessions that I had leading up to the start of the season, I knew how far away I was from Scott Dixon and Alex Palou and Marcus Ericsson on the track, and you look at the starting field, and you see how tight it is, I thought I was going to show up at Barber and be off the back by a couple of seconds. To actually not be in that position and to actually qualify up there in 19th or whatever it was, was a huge win for me.
“And as time goes on, the expectations for myself will continue to rise, and I feel like I’m doing a decent job and getting what I’m capable of on practice day and qualifying day, and I think there still is a bit more for me to get. But race day, I’ve left too much on the table. And it’s tricky because I’m trying to learn how to adapt and go fast, but I’m making mistakes that lead to me being down multiple laps, and I don’t have a chance to really show my competitiveness, so learning as I go here, but really excited about the upcoming race (at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course). It’s a track I’ve had a chance to test at, it’s much more forgiving than St. Pete or Barber for that matter. So I feel like I should have a good showing and be much more competitive on race day than I have in these first two.”
Q: Having covered you in NASCAR for 20 years, I know that allergies are something that you always battled, and I’ve been told that you have found some relief through a new product you’re endorsing that has helped with improving life in the car, especially probably with a lot more air blowing through the cockpit?
Johnson: “For sure, I’ve tried it all. But I’ve really had nothing that helped with my eyes specifically, and with my love of cycling, running, being in a race car. The wind kind of in your face. Especially a little bit more now with the IndyCar, the pollen and all that irritates my eyes is just being forced in there faster and faster. And Pataday Once Daily Relief Extra Strength has honestly changed the game for me and has treated the problem right at the source. This is one of the worst springs I’ve had in quite some time, so I’m even a bit congested right now and fighting through it. But I wake up each morning, use the drop and really get the relief that my eyes need to get me through the day, and especially behind the wheel of the race car.”
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