The seven-time NASCAR Cup champion has tested at Barber Motorsports Park, Sebring and Laguna Seca, and has found that aside from trying to exploit his Chip Ganassi Racing-Honda’s aerodynamic grip, he’s also been too “gentle” on his tires on out-laps.
He described an IndyCar as “a monster – that’s the best way I can put it. There’s so much power, so much downforce, so much grip. It’s wild to drive.”
To help convert from more than two decades of stock car experience, he has added to his IndyCar experience with Formula 3 outings – something he has found rewarding on more than one level.
“One big challenge I’m dealing with is trying to get the tires up to their peak pressure and peak temperature when there’s still enough grip in the tire,” said the 45-year-old Californian who accrued 83 wins in NASCAR Cup. “I’m more delicate with the car than I need to be, so my fast lap is two to three laps after the desired fast lap, when the tire has the most ability in it.
“Being able to drive some of these lower division formula cars, they have the same stuff to worry about – and it’s nothing that I ever worried about in a Cup car. Your first lap in a Cup car was always your fastest, then it just progressively got slower, and it’s quite different in a lightweight formula car.
“I had a lot of great lessons learned there about bringing tires in. I’m still not where I need to be, but I’m so thankful for those laps. I was also able to experience some tracks that I hadn’t been on before.
“It was good for me at the most basic of levels, and then also at the same time the excitement that it brought… for myself to be at the racetrack in such a simple manner, and being around these families and these young drivers that are coming along. I could see myself in a lot of them, dreaming big when I was a kid.”
Johnson remains realistic about his goals for 2021, stating, “I don’t know if I’ll get to 100 percent with the amount of years that I have to give this a try.
“There’s still so many things I haven’t even experienced yet. I’ve never been on a red tire [Firestone’s alternate compound tire with higher grip and lower durability]. I’ve just recently had a chance to drive a street circuit tire and understand how much more grip it has versus a traditional road course tire.
“Then you look at the street course tracks, I won’t even be able to drive on one until practice, the opening practice session that we have prior to qualifying.”
Johnson noted how much of a help four-time champion Dario Franchitti – driver adviser at Chip Ganassi Racing – and six-time champion teammate Scott Dixon had been as he acclimates to open-wheel racing.
“I am so thankful for Dario and for Scott Dixon,” he said, “especially Dario and just how thorough he is. The notes that he took from when he was driving, his role that he has now and how involved and focused he is on still collecting notes and passing that information along has been so helpful.
“I’m really thankful to have those two in my corner and really helping me kind of get things going.”
One reporter, who had asked another 2021 IndyCar rookie, Romain Grosjean, to rate his own race readiness on a scale of 1-10, said that the Frenchman rated himself a 5. Asked the same question, Johnson said, “If he’s a 5, then I’m at a 2!”
He went on: “He’s spent a lifetime in formula cars. I mean, I still have to learn the flags and the procedures and all the stuff that’s different. I’m starting over from square one here. I’m just laughing at myself and enjoying the ride as I’m on it.
“You know, all the practice and testing I’ve done has just been single-car. I was at Sebring yesterday in the [Cadillac] DPi and was in traffic and really understanding the aero effect in traffic with a car that is so aero dependent.
“I was blown away by the implications. Man, I thought NASCAR had a problem with aero tight. These high downforce cars that are so dependent on it are even worse, and I haven’t had a chance to experience that yet in an IndyCar.
“I’m at a 2 for a lot of reasons. But I’ll be there with a smile on my face giving it my all.”
Johnson will drive the #48 Carvana-sponsored car only on the 13 road and street courses in the 17-race NTT IndyCar Series calendar. On the subject of which track he expects will see him at his best in his rookie season, he cited WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca.
“I feel like my best chance, is later in the year when we get to Laguna Seca. I’ve been able to test there twice. I will have a large part of a season under my belt, and I think that’s probably, looking forward, a track that I should be in there racing with the guys. Or I hope to be.”