It’s Good When Worlds Collide

A few people have e-mailed me, wondering why I have ignored the fact that NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson is coming to the NTT IndyCar Series in 2021. I haven’t ignored it. It’s just that I didn’t have time to write about it until now. I post every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. The news broke last Wednesday and we had the race weekend at Mid-Ohio to deal with, so today is the first chance I’ve had to write about it.

My opinion doesn’t differ from most people out there, but I have to take exception to a few minority opinions I’ve seen. Most, myself included, think that this will be a boost for IndyCar.

Some put no stock in the power of social media, but for those that do – consider this fact; Jimmie Johnson has 2.6 million Twitter followers. To put that into perspective, take a look at these numbers. Fellow NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has 2.5 million followers and Danica Patrick has 1.8 million, while two-time Formula One champion Fernando Alonso has 2.5 million Twitter followers. On the IndyCar side, Tony Kanaan has 642,000 followers on Twitter. The legendary Mario Andretti has 162,000 Twitter followers, Popular drivers Helio Castroneves has 159K, James Hinchcliffe 157K, Scott Dixon, 133K and Josef Newgarden has 81,000 Twitter followers. To put it further into perspective, Jimmie Johnson may have more Twitter followers than the entire IndyCar grid this past weekend at Mid-Ohio.

Having a huge amount of Twitter followers doesn’t necessarily translate into racing talent, but it is an indication of how popular Jimmie Johnson is. But make no mistake – Jimmie Johnson is talented.

You don’t win seven NASCAR Cup championships without having talent. For a decade, Johnson lulled fans to sleep because it became the norm for it to be Jimmie Johnson versus the field every year for the championship. And Johnson would usually win.

Was I a fan of Jimmie Johnson when he was in his prime? No. I found him just a little too perfect out of the car. He was the prototypical automaton who got out of the car each week and reeled off his list of sponsors in an effortless fashion, without ever telling us what was really on his mind. He just made it look all too easy.

But just because I didn’t like his flawless demeanor, doesn’t mean I don’t have tremendous respect for him. He was no flash in the pan, who backed into those seven championships. He earned them all by being one of the smoothest and coolest drivers of the modern era in NASCAR. If you need someone to compare him to, there is an IndyCar driver that many fans also find boring, but he has the same quiet drive and determination combined with a similar smooth driving style – Scott Dixon, who is on the verge of winning his sixth IndyCar championship.

You can hate Jimmie Johnson and Scott Dixon all you want, but don’t say neither has talent. I saw a lot of Facebook posts scoffing at the idea of Jimmie Johnson in an IndyCar. One went so far as to say “So Jimmy Johnson is coming to IndyCar huh ? He’s gonna have to learn how to be a real race driver now !!”

First of all, if you’re going to trash someone – at least learn how to spell their name when you’re doing it.

But there’s more to this comment than incorrect spelling.

I enjoy throwing jabs at NASCAR as much as anyone. Nashville’s local hero, Darrell Watrip, was one of the most annoying announcers I knew of before he mercifully retired a couple of years ago. His constant cheerleading of the perception that NASCAR invented anything there was good about racing, was beyond frustrating. But I never questioned his ability as a racer. I think the Busch brothers (Kurt & Kyle) are both as obnoxious a pair of brothers you could find. But if anyone questioned their talent behind the wheel of a race car, they would be badly mistaken.

To suggest that NASCAR drivers are not real race car drivers is beyond foolish. I don’t know the individual that made that particular post in one of the many IndyCar groups I belong to, nor do I know anything about him. I can only assume that he must have driven Indy cars and stock cars at a very high level very recently, otherwise I don’t know how on earth he could make such a comparison.

For the record, I am not qualified to make such a comparison either. But from what little I know, it takes a very select set of skills to drive either one of them with any measure of success. In fact, I’d say that most of us would have difficulty just leaving the pits in either type of race car. We would either be shocked at the steering or how sensitive the throttle was. To handle a lumbering stock car through a turn at 190 mph requires an enormous amount of talent, just as it does to drive an Indy car at Road America through The Kink in the rain.

To achieve success in either discipline is impressive. It doesn’t mean that one is better or easier than the other. They are just different. Dario Franchitti could drive a real race car, but he sure struggled during his short stint as a NASCAR driver. Sam Hornish and Danica Patrick didn’t set the world on fire either.

In the last thirty years since 1990, it is a very short list of drivers that have won in NASCAR’s Cup Series and IndyCar. The best I can remember, the list has five drivers on it – John Andretti, Robby Gordon and AJ Allmendinger – three drivers that had decent careers in both, but didn’t burn it up in either series; plus Juan Montoya and Tony Stewart, who are very rare breeds of driver. So let’s stop puffing our collective chests out thinking that an Indy car is the only true race car in the US. If we can admit that both disciplines require an enormous amount of talent, then we can appreciate those that even attempt both. To win, is even more special.

When USAC Champ Cars went to Monza to race against Formula One cars in The race of Two Worlds at Monza in 1957 and 1958; it generated a lot of buzz in the US, but not so much among the European racing community. That might be because the Americans won both years. Jimmy Bryan won in 1957, and Jim Rathmann won in 1958. Both had Indianapolis 500 wins in their immediate future. Bryan won Indianapolis in 1958 and Rathmann won in 1960. But because the Americans won, does that mean that they were better drivers? Not necessarily.

It’s fun to argue such things, just like its fun to argue who’s better – AJ or Mario. It’s all arguing each others opinions, but it is usually done in a good natured way. But to suggest that a driver will fail in either discipline because they won’t be able to handle a real race car – well, that’s just ludicrous.

Personally, I’m glad Jimmie Johnson is going to give IndyCar a try. He obviously have a following and many of those eyes will either follow him on television or some will actually travel to races to follow him. He is not a young man, he will turn forty-five tomorrow (Sep 17), which is just a little long in the tooth to be starting an IndyCar career.

Not much is known about this two-year agreement between Johnson and Chip Ganassi’s IndyCar team to run the non-ovals. It sounds like an agreement to seek sponsorship together so the pair can go racing in 2021. Will this be a fourth car, or is one the drivers not named Scott Dixon out next year? Felix Rosenqvist is now a race winner and Marcus Ericsson has had a decent first year with Ganassi. If it is a fourth car, does that mean the car will run with another driver on the ovals, or will they park the car when Johnson isn’t in it?

Those are questions we will get answers to in the offseason. But I already know this; this is good for IndyCar. It’s good for Chip Ganassi and it’s good for Jimmie Johnson. Most of all, it’s good for race fans who like to see drivers try to succeed in more than one racing discipline. Racing fans know it’s good when worlds collide.

George Phillips

5 Responses to “It’s Good When Worlds Collide”

  1. James T Suel Says:

    I do think Johnson coming to Indycar is good for the sport. He does have a big following. I dont belive he will make a big splash! He is without a doubt a champion race driver, but i don’t see him winning in Indycar. And not running the 500, or ovals well for me that drops him way down the list. I do think he will bring eyes and maybe butts to Indycar.

  2. I think it’s good news but, forgive my ignorance as I don’t watch NASCAR, why is he not running the ovals? Surely he’s run a ton of ’em in his stock car?

    • Matthew Lawrenson Says:

      The story I’ve heard is Jimmie’s wife thinks open-wheel cars at ovals are too dangerous, and she won’t let him run them.

  3. billytheskink Says:

    I suspect Jimmie will be a lot better than our last 45 year old rookie, one Marty Roth.

    I think Johnson’s move is particularly intriguing because in the past 30-40 years it is largely unprecedented. We have had Indycar drivers move over to stock cars for careers long (Allmendinger), medium (Hornish), and short (Paul Tracy) but nothing truly comparable the other way. I think the only drivers since 1990 to have raced in NASCAR Cup races prior to their first Indycar start are Robby Gordon and Stanton Barrett, neither of whom were stock car regulars when those pre-Indycar starts (Gordon quite clearly became regarded as an Indycar driver of course).

    I will be very curious to see how he does and how he compares to the last truly comparable example, Cale Yarborough’s 1971 USAC championship season.

  4. Completely OT… Congrats George on having a home race next year!

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