Johnson’s Indianapolis 500 Quest Starts Today

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I usually try to make it a point to listen to Trackside when it airs live, as opposed to downloading the podcast to listen in the car. The trouble with that is, they jump around a lot. The show normally airs on Tuesday nights from 7:00 to 9:00 Eastern, but they sometimes air on Wednesday nights or even Thursday nights. A lot depends on Butler basketball, the Pacers or some other scheduling conflict. They may also put it an hour later. It just depends. It’s always been that way since they started the show back in 2008 (I believe), so most longtime and frequent listeners are used to this. Whenever there is a question, I always check Kevin Lee’s Twitter feed (@KevinLee23). He’s usually very good in keeping us apprised of the schedule.

This week, they threw us a curve and aired the show live on Monday night. I remembered them saying that the previous week, so I was able to catch it. Kevin Lee and Curt Cavin are very easy to listen to. They’ve been doing this together for so long, they have developed a very good chemistry between them. While it’s an enjoyable and informative two hours per week, one thing you rarely hear between them is a major disagreement. This past Monday night was the exception.

The topic was today’s Rookie Orientation at the IMS oval for Romain Grosjean and Jimmie Johnson. Both are expected to run their first Indianapolis 500 next May. I think it is already decided in Grosjean’s case, but Johnson is still listed in the still thinking about it category. Still, I’d be surprised if Johnson does not run it next May. Eventually they got down to predicting what kind of success Johnson could expect next May. That’s where the difference of opinion came into play.

Citing the good experience and results that NASCAR driver Kurt Busch had in 2014, when started twelfth and finished sixth; Kevin Lee predicted similar success for Jimmie Johnson. He said that he wasn’t predicting win for Johnson, but he thought that with his oval experience from NASCAR and his multiple wins at the Brickyard 400 would serve him well. Curt Cavin strongly disagreed, saying that he would be surprised if Johnson qualified in the top half of the grid. Cavin felt that Johnson would have an even worse experience in the race; saying that it was one thing to go fast when you are the only person on the track – it’s another to do it with thirty-two other cars competing for the same piece of real estate (I’m paraphrasing, of course).

Kevin Lee expressed surprise at Curt Cavin’s low expectations for the seven-time NASCAR champion. He even said he would be glad to make a wager, citing the date and time that Cavin said it.

I’m a little surprised too. I’m wondering what Cavin thinks is different between the Kurt Busch situation in 2014 and the Jimmie Johnson situation of 2022 – other than their ages. Busch was 35, when he ran the Indianapolis 500 for the only time in 2014. Johnson will still be 46, when he tries to qualify next May. Busch was with a top team that won the Indianapolis 500 that year with Ryan Hunter-Reay, along with cars finishing third and fourth – ahead of Busch’s sixth. The previous year, Andretti Autosport fielded cars that finished second, third and fourth in the 500. Andretti cars were very tough to beat in 2013-14. So it’s not a real surprise that Kurt Busch was able to get a good result in the 2014 Indianapolis 500. Put an experienced and successful oval driver into a good car in the Indianapolis 500, and good things are likely to happen.

I’m just a little curious why Curt Cavin thinks Jimmie Johnson will struggle to come to grips with the Indianapolis 500. Has he fallen into the trap of thinking that because Johnson struggled so much on the road and street courses, that his lack of success will translate to ovals?

When was the last time we saw a career NASCAR driver attempt to drive an Indy car on a non-oval? Juan Montoya doesn’t count because he spent two years in CART before going to Formula One, where he spent another five and a half seasons before migrating over to NASCAR.

Kurt Busch and Fernando Alonso both climbed into good cars with no IndyCar experience and did very well as Indianapolis 500 rookies, both winning Rookie of the Year. Jimmie Johnson now has twelve races of experience in IndyCar, although none on ovals. Having never driven an IndyCar, I can’t say for certain – but I have to think that counts for something.

I also think it counts that Johnson won four times on this track in NASCAR. In his eighteen starts on the IMS oval, Johnson tallied two more Top-Three finishes in addition to his four Brickyard 400 wins. Yes the cars are completely different, but Busch seemed to make the transition just fine in one race. Is Kurt Busch a better driver than Johnson?

Some will point to how good the Andretti cars were when Busch ran his one Indianapolis 500 in 2014. They were, but Chip Ganassi’s cars aren’t exactly chopped liver. His cars have won the past two IndyCar championships and won the pole at Indianapolis this past May. I don’t think Johnson will be suffering because he is in a Ganassi car. He will also have some experienced teammates to help guide him throughout the month. In Scott Dixon, Alex Palou and Tony Kanaan, Jimmie Johnson will have eight series championships and two Indianapolis 500 wins to lean on, along with three-time winner Dario Franchitti on Ganassi’s staff to help along the way. Marcus Ericsson is proving to be no slouch either.

There is a lot that can happen between now and next May, but it all starts today when Johnson and Grosjean take the track for their first laps on the famed oval in an Indy car. Johnson may climb out of the cockpit and say No Thanks, but I doubt it. I think he will feel the most comfortable he has ever felt in an Indy car. He will be on familiar ground – an oval where he has won several times before.

I will also go on the record and disagree with Curt Cavin, by saying that Jimmie Johnson will qualify in the top half of the grid for the 106th Running of the Indianapolis 500. That means sixteenth or better. How he does in the race would be nothing more than a guess right now. Ask me again next May after qualifying.

The Jimmie haters have been out in full force all season. It’s a phenomenon that I’ve never fully understood. He’s got a great sponsor behind him that is spending a ton of money in the series. His reputation as a seven-time NASCAR champion has brought some new viewers to the series. He has been humble in his approach and has never really caused problems for other drivers, even though he was decidedly slower at some races. But none of that has caused the haters to stop chirping about how he is embarrassing himself, and needs to stop racing in IndyCar now.

Not only an I hopeful that Johnson can have a successful Month of May in 2022, I am pretty confident that he will. We only have about seven and a half months until practice starts on the oval for the 2022 Indianapolis 500. If today tells us nothing, we will learn a lot more then.

George Phillips

7 Responses to “Johnson’s Indianapolis 500 Quest Starts Today”

  1. I agree. I was tempted into making fun of JJ at the start without seeing the bigger picture re sponsorship and new audience. It’s great he’s in there and I wish him luck in the Greatest Race next May.

  2. It’ll be fun to see his reaction after the test. He’s one of NASCAR’S best ever and it’s been interesting to watch his progress in Indycar. He seems like a pretty good guy as well so I’m a supporter.

  3. I’m not a Jimmie hater, but I think I would take Cavin’s side of that bet. As you pointed out, Johnson will be 46 at the time of next year’s 500, while Busch was only 34 in in 2014. While you just blew past that, saying that if you “put an experienced and successful oval driver into a good car in the Indianapolis 500 … good things are likely to happen,” I think we can agree that at some point, the effect of advancing age outweighs the benefit of experience.

    When Busch came to the Indy 500, he was in the prime of his career. Johnson, of course, had a more successful career that Busch (or almost anyone else) in Cup, but despite that, he didn’t win a single race in his last three years in Cup, and never finished higher than 14th in their championship standings. While I don’t follow Cup closely, given the stark difference between his performance at the end of his Cup career and his earlier performance, I think it’s reasonable to suspect that advancing age played a significant role, so I don’t know why it wouldn’t adversely affect his ability to win in IndyCar as well.

    • Maybe it’s because I’m about to turn 63 in the next few days, and I now consider someone that’s 46 to still be a very young man. It’s funny how your perspective on that changes over time. What I wouldn’t give to be 46 again. – GP

    • billytheskink Says:

      A quick glance at Busch’s statistics shows that he came into Indy on a losing streak not unlike Johnson’s, not having won the previous two years in NASCAR…

      But he spent those two years driving for James Finch and for Barney Visser’s Furniture Row team (before they got Joe Gibbs Toyota equipment). 2013 may have been one of Busch’s finest seasons, qualifying for the Chase and racking up 11 top 5 finishes for a team that had only 3 top 5s in its entire history at that point. Busch was really on his game the year he came to Indy.

      I do think, to some extent, the higher downforce that the 2014 cars had at Indy helped Busch as well. Jimmie Johnson will drive a car with less downforce next season, which will surely be less forgiving and more challenging to get up to top speed than what Busch drove. That said, Jimmie is no stranger to Indianapolis and if the car is really good I think he’ll find qualifying speed in it for sure. Racecraft? I expect he’ll race politely.

  4. James T Suel Says:

    Iam kind of on the fence , on this. My gut tells me Jimmy will for sure do better on the oval. Just not sure he will be in the top half of the field. In my mind his biggest struggle has been the braking and conner entry point with the lighter and faster Indycar. I wish him well.

  5. people hate Tom Brady, too.

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