BIRMINGHAM, Alabama — The statistics might show Jimmie Johnson finishing near the back of his IndyCar debut, but they cannot show how much he learned in an entirely new form of racing.
After navigating through a six-car wreck on the first lap of the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama and then spinning eight laps later in turn 13, Johnson managed to bring his car home in 19th place on his NTT IndyCar Series debut, three laps down from race winner Alex Palou. Only Max Chilton, who was involved in the first lap accident, was still running at the finish behind Johnson.
Johnson finished ahead of five cars involved in the first lap incident and was the second-to-last car still turning laps at the 17-turn natural terrain road course. But the fact that Johnson was still running was a bit of a victory in itself.
The two-time Daytona 500 winner’s fastest lap was his 84th, going 1 minute, 8.4411 seconds around the 2.3-mile road course to average 120.980 mph. The race’s fastest lap, by comparison, was turned by Pato O’Ward at 1 minute, 6.8182 seconds.
Johnson was 1.6229 seconds slower than O’Ward, a driver who is less than half of Johnson’s age (21 to 45) and has raced 10 times around Barber Motorsports Park in various open wheel racing categories, winning four of those races.
But let’s take a bit deeper of a look into Johnson’s performance to see how the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion really did in his IndyCar debut.
Johnson pitted on his 10th, 37th and 62nd race laps. For the first two stops, the No. 48 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda was one lap down and at the third pit stop was two laps down.
At the first pit stop, Johnson went from new Firestone black sidewall primary tires to the red sidewall alternate tires. All drivers are required to use the red sidewall tires for at least two green flag laps during the race. The red alternate tires are softer so they give more grip, leading to faster lap times. However, they also wear out quicker than the black sidewall tires, so race strategy is sometimes dictated by not just the probability of full course yellows, but also by how bad tire degradation is between the compounds.
Johnson’s first stint on red tires had laps ranging from a fastest of 1 minute, 9.2009 second lap on Lap 29 to a slowest of 1 minute, 12.6166 seconds on Lap 25. The majority of the laps in this stint were in the mid-high 69 second bracket with a chunk of 70 second laps in the middle.
After a pit stop for used black tires, Johnson took a few laps to get them warmed up but then set a new fastest lap for himself on Lap 51 with a time of 1 minute, 9.0347 seconds. The rest of this stint had a lot of inconsistency with no two laps operating in the same second.
With one stop left, Johnson put more used black sidewall tires on the car for the final stint of the race. The final stint was especially challenging, as the lap times were much slower than they were earlier in the race.
“I actually kind of got lost in my adjustments on track,” Johnson said in a post-race recap video. “Eric (Cowdin, race engineer) got me back on track toward the end and I was really able to pick my lap time back up and get going.”
Johnson’s third stint laps were sluggish until his 79th lap which was a 1 minute, 10.6861 second lap, compared to a 1 minute, 13.1159 second lap on the previous lap. After getting more comfortable with how the cockpit adjustments worked, Johnson turned his fastest lap of the race right near the end.
The majority of the offseason might’ve been spent getting Johnson adjusted to wings, new brakes and a different driving perspective, but longer runs with cockpit adjustments were something the rookie had to learn on the fly in a real race environment, and learn he did.
As time went on, Johnson’s fastest lap improved in each stint, and in fact, Johnson did manage one distinction among his competitors. From the part of the track where the pit entry lane separates from the track until the start finish line, Johnson posted the sixth fastest time through that section of track at 8.9546 seconds. O’Ward was fastest in that same segment at 8.7936 seconds.
INDYCAR has different timing lines throughout the circuit for time measurement purposes. If one were to piece together Johnson’s fastest interval splits, the theoretical fastest lap would be a 1 minute, 8.0691 seconds long, which would be .372 seconds faster than Johnson’s fastest lap of the day.
Overall, IndyCar’s most experienced rookie had a lot to figure out in his first open-wheel race, and by keeping the car on track (for the most part), Johnson was able to learn enough that the second race of the season in a week’s time in St. Petersburg, Florida will no doubt be a better race if the car doesn’t meet the concrete barriers.