After having the greater part of the month of May off, Jimmie Johnson was back behind the wheel of the No. 48 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda for his second taste of street racing in the NTT IndyCar Series at Belle Isle in Detroit.
This was shaping up to be Johnson’s most challenging weekend. One 75-minute practice session on Friday afternoon, qualifying on Saturday and Sunday morning ahead of 70 lap races on each of those two days on a track the seven-time NASCAR champion had never been to.
Yeah, his work was cut out for him. Especially after Friday practice where Johnson was 5.4585 seconds off of session leader Will Power’s time of a 1 minute, 17.2768 (Johnson’s was 1 minute, 22.7353 seconds).
The good news was that Johnson did improve, but his competitors did as well. The gap to the lead was down to 3.2437 seconds after qualifying and a lap of 1 minute, 19.0944 seconds was 3.6409 faster than Johnson’s practice best. For reference’s sake, the best time in group one of modified knockout qualifying was a 1 minute, 15.8507 second lap by Alexander Rossi.
So let’s move ahead to Saturday’s race. Johnson’s fastest lap was 1 minute, 18.5678 seconds around the 14 turn, 2.35 mile circuit. The gap to the fastest race lap was now 1.9245 seconds. In best sector times around the track, the Californian posted the 13th best time going through turn 14 through the start-finish line, but there is one other major sign of progress.
In race one, Johnson posted the 15th best in-lap for a pit stop. In road-racing, turning in fast in and out laps for a pit stop sequence can make the difference between gaining and losing positions on track, and this is something that Johnson has improved on. At Barber, Johnson’s best in lap was 19th of 22 cars. At St. Petersburg, Johnson was 24th (last) in in-lap speed and at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course he was 24th of 25 cars for in-lap pace.
Going to Sunday’s race, Johnson’s fastest lap was 1 minute, 17.6158 seconds, which was 1.2724 seconds slower than the race’s fastest lap. Going through the micro-sector data reveals more progress has been made.
The micro-sector going through turn 5 shows that Johnson’s best execution of that corner was 12th best on the fastest passes through that time, less than tenth of a second off of Graham Rahal’s best time through that turn. In the micro-sector composed of turns 9, 10, 11 and half of the straightaway leading to turn 12, Johnson had the 13th best time though that section of track, which is pretty remarkable that he’s under .18 seconds off of Pato O’Ward’s best time through there.
Johnson’s best in-lap was only 22nd fastest on Sunday, but there were a couple of other bright spots. Johnson had the 13th-best fastest time through turn 4 and was eighth fastest through turn 12.
Yes, Johnson has had a half-season full of learning and detractors. Many questions have been asked by people wondering why he’s being defended over learning a new form of racing. It’s simple; that car would not be on track without the money Johnson’s sponsors are bringing, and seeing another driver cross over into a new form of racing to learn more about driving another form of car and another form of racing is rather compelling.
Motorsports at one time was awash with people crossing over between disciplines, with drivers racing stock cars one week and going to dirt tracks to race sprint cars another week and Indy cars another week long before massive contracts and exclusivity became the norm and crossover was seen as a novelty rather than the norm.
Nowadays, seeing drivers racing outside of their normal day jobs in other series is almost expected. Let’s see if Johnson can bring the No. 48 higher up the time sheets as the season progresses.