NASCAR legend Jimmie Johnson would normally be in town this weekend, making his IndyCar Series debut at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. But one of the area’s biggest annual sporting events has been pushed back to April 23-25 to try to increase fan attendance.
The delay also gives the seven-time Cup Series champion more time to figure out his new series with different teams, different cars and different personalities.
“I still have to learn the flags and the procedures and all the stuff that’s different,” Johnson said Thursday afternoon in a Zoom with reporters. “I’m starting over from square one here.”
Johnson has called IndyCar racing a “childhood dream” he can fulfill after retiring as a full-time NASCAR driver last season.
Six weeks before his first IndyCar race (at Alabama’s Barber Motorsports Park) and seven weeks before the Grand Prix, there’s a lot Johnson still hasn’t done.
None of his IndyCar tests have included other cars, so he doesn’t have a full grasp of how the aerodynamics will work in traffic. He hasn’t tried Firestone’s red tires —alternates that are quicker but don’t last as long as the black sets. His No. 48 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda won’t get a lap around St. Petersburg’s downtown course until the first practice of race weekend.
Realistically, Johnson figures he’s 60 percent of the way toward fully adapting from NASCAR to IndyCar, even though he’s only racing the series’ street and road courses.
“I can say that the last 10 or 15 percent’s going to be the hardest,” said Johnson, whose 83 Cup victories are tied for the sixth-most ever. “I’ve made some great strides. I’m going in the right direction.”
But he has a long way to go. Johnson is still recalibrating his mind to learn how quickly this type of car can stop and how to push it to the limits around corners. He hasn’t yet put everything together to pull off one ideal, quick lap.
“But I’ve been able to get sections of the track together,” Johnson said. “When you get it right, man, the rush of really reaching the limits of the car laterally and then on the brakes is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before.”
And something he’ll try to experience even more next month in St. Petersburg.