ST. PETERSBURG — Jimmie Johnson was having breakfast with his family downtown Friday when he had a revelation.
“Normally,” Johnson told his wife, “we’d be sitting in Talladega right now, staring outside the motorhome window at the same patch of grass we’ve looked at for 20 years.”
Instead of making yet another stop on the NASCAR Cup Series grind, Johnson was sitting with his wife and two daughters, enjoying a picturesque morning at a café, listening to race cars buzz in the distance. When the meal was over, Johnson could walk to work at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, where he’ll race Sunday in a prestigious series (IndyCar) for a powerhouse team (Chip Ganassi Racing) with exactly zero expectations of success.
“This,” Johnson said, “is pretty awesome.”
The mask over his face can’t hide the smile underneath. This 45-year-old rookie is having the time of his life.
Long before Johnson became a NASCAR legend, he grew up wanting to race in events like this. He got hooked on racing as a California kid who attended the famed Grand Prix of Long Beach — a waterfront street course that is IndyCar’s closest comparison to St. Petersburg.
He loved the way the crossover bridges thundered as cars roared on the track below. He wanted to drive in one some day.
“That was the dream,” Johnson said.
The dream took a historic two-decade detour into stock car racing, where he won 83 Cup races and a record-tying seven series championships.
Johnson won’t complain about it, but he will admit it: The NASCAR grind became a challenge. Competition, and what it does to you, isn’t pretty. When he was younger, the boos wore on him.
“There were a lot of years in Cup, even when I was winning, that I didn’t purely enjoy it,” Johnson said. “It was work.”
Last year, Johnson decided he was ready to give up that work and do something else. He had nothing left to prove in NASCAR, to himself or anyone else.
Johnson did, however, still have a desire to drive. An itch to realize his childhood dream.
He had a summer IndyCar test with Ganassi and loved it. That turned into an official announcement at October’s Grand Prix that Johnson would drive the No. 48 Honda at IndyCar’s road and street courses.
“The (fun) experience in these cars is really what’s driving my crazy decision to do all this,” Johnson said.
Johnson calls the decision crazy because he knows his odds of success are low. Switching series isn’t as extreme as Michael Jordan jumping from basketball to baseball, but it’s not as easy as Tom Brady going from the Patriots to the Bucs, either.
The cars and competition are totally different. Attacking Daytona International Speedway’s high-banked tri-oval isn’t like navigating the Grand Prix’s 14 turns around city streets and an airport runway.
“It’s going to definitely be a challenge for him to learn a completely different form of racing,” said Josef Newgarden, the two-time defending Grand Prix winner and a two-time IndyCar champion. “And he’s jumping into the deep end of a championship with the best of the best that drive these types of cars.”
Johnson knew all that before the season began, and he certainly understands it now. When he qualified 21st in the 24-car field in his debut last weekend at Alabama’s Barber Motorsports Park, he celebrated on Twitter: “I wasn’t last!”
His 19th-place finish wasn’t a disappointment, as it would have been in NASCAR. It was a learning experience. And, more importantly, a blast.
“This is what it should be,” Johnson said. “And I’ve accomplished so much that I think it’s allowing me to cut myself some slack and actually enjoy it.”
Johnson’s expectations will rise throughout the year as he gains experience. His car owner thinks he can compete for top-three finishes, maybe even a win.
Eventually, Johnson will start thinking about his IndyCar career in those terms. But not yet.
And even when he does, he doesn’t want to get so focused on results that he forgets why he’s here, zooming by the waterfront palm trees instead of staring at an old patch of grass in Alabama.
At 45, he’s getting the chance to live out a childhood dream as his daughters enjoy the same experience he did as a California kid all those years ago.
Pretty awesome, indeed.
Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg
Through Sunday. Gates at intersections of First Avenue SE and First Street SE; Second Street S and Fifth Avenue S
IndyCar qualifying: 1:45 p.m. Saturday. IndyCar race: 12:42 p.m. Sunday. TV: NBC
More info: Advance ticket sales only. Complete schedule and more here.