ST. PETERSBURG — Jimmie Johnson didn’t publicly downplay the expectations on himself as a rookie at last year’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. He tried to eliminate them entirely.
Sitting on a bench inside the Mahaffey Theater in April, the NASCAR legend told the Tampa Bay Times he felt so inexperienced in IndyCar that it would have been hard to call any finish a disappointment. After 10 months of reflection and lackluster results, Johnson began this weekend’s Grand Prix feeling differently.
“I think I was a bit naive when we sat on the bench and talked,” Johnson said Friday. “I thought I would be farther up in the grid, but as it turns out, these cars are so much more different than what I grew up driving.”
Johnson spent two decades in NASCAR, winning 83 Cup Series races and a record-tying seven championships. That success did not help him in IndyCar. If anything, the experience hurt.
The 194,000 Cup laps he ran (along with all the others from other stock car series) trained his muscles a certain way. He found himself missing turns or locking up the car — including in his two wrecks here last year — because he was accustomed to braking less aggressively.
Johnson understood the problem, but he struggled to override the default settings he established in NASCAR.
“I would tell myself mentally what to do, but my feet wouldn’t necessarily respond,” Johnson said. “Then I would make a mistake or two, come back, study, realize and start to wire that connection between my brain and my feet. That’s just kind of the evolution of what a driver goes through.”
For most IndyCar drivers, that evolution takes place gradually in feeder series. Johnson’s took place at the highest level with the scrutiny that comes with being a big-name driver on a big-name team (Chip Ganassi Racing). It didn’t help that his team owner embraced lofty expectations last offseason, saying Johnson could compete for a top-three finish. Johnson never finished higher than 17th.
Johnson’s evolution remains ongoing. He locked up his tires in Turn 10 during Friday’s practice session, leading to a brief brake fire. He was third-slowest in the 26-car field.
But look deeper, as NBC analyst James Hinchcliffe does, and you see progress. Johnson started to close the gap between himself and the field last season. His last two races were his best two finishes.
“He got more competitive,” said Hinchcliffe, the 2013 Grand Prix winner. “He got racier, more comfortable in the car.”
Johnson returns more comfortable with everything out of the car, too. Last year, he had to start from scratch, like, where exactly St. Petersburg is and how to get to the 1.8-mile, 14-turn street course.
Though Johnson doesn’t have those problems this year, he remains raw in IndyCar. Expectations are relatively muted, even as he expands his role from a part-time ride to a full-time spot. His goal is to snag a top-15 finish at a road or street course (like St. Petersburg). Hinchcliffe thinks a top-10 result is possible, especially on an oval track.
It’s a far cry from what Johnson grew accustomed to in NASCAR. But his learning curve remains steep, and his objectives have changed.
After retiring from full-time NASCAR competition in 2020, Johnson decided to pursue his childhood dream of becoming an IndyCar driver. He knew it wouldn’t be easy. That was fine, because he also knew it would be a blast.
Having fun was Johnson’s primary goal last season. He achieved it, race after race, and remembered to savor that feeling. As he moves into his second season, that’s still a focus.
“I’ve always recognized that when I’m having fun, I do my best work,” Johnson said. “I kind of get out of my own head and just drive. So that is the goal, but as time goes on, expectations increase.”
Starting this weekend.