This isn’t going to be a column, a news story, a feature or a retrospective. This is going to be more of a lecture. The subject is Jimmie Johnson.
No sooner had NBC gone off the air after last Sunday’s IndyCar season opener than the texts, tweets and e-mails began flying. “I tuned into watch IndyCar and it was the Jimmie Johnson Show. More useless airtime than when Danica went to NASCAR. Johnson sucked. I thought he’d be more competitive. Why is he doing this?”
Now, race fans are as passionate as they are opinionated, but sometimes they get in a four-wheel drift away from reality. And to criticize Johnson after one race is not only lame, it’s unfair.
As Marshall Pruett documented with Dario Franchitti last week, what Johnson is doing is unprecedented in the modern era. Cale Yarborough was the last NASCAR star to try IndyCar full-time. That was 1971, and the four-time Daytona 500 winner managed fifth at Michigan and Trenton in 11 races, but they were all ovals.
If Johnson was just running Texas, Indianapolis and Gateway he’d have a much better shot at being competitive right away, because obviously he excelled on ovals and we saw how quickly Kurt Busch adapted in 2014. But J.J. is starting from scratch in a totally different kind of car, on tracks that are foreign to him, in a season that is overrun with young and seasoned talent. Yeah, he spun out in the race and finished three laps behind winner Alex Palou, but he wasn’t the slowest qualifier, he avoided the first-lap mayhem and had some nice pace in the final stint.
“I could tell he was a little disappointed about the spin, but since I first met him at Barber in December it’s day and night in the fact we’ve covered big chunks of the basics: braking, steering, throttle, all the broad strokes,” said veteran engineer Eric Cowdin. “Learning to drive this car is a complete reset, and the feeling it gives back to him is completely different.
“But I’ve never worked with a driver that has this much self-motivation and work ethic — it’s phenomenal. Once you see it you understand how he won seven championships.”
So to the IndyCar fans upset that J.J. got too much airtime, let’s do a little clear thinking. Here is a seven-time NASCAR champion making his IndyCar debut, and NBC is supposed to treat him like any other rookie? As much as it hurts to admit, Johnson is the only household name in the IndyCar field. They know who he is from Maine to Boise to Salt Lake, and hopefully he’s going to drag along some fresh eyes to IndyCar in 2021. You’re damn right J.J. is going to be featured in his first start.
And what about the fantastic Carvana commercials? That’s J.J.’s primary sponsor, and the Amazon of automobiles delivered the best ads since Target back in the Zanardi and Montoya days. There were 12 of them, and they fed off Johnson’s personality and everyman persona.
“We started our partnership with Jimmie the second or third quarter of last year and we didn’t know much about auto racing as a company, but I don’t think we could have picked a better spokesperson,” said Ryan Keeton, co-founder and CMO of Carvana, who attended his first-ever IndyCar race at Barber.
“It’s important to have a new audience, and we want to expose more people to IndyCar. It’s the biggest step we ever made, and we’ve been able to produce some really cool, fun commercials and there is definitely more to come. We have millions of people visit our website, and we’re going to have them vote on Jimmie’s livery.”
So let’s summarize. We’ve got one of the most famous racers in this country taking on the biggest challenge of his career, and he’s backed by a major company that’s spent a bunch of money on NBC to promote Carvana, Johnson and IndyCar racing (Carvana was also an associate sponsor on the telecast).
Having the personable 45-year-old in the IndyCar line-up is great on so many counts, and if anything, fans should be supportive, not surly. And don’t start sending in your critiques this Sunday after his street race debut at St. Pete. There is no way to prepare for your first time in the concrete jungle, and I’m sure J.J. will be longing for the wide-open spaces of Barber on about Lap 10.
And also keep in mind the fact he doesn’t need to do this — he wants to do it — and his enthusiasm for IndyCar is genuine and very newsworthy. “I think as the year goes on that people will understand him,” said Cowdin. “If it wasn’t challenging, he wouldn’t be doing it. He’s a rare individual.”
I was just thankful he wasn’t five or six seconds off the pace, and the more laps he runs, the more that gap should continue to shrink. Don’t expect miracles, just steady progress, and be happy someone of his ilk wanted to have a run at IndyCar. And hopefully he’ll change his mind and run the Indy 500.
But let’s sign off with some common sense by Todd Brayton, the younger brother of Scott, who made this Facebook post. “J.J. is trying something new and it takes big balls to do what he is attempting. Let’s respect that.”