Jimmie Johnson believes his starting position for Big Machine Spiked Coolers Grand Prix belies the progress he’s making in adapting to IndyCar.
While the first glance of a 22nd-place performance may not be eye-catching, the outing was a significant step in proving the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion is starting to get a feel for the open-wheelers.
The 45-year-old Californian was part of the second group of qualifying, which included the likes of Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Alex Palou, along with Alexander Rossi and eventual race pole-sitter Pato O’Ward. The front-runners battled for supremacy in a session where only the top six advanced for a shot to fight for pole; however Johnson’s No. 48 CGR Honda briefly broke into the conversation with a stout showing with consecutive laps of 1m12.1251s and 1m11.8626s. Both laps came on a set of Firestone alternate tires, and each time he jumped up to fourth before being relegated. He ended up 0.6114s behind teammate Marcus Ericsson in the final transfer spot.
“Yeah, I know it was a good session for me,” said Johnson, whose best-ever qualifying result is 21st (Barber). “My confidence keeps building, and the more laps I get under my belt the better I go. Just very thankful to have a support system I do with Chip Ganassi Racing, the support from Carvana, Honda, the American Legion (and) Ally. You know, having a lot of fun and certainly learned a lot as I go here. That was a great session. Only (to) be probably six-tenths off my teammates is a huge accomplishment for me, and just a few tenths would really move me up the running order.”
This was Johnson’s second time running on the 2.439-mile, 14-turn circuit — third overall, if you include his initial test last year. In May, he qualified 23rd out of 25 cars, so out-qualifying six drivers this time around, including teammate and six-time champion Scott Dixon, is a small accomplishment in what will be his ninth IndyCar start tomorrow (12:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN). Although the familiarity helps, Johnson isn’t about to declare a charge through the field just yet.
“It’s a fine balance,” Johnson said on knowing when to attack. “My instincts of attacking in a Cup car are the vulnerable points to attack in an IndyCar, so I still have to think my way through when I attack, how I attack. At some point, I’m going to forget about all that stuff and it’s going to be second nature for me. I’m excited for that day to come.”