For more than half of his rookie IndyCar season, Jimmie Johnson was the leading cause of groans and anxious moments among his rivals. Spins, mistakes, and session stoppages were becoming the norm for the open-wheel neophyte. He’d spent decades mastering the art of herding stock cars around ovals, but all that experience was useless while transitioning to a new and unfamiliar world with Chip Ganassi Racing.
During those formative stages of the 2021 season in the No. 48 Honda, it was the vast absence of knowledge with high-downforce and high-grip Indy cars, and their knife-edge handling tendencies, that made the seven-time NASCAR Cup champion look like Bambi learning to walk on ice.
What’s happened in recent rounds has been a testament to Johnson’s growth as an IndyCar driver, and if you caught Sunday’s race in Monterey, confidence and aggression were on regular display as his best performance of the year was produced with a combative run to 17th place.
While being happy with a 17th might stand out as odd in an IndyCar event with 27 cars in the field, Johnson chased and raced with a deeper talent pool than we’ve seen for most of the season.
Behind the 46-year-old was 21-year-old phenom Rinus VeeKay, a winner earlier in the year on the Indianapolis road course. Directly in front of Johnson at the checkered flag was Conor Daly, a supremely talented road racer. And at various points in the 95-lap contest, he was giving 2020 race winner Felix Rosenqvist the business and matching the pace of ex-Formula 1 driver Max Chilton, both of whom finished behind the No. 48 car.
WeatherTech Laguna Seca looked and felt a turning point for Johnson. Scott Pruett — his mentor and driving coach at CGR — isn’t prone to saying flowery things about those who aren’t deserving of praise, but in the case of his star pupil, the veteran of IndyCar, NASCAR, and sports cars says it’s time to acknowledge the presence of a new open-wheel racer.
“Being there on the inside, watching him grow leaps and bounds, I’ve seen this coming,” Pruett (pictured at right, above, with Johnson) told RACER. “We saw glimpses of it at the last Indy race on the road course where he was solid, and again, solid race at Portland. This is just that next level of what we’re continually seeing from him — his abilities are real.
“He’s the guy that is putting in the work and, and there’s a lot of people like myself and Eric Cowdin, his engineer, and the whole organization trying to give him 110 percent so that he can, really, in only one year, become a totally new driver. This was never about making a Cup driver into an IndyCar driver. It’s been starting over with Jimmie, brand-new guy to this type of racing, and helping him to belong out there, almost overnight. And by far, what you saw happen at Laguna was just really damn impressive.”
With the visions of Bambi quickly fading, Pruett is also fast to temper the belief that Johnson’s ready to take down the Colton Hertas and Josef Newgardens in the series. In spite of the massive learning curve he’s scaled, a long list of improvements await Johnson this weekend in Long Beach and again next season when he returns without his rookie stripes.
“You know, we’ve still got to work on qualifying, being able to really rip that one lap off and put all the segments together to get everything out of that car that we can,” Pruett continued. “When we can do that, we can race further up the grid, and I believe with what he’s doing to learn and improve, it will come. I mean, look, when I joined the program at Detroit, oh my gosh, we’re barely holding onto the back of the field. We have come so far since then.
“You look at the guys that he not only caught and passed at Laguna, but some of it was pretty dramatic. And I know it did a lot for his confidence. Seeing where he’s come from and where he’s at now continuing to go, there’s some big gains up ahead for him. There’s a lot more to get; Jimmie’s isn’t done improving.”