With seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson’s return to the Nascar Cup Series as an ownership partner at Petty GMS, and a part-time schedule for the team as a driver, it’s easy to conclude that his dreams of running in another Indianapolis 500 or 24 Hours of Le Mans are over.
But as former college football coach and analyst on ESPN’s “Game Day” Lee Corso would say, “Not so fast, My Friend.”
When directly asked about his future IndyCar efforts and a run in the 2023 24 Hours of Le Mans on Friday at Phoenix Raceway, Johnson said both remain on his “Bucket List.”
“It’s still on the table,” Johnson said of Le Mans. “I’ve made sure that my calendar is nice and open in June, and hopefully it can stay that way.”
Johnson hopes to be part of the Nascar and Hendrick Motorsports “Garage 56” entry in next year’s famed sports car classic in Le Mans, France. That Johnson is a Chevrolet team owner in Nascar, and the “Garage 56” entry is a Chevrolet Corvette helps his cause.
But it gets much more complicated in IndyCar.
For the past two years, Johnson has competed for Chip Ganassi Racing in the NTT IndyCar Series, driving the No. 48 Carvana/American Legion Honda. It was presumed that team owner Chip Ganassi would enter an extra car in next year’s Indianapolis 500 so that Johnson could have one more attempt at an Indy 500.
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But, with a few rare exceptions, there is a perceived “Iron Curtain” between manufacturers. Chevrolet competes in both the Nascar Cup Series and the NTT IndyCar. Honda does not participate in Nascar and has enjoyed much success with its IndyCar program.
Johnson is more than just a Chevrolet driver; he is now a stakeholder in a Chevrolet team. That means manufacturer support in engineer, marketing and financial.
It’s not impossible, but highly improbable that Chevrolet would allow Johnson to compete against its brand in the Indianapolis 500.
When Ganassi was a Nascar team owner from 2001 to 2021, much of that time was with Chevrolet. In the current IndyCar Series, Ganassi has been with both brands, but much of his success has been with Honda.
When Johnson was asked directly about any future races in IndyCar, he was extremely non-committal.
“Yeah, still interested in the sports car (and) IndyCar,” Johnson said. “I’ve got an awesome opportunity to race an off-road truck if I want. Alex Bowman has offered me a Chili Bowl ride. The invites keep coming in.
“I have been solely focused on this and don’t know the impact of this commitment and relationship and how that plays out. But once the dust settles from here, I’ll get deeper into those other conversations and try to build out the best race schedule I can have that does fit with the new commitment and obligation that I have here.
“That’s something that will certainly play into all that.”
But, what about manufacturer conflicts between Chevrolet and Honda?
“Haven’t crossed that bridge yet,” Johnson said.
Johnson also indicated he would like to race at the revived North Wilkesboro Speedway, site of the 2023 Nascar All-Star Race. But, that conflicts with Indy 500 qualifying.
“I noticed that on the schedule,” Johnson said. “Again, haven’t arrived at the conversation yet.”
Methinks if his IndyCar career isn’t dead, it’s certainly on life support. It could be snuffed out by a decision in the boardroom, not at the race shop.
This is a dramatically different Johnson than when I last spoke with him on October 7 prior to a book-signing at Books-a-Million in Concord, North Carolina as he was promoting his new book, “One More Lap – Jimmie Johnson and the #48.”
At that time, there was no talk of team ownership of a Nascar team. He talked about his desire for his family to live overseas and create a racing schedule in 2023 that would include IndyCar, Le Mans, and a few Nascar Cup Series races.
He was a man who enjoyed vacations with his family and being off the 38-week grind that is the Nascar Cup Series season.
“Needless to say, things escalated quickly,” Johnson said Friday. “I really did feel like I would run some Cup races and was pursuing a few different options. I still have a great relationship with Chip Ganassi and the team, and I am interested in some IndyCar races, interested in sports car racing.
“When this opportunity came along and it really came through the offices of Alan Miller, he’s been my longtime agent. I know he hates that term, but not only does his office look after my interests but also Erik Jones (current Petty GMS driver) and Michael Bill (an attorney at Miller’s legal firm) has been the point person in recent years.
“As Michael learned about my desires to continue to drive and to try to find a different way to be involved in the sport, he said, ‘Man, you really need to talk to Maury (Gallagher, Petty GMS majority owner). I feel like there’s an opportunity here that really makes sense on both sides.’
“That was the catalyst and start of it.
“Literally here in the last month, a lot has happened.”
Johnson will be back in a Nascar Cup Series car at next year’s 65th Daytona 500. It’s uncertain when, if ever, he returns to an Indy car.
It may be over, or it may be extremely limited. But it was certainly part of Jimmie Johnson’s story.
He believes his time putting together the No. 48 Carvana/American Legion Honda helped prepare him for an ownership stake in the Nascar Cup Series team.
“The last two years in the IndyCar space and how my office has managed our partners, our relationship, the relationship I’ve had with Chip, Chip’s willingness to show me more of how a car owner acts, leads, decisions they make. I’ve had a better understanding of it all,” Johnson said. “I’ve been intrigued by it. I’ve been interested in it. I’ve gained some experience in it. I think I’m in an environment here where I can learn from two of the best and grow.
“Again, there’s some low-hanging fruit with the competition side and participating in events, driving in cars, helping build culture in the shop, working with our young drivers. So that stuff is kind of a standard, but the bigger picture is an opportunity to learn, and I’ve enjoyed the experience I’ve had over the last two seasons.”
Even when Johnson was preparing for a potential return to IndyCar in 2023, Nascar was always on his mind.
“If I did continue in IndyCar in ’23, I had planned to try to come back at some level in Nascar and run some races,” he said. “I’ve been open and honest with Mr. (Rick) Hendrick and Jeff Gordon about trying to come back.
“Justin Marks and I have spoken about his Project 91 car. Prior to this opportunity really developing, there were some very casual conversations out there, maybe a pathway to come back and run, and then once the IndyCar season concluded, this really kicked into gear, and now I have a pathway to do so.”
Despite his best efforts with a top-notch IndyCar team, Johnson quickly discovered the extreme difficulty adapting to a completely different form of racing. Although he often qualified in the back of the grid, Johnson made tangible progress from his first IndyCar race at Barber Motorsports Park in April 2021. Johnson’s first season in IndyCar was on street and road courses only and by the end of that first season, he was mid-pack.
He became a full-time IndyCar Series competitor in 2022, adding the oval races to his schedule. He quickly rediscovered his groove on the ovals, using a high line around Texas Motor Speedway to finish sixth after starting 18th.
Johnson was impressive during the Month of May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as he was among the fastest drivers each day in practice and qualifications for the 106th Indianapolis 500. He made the “Fast 12” and had a shot at the pole but bobbled entering Turn 1 on his first lap. Despite three very fast laps to follow, his four-lap average put him 12th in the starting lineup.
Johnson called the actual race in the Indianapolis 500 one of the most frustrating in his career. His car dropped back in the pack, and he said he could not get it to handle properly so deep in the field.
With five laps left in the Indy 500, Johnson crashed in Turn 2 when he was already two laps down to the leader, teammate, and eventual winner Marcus Ericsson.
The highlight of Johnson’s two-season IndyCar career came in the Hy-Vee IndyCar Weekend at Iowa Speedway. He started 15th and raced his way to the front, leading 19 laps before finishing 11th in the Hy-VeeDeals.com 250 on the short oval.
The following day, Johnson scored the highest finish of his IndyCar career when he was fifth in the Hy-Vee Salute to Farmers 300.
At that time, Johnson was committed to a full-time return to the NTT IndyCar Series in 2023, pending approval from his sponsor, Carvana.
But by the final race of the season at WeatherTech Raceway at Laguna Seca, Carvana had agreed to continue in Johnson’s racing endeavors, but the driver had reservations about another full season in IndyCar.
Ten days after the season ended, Johnson announced he was stepping back from full-time racing in 2023. He said he had a list of “Bucket List” races that he wanted to compete in. Those included the 24 Hours of Le Mans for NASCAR and Hendrick Motorsports “Garage 56” entry next June. He also wanted to attempt “The Double” by running in the 107th Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 the same day.
With Friday’s announcement, Johnson could run the 600 in the extra car at Petty GMS. Presumably, Chip Ganassi Racing was set to add an extra Honda-powered car to the lineup for Johnson in the 107th Indianapolis 500, but that is now uncertain with Johnson a stakeholder with a Nascar Chevrolet team.
Top Chevrolet IndyCar teams such as Team Penske are not adding another car to next year’s Indy 500, according to Team Penske President Tim Cindric. Arrow McLaren SP has already increased to four cars for next year’s Indy 500 with the addition of Tony Kanaan. Ed Carpenter Racing has three cars in next year’s Indy 500 and are “over capacity” according to driver Conor Daly.
That leaves Chevy teams such as AJ Foyt Racing, Juncos Hollinger Racing and the Indy 500-only Dreyer & Reinbold Racing as teams that could create an extra car for Johnson in the Indy 500.
The only team that has won the Indy 500 out of that group is AJ Foyt Racing and the last time it accomplished that was with Kenny Brack in 1999.
Compare that to Chip Ganassi Racing, which won the Indy 500 on May 29thwith Marcus Ericsson as the driver.
Johnson reached a fork in the road in terms of his career and decided to take the path back to Nascar, potentially leaving IndyCar in his rear-view mirror while maintaining a chance to compete in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.