MOORESVILLE, N.C. — The end of one career has led to the beginning of another for Jimmie Johnson. From the looks of it, he is taking his second career very seriously.
The seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion ran his last race as a NASCAR regular Nov. 8 at Phoenix Raceway.
One week earlier, Johnson participated in an NTT IndyCar Series test at Alabama’s Barber Motorsports Park.
Johnson will drive a Honda-powered Dallara, adorned with his familiar No. 48, for Chip Ganassi Racing next season.
After representing HendrickCars.com for so many years, Johnson’s sponsor is a car-selling rival, Carvana. It’s evident that Johnson is taking his next career very seriously.
“Everybody involved wants to be competitive,” Johnson said. “We’re here to win races. That’s who we are as a group. If we didn’t have that common goal, we wouldn’t be here.
“But we all do recognize I have a very steep learning curve ahead of myself with new cars, tracks, people,” Johnson added. “I think it’s going to be a very steep learning curve for me to deal with, but I love a good challenge. I’m really excited to start this next chapter of my motorsports career.”
Johnson started his Cup Series career with Hendrick Motorsports in 2002. He was 27 years old.
With seven NASCAR titles and 83 victories during the past 18 years, Johnson feels like a rookie again.
“Yeah, I really do,” he said. “I can think back to some other key moments where opportunity came along for me. It’s very familiar. It’s crazy to be 45 years old and going through this again. Looking at next year, realizing I’m a 45-year-old rookie in the IndyCar Series is also an interesting one.
“I feel like it’s day one and my excitement to compete, my desire to be competitive is as strong as it’s ever been.”
Johnson admitted after the Barber Motorsports Park test in early November that he has to shave seconds off his lap times to be competitive with the IndyCar Series regulars.
He is working closely with three-time Indianapolis 500 winner and four-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Dario Franchitti at Chip Ganassi Racing in an effort to ease his transition from stock cars to Indy cars.
“It’s a really tight squeeze to get in these cars,” Johnson said. “There’s a process twisting your shoulders and your hips to get past the headrest, down into your seat. You don’t buckle your own seat belts in these cars, someone does it for you, tightens you.
“Inside the car, there are many more adjustments and knobs that the team needs you to work on over the course of a lap and course of a run.
“It’s unfamiliar in every aspect for me in the car. The way you start it, turn it off; a lot of different procedures that take place. It’s far different in a very compact area.”
Johnson and team owner Chip Ganassi have brought a new sponsor into the sport. Carvana is reinventing car selling and views this as an opportunity to broaden its market.
“I think there are a lot of things that are attractive about this opportunity,” said Carvana CEO Ernie Garcia. “Obviously, being part of IndyCar is extremely exciting and makes sense for our brand. But I do think just joining a winning team like this is even more exciting. I think getting to know Chip a little bit over the last couple weeks, being incredibly impressed. I think the team is incredible. We’re excited to be a part of that team.
“Getting to know Jimmie over the last month or so, learning about his story of being a legend and a champion and being willing to go back to square one and start over again, do it in front of the entire world, I think takes tremendous courage. It’s something I have a ton of respect for.
“Everyone chases a dream,” Garcia added. “We’ve all got dreams. To watch a legend chase his second dream, I think that’s incredible. We’re very, very excited to be a part of that.”
Johnson will compete in 12 of the 17 races on the NTT IndyCar Series schedule next season. He is focusing on the street and road courses and will not be competing on the ovals, including the 105th Indianapolis 500.
IndyCar officials are looking at ways to further decrease testing and practice time during race weekends, meaning more condensed race weekends similar to 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
That means less time on the track for a driver who is starting a second career.
“It’s a bad time to be a rookie, even a 45-year-old rookie with all the years I have in racing,” Johnson said. “To learn these cars and tracks, it’s going to be a real steep learning curve for me.”