Oval racing continues to be the highlight of Jimmie Johnson’s NTT IndyCar Series career as he crossed the line fifth in Sunday’s Hy-Vee Salute to Farmers 300 at Iowa Speedway.
The effort caps off the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion’s superb outing in Newton, a track he’s never competed at prior to this weekend.
After recovering from an early race spin to leading 18 laps and finishing 11th in Saturday’s HyVeeDeals.com 250, the No. 48 Chip Ganassi Racing crew went to work right away.
From making key adjustments to changing the livery wrap from Carvana to The American Legion, there wasn’t any funny business from the organization.
“I felt like from my perspective my confidence in the tools inside the car and what they did (Saturday),” Johnson said. “The weight jacker, give it 10 laps, a little bit more, same with the bars, higher pressure wing. At one point Eric (Cowdin, Johnson’s engineer) asked me if I wanted wing.
“I’m like, ‘I don’t know, do I? If I give you some wing, do you want a half or full turn?’
“I’m like, ‘I don’t know, you pick,’ Johnson told Cowdin. “I was much more confident in the adjustments we made (on Sunday). The closer you get to the front, the more important the small adjustments are.”
Johnson rolled off 13th for the 300-lap event Sunday and worked through the field. During the first stint of green flag run, Johnson was in the top-five and one of the few on the lead lap as Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden and Will Power put on a clinic ahead of the 26-car field.
A Turn 1 crash by Kyle Kirkwood brought out the first of only two caution flag periods, bringing several cars back on the lead lap. Johnson’s No. 48 Honda remained well inside the top-10 for much of the afternoon and his determination of wanting more kicked into high gear late.
Eventually, Johnson had to battle Marcus Ericsson and Scott Dixon, two of his teammates. Johnson was hunting down the six-time INDYCAR champion Dixon for that coveted fifth spot.
At first, it waned out after Ericsson took sixth from Johnson.
“I was setting that move up on (Dixon with) 20 to go,” Johnson said on the initial battle with Dixon. “I jumped the cushion down in one and two, got in the marbles. Marcus was able to get by.”
Never giving up on a strong result, Johnson was able to work by his Ganassi teammates to get his first career top-five finish. He improved from his result at Texas by one spot as his quest for a top-five in March was denied by none other than Dixon.
Johnson explained he had tried a different line when battling Dixon for fifth, but later opted out when the idea wasn’t working in his favor. Fortunately, the decision panned out this time around.
“I finally found sufficient track where there was grip in it. Awkward set of lines. Worked out in one, two, three and four to get it done. I had it just figured out,” Johnson explained. “I was catching Dixon, overcooked it into one. Once I caught Marcus, I had a good rhythm, knew where to place the car, was able to get by him.
“We did have a couple side-by-side battles. I was trying to be cautious along the inside and not overcook it on the bottom. It just wasn’t paying off. I had to use the line I was chasing Dixon and pulled it off.”
The high line favored Johnson thanks to a track that carried his stock car experience over. His awareness on running a preferred line in situations such as the closing laps shined bright as a good chunk of his success came at tracks under a mile in length.
Johnson used Bristol Motor Speedway, a track Johnson won twice at in NASCAR, as a key example when explaining the experience. It also benefitted Johnson already completing the full 250-lap race the day before.
“I’m so happy to finally have some experience transfer from stockcars to IndyCars. Just knowing where to run on the track at different times,” said Johnson. “Early in (Saturday’s) race, there was some clean spots on the track that people were afraid to get up there, tiptoe along the edge. That was just something I was comfortable with doing.
“It honestly reminded me a lot of running at Bristol, the way you just got to run right at the edge of the marbles, tip-toeing around that. And if you’re willing to get up that extra six or eight inches, it would pay off.
“Some other cars figured it out. They ran it off. Then (Sunday) any time I caught someone, the driver would make that defensive move, take that spot. If they gave me a turn, ran the middle, I assume the spotter talked them into moving up. Next turn they were up higher. Really found some different lines. I think we had a little better handling car today. Made some adjustments overnight. Made us able to drive through the field.”
Tire wear also brought back some memories for Johnson as Sunday’s personal milestone gave him a vibe from Bristol once again, but Darlington Raceway where he won three times. More importantly, it’s arguably the most fun Johnson has had on a short track.
“New tires in an IndyCar around here reminds me of Bristol. You just drive above and beyond what your brain tells you the car can do,” Johnson added. “Here later in a run, tires fall off. Reminds me of maybe like Darlington in a Cup car which both are two of my favorite tracks to drive.
“Throughout a tire run here, in the beginning of a run, the way the car hammers the ground, the way it drives, the way I was running my line, it was much like Bristol. Bristol is so much fun to drive on.
“It’s hard to say it’s the most fun I had. The element of surprise I had on everyone (on Saturday), even proving to myself that I can race with these guys, there was some shock and awe that went with that that was quite humorous, I thought.”
After the Iowa doubleheader, Johnson improved from 23rd to 20th in points entering next Saturday’s Gallagher Grand Prix at Indianapolis. Live coverage of the series’ second visit to the Grand Prix circuit begins Saturday, July 30 at 12:00 p.m. ET on NBC. In three starts at the road course, Johnson’s best effort was 19th last August in a race that was won by Will Power.