Jimmie Johnson returned to the sight of seven of his 83 career NASCAR Cup Series wins Saturday at Texas Motor Speedway as he makes his NTT INDYCAR SERIES oval debut in the No. 48 Carvana Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, and it’s been an enjoyable experience thus far.
Johnson made his two-lap qualifying attempt early in the session with an average speed of 219.865 mph, less than 2 mph off Felix Rosenqvist’s pole-winning average speed of 221.110 mph. He will start a career-best 18th, outqualifying two Texas winners in Ed Carpenter and Graham Rahal.
In Saturday morning’s practice, he was 22nd fastest and completed the most laps of the session at 69. In final practice, Johnson was on the cusp of his top-10 goal, slotting in 13th on the timesheet. Johnson was third fastest among drivers who didn’t get an aerodynamic tow.
Johnson, a seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion, said through the on-track sessions he feels confident that he is becoming more and more comfortable with the NTT INDYCAR SERIES car.
“I’m about 20 percent more comfortable than I was when I started learning,” he said. “There are so many scenarios, especially in race trim, being concerned with green flag pit stops, how tire pressures feel and how you feel at the end of the run (that he still needs to learn).
“I’ve never done that before. That’s just experience, so I don’t have a good read on my expectations yet, but I want to be competitive. I know that in my heart of hearts. I want to be in the top 10.”
While Johnson has seven NASCAR Cup Series wins on the 1.5-mile Texas oval, his most recent coming in 2017, he said there’s only some basic oval racing rules he can apply to this weekend – such as bumps in the racetrack, grip location and wind direction.
While Johnson wants to compete this weekend and produce a solid result, he said he is using this weekend’s race, the first oval race of the season, to help prepare himself for the 106th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge on Sunday, May 29.
“For me, there’s a ton to learn,” Johnson said. “This qualifying process is something I’ve never done before,” he said. “The prep lap, how do you work your adjustments over the course of a lap? There’s a lot of layers that I was able to experience today that should make it easier (come May).”
Ilott, Juncos Racing Impress in First Oval Weekend Together
NTT INDYCAR SERIES rookie Callum Ilott is turning a lot of heads as he makes is oval debut for Juncos Hollinger Racing, and he’s enjoying the new discipline of racing.
Ilott opened the day fourth fastest in first practice with a top speed of 222.257 mph, posting times alongside drivers like Simon Pagenaud, Felix Rosenqvist, Colton Herta and Scott McLaughlin, all NTT INDYCAR SERIES race winners.
It came after his Speedway rookie test two weeks at Texas, where he was second fastest.
“I definitely think we’ve found a little bit in the car to help and keep me confident and safe,” Ilott said. “Looking at running in traffic, I don’t think I’m in a bad position. I think we missed a little bit in qualifying, but first time, you know, there’s obviously a little bit I miss. So I don’t think it was bad.”
Ilott had a disappointing qualifying effort, where he lines up 20th in Sunday’s race.
Ilott comes to the NTT INDYCAR SERIES from Europe, where he was runner up in the 2020 Formula 2 championship and served as a reserve driver for Alfa Romeo’s Formula One team last season. This is his first oval race, and he’s adapting to the different discipline very well.
“I think I’ve found my feet a little bit with the fine-tuning of the car and myself,” Ilott said. “I’ve got a decent history of, you know, developing a car and having a good feel for a car. So, I think that’s a strong point for me, but obviously I’ve got to learn.”
Ilott’s strong Saturday in the No. 77 Juncos Hollinger Racing Chevrolet is setting up for another memorable oval performance for Juncos, whose team has a knack for ovals and bumped two-time Formula One World Champion Fernando Alonso from the Indy 500 field in 2019.
Odds and Ends
- Johnny Rutherford says the kids are all right. The three-time Indianapolis 500 winner is on hand with Arrow McLaren SP this weekend, but he said AMSP’s two drivers, Felix Rosenqvist and Pato O’Ward, are at the top of their game and don’t need his help. O’Ward is a defending winner, while Rosenqvist won the NTT P1 Award for Sunday’s race. “Lone Star JR” added that he continues to be surprised at how advanced and technical the NTT INDYCAR SERIES has become these days, compared to when he raced.
- Rookie David Malukas, who starts 19th in the No. 18 HMD Honda and posted the eighth fastest 15-lap average speed in final practice, said having an oval master like Takuma Sato, who starts third in the No. 51, as teammate has “helped me so much” this weekend as he learns the fast-paced racing.
- The same can be said for Kyle Kirkwood, who lines up 23rd in the No. 14 ROKiT / AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet and was 15th fastest in final practice, saying teammate JR Hildebrand’s mentorship on ovals has been “massive.”
- The speeds are up at Texas Motor Speedway this weekend. Simon Pagenaud paced first practice with a top speed of 223.087 mph, which was the fastest first practice lap at Texas since 2018. Josef Newgarden topped that at 223.108 in the final practice.
- NTT INDYCAR SERIES rookie Christian Lundgaard is making his oval debut this weekend, and he was overjoyed when he made his first pass on an oval track in first practice: “I overtook someone. Woohoo!” he said over the radio.
- Myles Rowe, the most recent USF2000 race winner from Race 2 of the season-opening weekend last month in St. Petersburg, is at Texas Motor Speedway this weekend, but it’s not for racing. It’s the first weekend of his new videography internship with CoForce, a digital media marketing and video production agency.
- Seven drivers competed 294 laps in a special practice session Saturday afternoon to try to put more rubber down for a second groove in the corners.