Opinion: How do we measure success for Jimmie Johnson in IndyCar?


     When the racing world found out that Jimmie Johnson, the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series Champion, was leaving NASCAR and moving to the NTT IndyCar Series, I think the emotions around motor sports fan bases in this country were shocked, intrigued, hopeful, and for most downright pessimistic. Jimmie Johnson, probably one of, if not the best driver to ever strap themselves into a stock car, was now moving on to a new challenge in America's highest level of open-wheel racing.


    Given what we know about Johnson's body of work, his resume speaks for himself. He does not need to prove anything to anyone. He has accomplished more in the first five years of his NASCAR cup career than most drivers have done in ten or fifteen year careers. But the last three years of his NASCAR Cup career might leave a sour taste in some fans' mouths, and I don't blame them. When we saw his last win at Dover in 2017, we still thought that we were seeing Jimmie Johnson still being competitive and still being in championship contention. But little did we know then that we would start seeing the beginning of the end of Jimmie Johnson's NASCAR Cup Series career.

    Over the course of the 2020-2021 offseason, Johnson started training as soon as the confetti was being swept up from Chase Elliott's NASCAR Cup Series championship celebration, as he made his way to WeatherTech Raceway at Laguna Seca in California where he tested with his new teammate Alex Palou. We wouldn't step foot in his race car again until preseason testing at Sebring this past February.

    Let's be honest with ourselves. I think I can speak for a lot of fans that I think we admire Jimmie Johnson trying something new. We can all admire a person looking for something different and challenging themselves with a new path and no path is more challenging that making the switch from NASCAR to IndyCar. With so many things you have to unlearn from years of stock car experience to then go to the faster, lighter, and more nimble IndyCar platform. But some tools he learned over the course of that run will pay dividends for him.

    Now I am sure that what Johnson has that gives him an advantage over most drivers in the paddock is experience behind the wheel. Take a look at that incident on lap one in Sunday's Grand Prix of Alabama. I am sure that many drivers who don't have the experience or race craft developed yet would have certainly ended their day in that wreck, but Johnson didn't. The wreck avoidance and patience was something he had to learn in NASCAR helped him during that wreck, and he escaped without a scratch on his car.

    Even though Johnson didn't have the day he wanted, I think there are positives that came out of his first start last week. For starters, he out qualified drivers with IndyCar experience in the likes of Dalton Kellett and Felix Rosenqvist at Barber. That would give Johnson confidence moving forward. He survived a lap one wreck by using veteran instant and car control. We saw car control moving forward on the lap 10 incident by not going into a wall on his single-car spin. Jimmie Johnson may have finished 19th, three laps down on Sunday, but I think his main goal was to at least finish the race, which he did. He used 90 laps on Sunday as a practice session, and by the end of the race he was only four tenths off the pace set by Alex Palou in the closing laps. So progress has been made.

    So how do we judge success for the forty-five-year-old rookie of the year contender? 

     Wins? Well, no, I think that sets too high of  expectations. Chip Ganassi believes that with his experience and race-craft, he could sneak out a win this season. While that is possible, I think it is very unlikely. These are tracks he is going to for the first time in race competition, so I wouldn't be counting wins in store for that No. 48 Honda. 

    Finishes? Well, what do you mean by finishes? Not wrecking out of races certainly looks good on him by not tearing up good cars, especially if they are fielded by CGR. I think one way of looking at this if he kept his DNF number to around 3, would certainly yield massive gains for him at finishing races is one of the best ways to get experience, and by not wrecking helps out in the long run. Do we expect wins? Not this year. Or better yet, on how this season progresses for him. I would not rule out the possibility of a top ten run later this year.

    So, by no means do I believe that Jimmie Johnson is going to set the world on fire, but what I do think is that he will be successful in the terms of economic revenue for the sport, as well as moving the needle on social media and TV numbers. NASCAR fans will be tuning in throughout the season to see how well he does, and I am no different. Hopefully, the on-track product in the NTT IndyCar Series is enough to keep those fans even after he walks away from it. Just don't set your expectations too high, you might end up disappointed.