Jimmie Johnson, IndyCar Driver?

With the weather being as nasty as it is in Austin, there hasn’t been a lot of on-track action today, and as of 3 p.m. Central time they had thrown the yellow and called it a day.

When days like these happen, the media goes into what my friends and I call “rain delay theatre”. That’s where you fill the time using everyone and everything necessary.

Seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson was on the grounds at COTA today, killing time between qualifying and the rest of the Daytona 500-related activities this weekend. Johnson joined the booth during the live feed of the test session and said he would be interested in driving “five or six” IndyCar races, most likely on road or street courses, when his Cup career comes to a close at the end of this year.

He later even added to his wish list when he was quoted telling IndyCar.com he’d also like to run the Rolex 24 again and give the 24 Hours of LeMans a try.

Lately we have heard of Cup drivers like Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson being interested in dipping their toes into open wheel racing while running the Indy 500, but honestly, I’m not really interested. They are still in the primes of their careers in stock cars — with Larson become a legend on dirt as well — and one-offs like that just don’t appeal to me.

If someone wants to try IndyCar, I want to see them immersed in it, which is why having Johnson run multiple events is intriguing to me. I’ve always wanted to see him try an open wheel car because I think he is a very cerebral driver who has a well above average racecraft. That actually makes him a perfect open wheel driver.

And, I’m a big Jimmie Johnson fan. It took me a while to warm up to him, but like everyone who has a long career in any sport, they toe the line for a while, then reach the “I don’t give a crap” phase where they say and act however they want. I grew to like “I don’t give a crap” JJ, just like I fully enjoy the IDGAP Dale Jr. Plus, I saw him sweep the two Daytona races in 2013, which was really cool.

Don’t forget, he’s already tried out an F1 car as part of his “ride swap” with Fernando Alonso at Abu Dhabi 16 months ago. Alonso said he was very impressed Johnson’s driving, and even then Johnson expressed his wish to drive an IndyCar.

If I had to pick five (or six) races I think he would do, here would be my list:

  • COTA. With a lot of room to work with (and screw up in), that might be a perfect starting point.
  • Long Beach. Johnson grew up in Southern California and attended the race several times.
  • Indy GP. Duh. While the GP is run on the road course, he has won the Brickyard 400 four times.
  • Detroit. One or both races as a nod to his longtime association with Chevrolet.
  • Monterey. See Long Beach. Given his success at Auto Club Speedway, he loves racing in California.

So the second question becomes, how would he fare? Despite his amazing success, I’d say if he were driving a handful of races over the course of several years, he’d become pretty good. But if it’s just for 2021, let’s temper our enthusiasm.

No knock on Jimmie, but he’d be competing against some of the best open wheel drivers on the planet, who have years of experience and technical knowledge. Johnson’s learning curve would be huge, and while he would straighten out that curve quicker than most people, he is, again, racing against guys like Scott Dixon, Josef Newgarden, Alexander Rossi, Will Power and Simon Pagenaud.

Actually, his best bet to be super competitive would be on ovals, especially the Indy 500, but he has said he has no interest. I don’t blame him. He’s got a wife and two young daughters and, knock on wood, if he finishes this Cup season without a major incident he would have come out the other side of a 20-year stock car career with everything intact. He has more than earned the right to decide when, where, and in what kinds of cars he races.

Any guesses to where he would go? Of course, it would be a Chevy team, given his relationship with them. Tuesday at COTA he was a guest of Zak Brown and Arrow McLaren SP, so let’s start the speculation there!

He would be a good fit there if McLaren decided to expand to a third car next season. He could split the road/street courses with a driver who would do the rest of them as well as the ovals. A good setup with that, and with any team for that matter, would be with perhaps the Indy Lights champion and the funding they bring to the table.

One place I seriously doubt he would land would be Team Penske. They already have three capable drivers in place, and it appears that Australian Supercars champion Scott McLaughlin is the next man up for that organization.

I don’t like talking about the business side of the sport, ROI, “eyeballs” or whatever since that’s way above my pay grade, but let’s just say having Jimmie Johnson driving IndyCars would be good for business too.

It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out over the next year or so. Hopefully it ends up with Johnson on an IndyCar grid in 2021.

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