INDIANAPOLIS – From the first time he watched the world’s greatest race on television with his grandfather and father in El Cajon, California, Jimmie Johnson he dreamed of racing in the Indy 500long before he became his 2022 Rookie of the Year.
At 46 years old he must live his childhood dream in the 106th Indy 500 and although he finished 28ththu after crashing hard into the Turn 2 wall with five laps to go, the experience far exceeded Johnson’s expectations.
This is notable considering that Johnson is a seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion, having won 83 NASCAR races.
“The experience was amazing,” Johnson told NBC Sports before the Indianapolis 500 victory celebration Monday night at the JW Marriott in downtown Indianapolis. “I am so grateful to have had this opportunity. I wish I had done better in the race and had a better result, but that’s racing. I learned a ton. If I get a chance to go back and do it again, I’ll be a lot smarter when I come back.”
Johnson was among the fastest drivers in nearly every practice and qualified for the Fast 12 round. He started 12thu and they quickly realized that the race itself was completely different from running in large packs in traffic.
He lost four positions in the first round and dropped to 16ththu. It would get more challenging from there.
“I really feel like my biggest issue has been track position,” Johnson said. “At the beginning of the race I was a bit cautious and lost a few positions. In the end, I couldn’t recover from it when the caution flag came out, putting us at the back of the field.
“I just couldn’t figure out how to pass cars and get around someone.
At the back of the field, with all the turbulence from the other race cars, Johnson’s #48 Carvan/American Legion Dallara-Honda Tornado ran down the middle.
“I enjoyed it, I had a lot of fun, but I was frustrated that I couldn’t pass anybody,” Johnson said. “The long line of cars, the air was so turbulent that no one could pass. Up front the cars could be racing for the lead, but once you got from fourth to the back it really didn’t matter. We were in a one-car line all the way around the track and it was hard to pass.”
Johnson’s favorite Indianapolis 500 experience was standing on the grid with his family next to the race car participating in the pre-race ceremony, one of the race’s great traditions.
“It’s hard to pick one, but the pre-race ceremonies standing on the grid with my family hearing ‘Back Home Again in Indiana’ was pretty awesome,” Johnson said.
When NASCAR driver Kurt Busch finished sixth in the 2014 Indy 500, he said the race “will blow you away.”
“Without a doubt,” Johnson said. “Not just the day of the race, but the two weeks we’ve been here. To experience the interaction of the fans and the track, it is a truly special event.
“The family loved it. They had a great time.”
Johnson enjoyed it, but also realized it was a challenge unlike anything he had experienced in racing.
“I really thought we were going to be better in traffic,” Johnson said. “Unfortunately we weren’t as good as we could have been. I made mistakes in my aggression going forward trying to get through and I really had a heck of a time to move on.”
This did not diminish his enjoyment of the event. “It’s amazing,” he said. “It’s the Indianapolis 500. I loved it. I had a great time. Without a doubt, it exceeded my expectations.
“I want to come back next year, definitely.”
Johnson said there is no set date for a deal with Chip Ganassi Racing for 2023. He hopes to have an “understanding” by the fall.
“I definitely know I would approach things differently if I had the chance to go back,” Johnson said. “The reps are reps and they’re always going to help and I know I could do better.”
Johnson injured his hands in a hard crash into the turn 2 wall. X-rays were negative, but his hands were abraded from the steering wheel buttons with several superficial cuts.
“I lost the car from a short slide into Turn 2 and it could have been a gust of wind because I haven’t had a problem there all month.
Johnson doesn’t think he’ll have any problems heading into this weekend’s Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix. It will be the last time the competition will be held on Detroit’s Belle Isle as it moves to downtown Detroit in early 2023.
Because of his disappointing finish, Johnson was surprised to be named the winner of the Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year Award during the Victory Celebration.
The award is based on the following criteria: “The Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year Award should be given to the driver who has produced the best performance among first-time drivers in the Indianapolis 500. Criteria include on-track performance in practice, qualifying and the race, media and fan interaction, sportsmanship and positive influence at the Indy 500.”
Johnson competed against a rookie field that included: Devlin DeFrancesco, Romain Grosjean, Callum Ilott, Kyle Kirkwood, Christian Lundgaard, David Malukas, who was the highest placed rookie in 16th.thu.
Johnson managed to be the second highest qualifying rookie and had a high lap speed in practice. He also led laps 188-189 before making his final pit stop and returning to the field. A few laps later he lost control and crashed after a low approach into a corner.
Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Doug Boles explained the voters’ attitudes when he presented Johnson with the honor.
“It’s based on practice, qualifying and race performance, as well as fan and media interaction, as well as elevating the sport of IndyCar and the Indianapolis 500,” Boles said. “Obviously, you’ve helped elevate the sport and brought a lot of people with you who may not have been paying attention to INDYCAR when you made the transition from NASCAR to the NTT IndyCar Series and this year to the Indianapolis 500.
“Even though you weren’t the top-ranked rookie, the votes came in and Jimmie Johnson is the 2022 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year.”
Johnson said: “What an honour. I didn’t really prepare an acceptance speech because I didn’t think I would get this award.
“I want to thank Carvana and The American Legion for their support. To be 46 and walk away with the Rookie of the Year trophy is pretty humbling, but I’ll take it.”
Johnson had many great memories during the month and summed up his race day experience.
“The racer in me wishes I’d had a more competitive day and wished I hadn’t crashed at the end, drawn a red flag, and made Team 8 (Indy 500 winner Marcus Ericsson) through it all,” Johnson said. “I’m using what I can, but I’ll always have memories of how special it is to be on the grid, to be part of the opening ceremony, to turn down turn 4 and to see that tunnel of all the fans.” It’s a sea of people of all colors, and the next time you pass by, you’re going 230 mph.
“It’s the biggest rush ever.
Jimmie Johnson’s Indy 500 Rookie of the Year Experience: “Greatest Rush Ever” originally appeared on NBCSports.com