Seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson took the motorsport world by surprise this week by announcing that, after his NASCAR retirement, he’ll be partnering with the Chip Ganassi Racing team over in IndyCar with the promise of putting together a solid season of races. And that’s the kind of announcement that the IndyCar series desperately needs.
It isn’t completely surprising: Johnson has been testing Indy cars all year, with his most recent test coming at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course in July. He looked competitive. It was only a matter of time before he was to be announced for a race somewhere along the line.
In a team release, Johnson said the following:
When I tested Chip’s Indy car earlier in the year, it only lit the fire more. I found that I wanted to do it more than ever before… As part of a natural progression, I wanted to publicly show the alignment with Chip Ganassi Racing to kick the sponsorship program into high gear. The goal is to run the full road and street program, and today is a very important first step in accomplishing that goal.
Johnson also noted in an NBC Sports interview that open-wheel racing has been his dream since he was a kid “hanging on the fence of the Long Beach Grand Prix.” Getting behind the wheel gave him a taste of a discipline that he just couldn’t shake.
Team owner Chip Ganassi sounded equally enthused:
It is always difficult to find great drivers but for them to be great guys too makes it even that much more challenging. To pair Jimmie with the likes of Scott Dixon is quite an opportunity. They are truly in rarified air and I think everyone knows by now that ‘I like winners.’ The goal right now is for us to run Jimmie in an Indy car for at least the next couple of seasons, and we want to show people we’re serious about the program. We felt it was important to get the partnership done and start putting the financial building blocks in place to make this a reality. Jimmie’s record speaks for itself and we feel a championship-level driver of his caliber can only make our team better.
As of right now, Johnson doesn’t have a firm race schedule in place. He’s going to need sponsorship for that, but with the announcement that he’s partnering with Chip Ganassi Racing, it’s highly likely that the money will start to materialize.
And if IndyCar knows what’s good for itself, it will start marketing Johnson in order to help him get a sponsorship. American open-wheel racing has struggled for decades, with its popularity waxing and waning. Things have been on the upswing for the past five years, but IndyCar still isn’t going to rival NASCAR or Formula One in terms of viewership. There’s still plenty of work to do.
Talent like Johnson is what the sport needs to revitalize its image in the grand scheme of things. While it’s been exciting to see, say, Fernando Alonso and Danica Patrick heading to one-off events at the Indy 500, it’s been a long time since a successful driver has traded one career path for another. Johnson’s move—and his excitement about it—promises good things. People are still interested in American open-wheel racing, and drivers are now in a place where they feel comfortable forfeiting one decent ride for another in IndyCar.
Added to the intrinsic marketing of Johnson’s move is the fact that the driver still aims to contest NASCAR races. Again, it can only be good for IndyCar to have a former NASCAR driver taking part in a few races and chatting about his experiences in open-wheel racing.
At the moment, Johnson is looking to complete 15 IndyCar events with an emphasis on road and street courses. Prior to the reschedulings as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the IndyCar series had only planned 12 road and street courses for the 2020 season, so it’s possible we could see Johnson taking part in a few oval events along the way.