Johnson reintroduced to WWTR
Excuse Jimmie Johnson if he forgot a few races in his decorated motorsport career. He has recorded over 800 stock car starts and now 26 in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES.
So while the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion made his way to World Wide Technology Raceway for this weekend’s Bommarito Automotive Group 500 presented by Axalta and Valvoline, he couldn’t remember how many times he ran here. He thought the answer was once, but was told that was incorrect.
“I was in an argument with my social media team,” Johnson said. “(They said), ‘We have these stats that show you’ve been here three times.'”
All three were part of NASCAR’s Xfinity Series, with records showing finishes of 15th in 1998 with Tad Geschickter’s team and finishes of 13th and 14th in 2000 and 2001, respectively, with Herzog Motorsports.
“I remember my first race here, I think, in 1998 or 1999 in (no) 59 Busch, (but) I don’t remember being here the other two times, in Herzog (no ) 92 car, which is kind of weird,” Johnson said. “I remember car 59 because myself, Ryan Newman and Adam Petty were all fighting for that seat. Adam Petty was sitting in the stands looking at me.
Johnson also tested a Cup Series car just before the track was repaved, and he was in a simulator trying out the 1.25-mile oval in NTT INDYCAR SERIES configuration.
On Friday, Johnson qualified 21st of 26 for Saturday’s 260-lap race. Live coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on USA Network, Peacock Premium and INDYCAR Radio Network.
Johnson posted his best NTT INDYCAR SERIES results at oval tracks — he finished sixth at Texas Motor Speedway and 11th and fifth in both races at Iowa Speedway — but this track might not suit him as well as those.
“When I look at my performances on oval (in this series), if there are multiple lanes, I seem to be running well,” he said. “Indy is a single-file track, (and) I couldn’t get through and use my experience like I had hoped.
“Last year’s race (at WWTR) was like about 10 or 15 laps where there were a few lanes and then it quickly went single file. Until I was there (for the race Saturday), it’s hard to say.
As part of post-qualifying practice, nine riders invested 30 minutes of driving in the high lane of the track to add track rubber to help develop the second groove. A similar session was offered at Texas Motor Speedway to reasonable reviews, and there were 284 passes for the position.
Johnson also noted that he tested at Iowa Speedway before the doubleheader; this event offered him no such luxury.
“Here I think I’m at 50 laps,” he said after qualifying. “I just need more laps to find my rhythm here.”
New contract, new day for Castroneves
As the NTT INDYCAR SERIES returns to action with the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 presented this weekend by Axalta and Valvoline, it would be wise to remember which driver knows the World Wide Technology Raceway as well as anyone. His name is Hélio Castroneves.
From a track perspective, the 47-year-old Brazilian hasn’t heard much this season at Meyer Shank Racing, with his #06 Honda AutoNation/SiriusXM further up the standings than he’d like – he’s 18th after 14 of 17 races. But it’s a track where Castroneves has often excelled, winning the 2003 race and finishing second twice. In six starts at the 1.25-mile track in Madison, Illinois, he has never finished outside the top 10, and that’s with three different teams.
And ovals have also been his thing during his long career, with 16 of his 31 wins at such tracks.
“Very good,” Castroneves said after remembering those facts. “I really appreciate that.”
With a contract extension in hand for 2023, Castroneves is hoping for a milder Saturday night than he experienced when he won 20 years ago. In that race with Team Penske, his car was plagued with an assortment of dash issues—”no info on my dash, to be honest, absolutely blank”—and yet he still delivered.
“Technology helps sometimes, but that day technology didn’t do anything for me,” he said with a laugh. “I remember that even when shifting into high gear, the headlights wouldn’t work. I had to do everything on time – literally the old-fashioned way.
Castroneves has challenged the difficulties of this season to build a base for the team which has moved to two full-time cars this season. Yes, he has had to adjust to the downforce changes created by installing the aeroscreen since he last rode some of these tracks in 2017, the last time he competed in all races in the series. Also consider that this weekend’s event at WWTR is only his second at the track since 2003.
But Castroneves thinks MSR is building something special with him and 2019 series champion Simon Pagenaud, his former running mate at Team Penske.
“Look, I’ll just put it this way,” he said. “When you start a business, (and) learned a bit from Roger (Penske) here, sometimes you start a (car) dealership (and) the first year, you lose money. It’s kind of like that in the racing team.
“Sometimes you form a team (and) even if the team has experience or shares information with another group, it takes time to go through the process, to put everything in place. Some people come and go, so it takes time. You just have to trust the process.
“I am convinced that we will get our deserved result, and I hope that this weekend we will succeed.”
“The Wall of Smack”
WWTR officials decorated the wall at Turn 2, calling it “The Wall of Smack”.
Several NTT INDYCAR SERIES drivers have hit it over the years, including Alexander Rossi last year in Andretti Autosport’s #27 NAPA AUTO PARTS/AutoNation Honda.
Rossi was asked about the sign and initially tried to downplay it. But he confessed.
“I probably know more because I crashed there,” he said.
Felix Rosenqvist (#7 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet) came close to it during NTT P1 Award qualifying but avoided it.
Josef Newgarden (#2 PPG Team Penske Chevrolet) said of the signage, “Love it. It could provide an incredibly ironic place to have a wreck. I’ll try not to hit it, (but) I’m sure people would like it if I did.
- Graham Rahal was the fastest rider overall in final practice Friday night, clocking a 177.728 mph lead lap in the No. 15 Honda iPacket. Rahal will start 13th on Saturday. Johnson spun into the pits with about a minute left in practice, brushing the wall with his nose.
- Newgarden, who will start third, is aiming for a third consecutive win at this track. The last time an INDYCAR driver won three in a row at any of the circuits on the 2022 calendar was Sébastien Bourdais at Long Beach (2005-07). Colton Herta will have a chance for three straight wins at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca with the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey on September 11.
- The top seven drivers in the standings earned the top seven spots for Saturday’s race, and fittingly, series points leader Will Power (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet) will start on pole position.
- Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge winner Marcus Ericsson (#8 Bryant Honda) secured his highest starting position of his NTT INDYCAR SERIES career. His previous record was third last year at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.
- Andretti Autosport’s Romain Grosjean, who qualified ninth in the #28 NAPA AUTO PARTS/DHL Honda, will start the race in 18th position due to an engine change not approved prior to this event. On oval tracks, the penalty for such an action is nine positions; on road courses and urban circuits, it is six positions.
- Rookie Devlin DeFrancesco qualified 10th and will start ninth due to Grosjean’s penalty, making it his best starting effort of the season. The rider’s best precedent in the #29 Andretti Steinbrenner Autosport Honda PowerTap was 15th in Race 2 at Iowa Speedway.
- The NTT INDYCAR SERIES will continue a tradition at WWTR by offering a pair of three-wide “Salute to Indy” parade laps. Drivers from positions 17 to 24 will run along the first eight rows, leaving drivers from positions 25 and 26 to form row 9. Coming to the green flag, cars will return to rows of two based on qualifying performance.
- Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires points leader Linus Lundqvist, who drives the #26 HMD Motorsports entry with Dale Coyne Racing, earned his sixth pole of the season on Friday at WWTR averaging two laps of 160.259 mph. It will be the seventh time Lundqvist has started at the front of the pack, as he also had the top spot on the grid earlier this month in Nashville, where the field was determined by entrants’ points after qualifying ended. Benjamin Pedersen (#24 Global Racing Group with HMD Motorsports) finished second at 160.124 mph. The 75-lap race is scheduled for 4:20 p.m. ET on Peacock Premium, INDYCAR Live! and the INDYCAR radio network. Lundqvist has won five series races this season and holds a 95-point championship lead.
- Salvador De Alba of Jay Howard Driver Development led Indy Pro 2000 testing on Friday at WWTR with a fastest lap of 140.471 mph. Saturday’s 45-lap race is scheduled for 3:15 p.m. ET.