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Joe Skibinski | Penske Entertainment

Jimmie Johnson carries champion’s confidence into Indy 500 debut

SPEEDWAY, Ind. — From a series of satellite television interviews and small-town Indiana radio reports to a press conference that seemed to magnetically draw the entire room of reporters to him, Jimmie Johnson made the media rounds at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Thursday with that same smile and easy air about him that characterized his storied NASCAR career.

All that remains is Saturday’s traditional public driver meeting and “500 Parade” through downtown Indianapolis before Johnson straps into his No. 48 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda to make his Indianapolis 500 debut — the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion now an Indy 500 rookie.

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He is that rare rookie, however, that by so many accounts is a legitimate Indy 500 race favorite — a designation he’s proudly embraced and also made good on countless times in his legendary NASCAR career from 2002-2019.

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James Black | Penske Entertainment

“I do really believe he’s got a genuine shot at winning because he’s got so much experience on ovals and in long races,” said two-time Indianapolis 500 champion Juan Pablo Montoya, who raced against Johnson in the NASCAR Cup Series, too.

“He knows how to go through the good and the bad in a long race, and other people just don’t. And he’s got a good car. Right now, you have to say the good cars, based on speed, are the Ganassi cars and he’s one of them.”

“I know Jimmie and I’m pretty sure he’s going to be there [at the end].”

For NASCAR fans — from those who celebrated his 83 wins to those who complained he won too much — the 46-year-old Johnson’s presence and the high expectations he’s earned this month have made his high-profile Indy attempt a significant historical time in the sport.

Many of his former NASCAR teammates and competitors say they will be watching the Indy 500 a little more intently, even as they prepare to top off the Memorial Day race weekend with NASCAR’s famed Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway (6 p.m. ET, FOX, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

“On top of being extraordinarily talented, Jimmie is highly adaptable,” Johnson’s NASCAR team owner Rick Hendrick said. “I’ve always said that he’s like having a computer behind the wheel. He analyzes everything. It’s a constant process of learning and adjusting until all of a sudden it clicks, and you can’t beat him.

“We’ve seen Jimmie do it time and again, and I think the approach combined with the mentality of a champion is why he’ll be successful at whatever he sets his mind to.

“The transition [from NASCAR to IndyCar] … has proven to be a monumental challenge for the best drivers in the world, but Jimmie is wired differently than most. He certainly doesn’t have anything to prove, but I believe he’ll open a lot of eyes. And I can’t wait to watch him do it.”

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Joe Skibinski | Penske Entertainment

A SPECIAL GUEST APPEARANCE

The man who led Johnson’s seven title runs as a crew chief at Hendrick Motorsports, Chad Knaus, will be trackside for his very first Indy 500 this weekend; a special guest of Johnson and his wife Chandra. And not surprisingly, he agrees with Hendrick’s high expectations.

“I’m proud to have the opportunity to be there and really proud and excited to see him compete,” said Knaus, now Hendrick’s vice president of competition.

“In my opinion, he showed his value on ovals at Texas — and that was his first oval race — and I think he has a legitimate opportunity [to win at Indianapolis],” Knaus said of Johnson’s sixth-place IndyCar Series oval debut at Texas Motor Speedway earlier this month. It was his first top 10 since transitioning to IndyCar competition in 2021.

“He’s actually got more drafting experience than anyone else in that series [IndyCar], if you think about it. Of course, there’s going to be somewhat different characteristics, different car, and whatnot, but he’s going to understand that, I believe, better than any of those other guys. And I think it puts him in a unique situation where he could easily out-perform a lot of folks there.”

23XI Racing driver Kurt Busch has a unique firsthand perspective on Johnson’s quest. The 2004 NASCAR Cup Series champion made his only IndyCar start in the 2014 Indianapolis 500 — the last NASCAR driver to complete “The Double” — competing in both the Indy 500 and then the Coca-Cola 600 on the same day. Busch won Indy’s coveted Rookie of the Race award with a sixth-place finish but was sidelined with an engine failure later that day at Charlotte.

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He sees no reason to expect anything less than success for Johnson, who turned in top-five practice laps in most sessions and easily advanced into the final qualifying session. A slight miscue on his pole position attempt, however, means Johnson will start 12th in the traditional 33-car field. All four of his Ganassi teammates also advanced to final qualifying with Scott Dixon earning pole position.

“My enthusiasm is way up this year because Jimmie’s running and just to support him as a fellow NASCAR guy,” Busch said. “I remember the support everyone in this NASCAR community gave to me in 2014.

“It’s been fun just texting back and forth with him. What am I going to coach him about? But at the same time, I feel like I can throw in little things as a friend and someone who experienced it. He has so much IndyCar experience now and so much experience at that oval. That’s what I told him, ‘Go use all your NASCAR experience at that oval, blend it with the IndyCar experience you have now, and the sky’s the limit.’

“That’s where he can use his years of experience,” Busch continued. “He’s a seven-time champion in NASCAR. He’s got a ton of IndyCar starts now. He should be a legitimate threat and people should look at him that way.”

Certainly Johnson’s stock-car record at Indy indicates as much. He has as many Indianapolis Motor Speedway trophies as anyone in Sunday’s Indy 500 field, winning four times in NASCAR’s Brickyard 400. In 18 starts on the Indy oval, Johnson has earned six top-five finishes and led more than 300 laps.

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Montoya (two) and defending Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves (four) are the only multi-time winners in the field this week. And as with Montoya, Castroneves said he fully expects Johnson to be a factor.

TONIGHT SHOW ENCORE?

For his part, Johnson acknowledges both the high hopes and a busy schedule. He appeared on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon this week and joined fellow drivers as part of a national Indianapolis 500 promotional tour — all before his many press opportunities at The Speedway.

From the time he announced he would compete in the Indy 500, he said, he has received constant support and encouragement from the NASCAR world. He’s aware of the SiriusXM NASCAR Radio listeners who call in and say they are more curious about Indy this year because of Johnson. And he’s flattered that in many ways his two racing worlds have merged in such a positive manner.

Even his father Gary, a constant presence at Johnson’s NASCAR races, will be spotting from Turn 3.

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“I’ve had a ton of support, a bunch of text messages from my friends in the NASCAR world,” Johnson with a smile. “And honestly a lot of fans, at the track here over the last week or so have said, ‘We’re NASCAR fans, we’re just here to check out the track and your IndyCar experience,’ so that’s been really neat to see.”

His team owner Ganassi is a bit restrained in declaring his team the absolute favorite. But the four-time Indianapolis 500-winning owner sure likes his chances this week.

“I think in terms of a confidence level, we’re as confident as any other team right now and I think we should be more confident because our cars seem to be good,” said Ganassi, adding “we couldn’t be happier with the job he’s doing.”

“I don’t look at it as him being a celebrity, but I look at him as being a good guy that’s a good teammate that can win the race.”

That’s the prevailing feeling in Indianapolis. And if support and fans were enough to secure the victory, Johnson will be wearing the traditional winner’s wreath and gulping the victory milk this Sunday afternoon.

“He’s living a life a lot of race car drivers have always wanted to live and not many get the opportunity,” Knaus said. “So I’m extremely proud of him.”

“He’s got an opportunity. He’s got good equipment. There’s a lot of energy around it. And we know how talented he is. Is he capable of winning? 100 percent.”

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Chris Owens | Penske Entertainment