Paddock Buzz: Johnson Enjoys ‘Rush’ of First Day

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Jimmie Johnson’s NTT INDYCAR SERIES career is officially underway with his first full day of on-track action Saturday at Barber Motorsports Park complete.

It wasn’t the easiest day for the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion, which is expected from the driver who spent nearly two decades driving stock cars. Johnson, 45, was last in the day’s two practice sessions, posting a best lap of 1 minute, 7.9509 seconds in first session and 1:07.8821 in the second.

Johnson ranged from 1.5 to two seconds behind first place in both sessions in the No. 48 Carvana Chip Ganassi Racing Honda.

In qualifying, Johnson posted a lap time of 1:07.7092, good enough for the 21st starting position – accomplishing his tongue-in-cheek goal of not being last in the starting lineup for Sunday’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama presented by AmFirst (Live coverage starts at 3 p.m. ET on NBC and INDYCAR Radio Network).

It may not be the performance or mentality you would expect from a driver of Johnson’s caliber, but he is taking it in stride. Johnson knows how challenging this series is, and he knows he will not dominate open-wheel cars from day one. With that in mind, Johnson said after qualifying, “The smile’s not going to go away.”

“What an amazing day. Didn’t qualify last, so that was a really good thing, a small victory for me in this journey. Today was full of firsts – red tires (Firestone alternates), qualifying session, race weekend, the different layers that exist. I survived the day, had a lot of fun, and I’m really excited for my first practice tomorrow.

“Just kind of building my way into things,” he said. “What a rush, though. These cars are so physical, so demanding. It’s not two or three laps in, and my tongue is hanging out, panting, just wrestling this monster around the racetrack.

“The fun meter is pegged, to say the least, and I’m very excited to have this opportunity in the Carvana Chip Ganassi Racing Indy car."

Fellow driver Conor Daly saw Johnson after his first practice session and asked how it went. Johnson let out a “Yee-haw!” as he motored by on his scooter.

For Johnson, the day was a dream come true as he pursues his goal of racing in INDYCAR, which dates back to his childhood as he followed his hero, four-time Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge winner Rick Mears. He even got some pointers from the legend today.

Grosjean, McLaughlin Impress as Rookie Campaign Begins

The other INDYCAR newcomers got off to even better starts Saturday.

Romain Grosjean just missed earning a spot in the Firestone Fast Six in his NTT INDYCAR SERIES debut – on his 35th birthday, no less -- and will start seventh in the No. 51 Dale Coyne Racing with RWR Honda.

The veteran of 10 Formula One seasons last started this high in the penultimate race of the 2019 Grand Prix season (at the Interlagos circuit in Sao Paolo, Brazil).

“What a day, seventh in qualifying, that’s clearly above expectations,” Grosjean said. “But being so close to the Fast Six, obviously, I was really hoping we would get in, but it’s still really great.

“We have 90 laps of racing to do, (and) I need to learn tire degradation, fuel saving, refueling, pit stops, how an INDYCAR race goes! So, still a lot to learn tomorrow, but I’m really happy with today.”

Although Grosjean’s family is not on hand, he is wearing a helmet his three children designed.

Scott McLaughlin got his first full INDYCAR season off to a strong start by advancing to the second road of qualifying before settling for the 12th starting position.

The three-time champion of Australia’s V8 Supercars series used two sets of Firestone’s alternate red tires, which are typically faster than the black tires, to advance to the second round. Also a benefit was the helping hand his No. 3 PPG Chevrolet got from the No. 20 crew of Ed Carpenter Racing. When Team Penske’s engine starter didn’t work, ECR offered its equipment to get the car rolling in the final minutes of first-round qualifying.

McLaughlin also has done a lot to help himself, losing 35 pounds in the offseason to become more fit. He entered this weekend’s season-opening event at 180 pounds.

Palou, Ericsson Show Speed in Fast Six

Think it was good to hitch a ride with Chip Ganassi Racing, which last season won its 13th INDYCAR championship with lead driver Scott Dixon capturing his sixth season title? Alex Palou and Marcus Ericsson certainly think so.

Palou, a newcomer to the Indianapolis-based team, and Ericsson, in his second year as a Ganassi driver, joined Dixon in Saturday’s Firestone Fast Six.

Palou will start third in Sunday’s race in the No. 10 NTT DATA Honda. Ericsson will be sixth in the No. 8 Huski Chocolate Honda with Dixon in between them (in fifth in the No. 9 PNC Bank Honda).

Palou’s position was especially impressive given this is first event at Barber Motorsports Park. As an INDYCAR rookie last year, the Spaniard improved his qualifying position in five of the six second chances at a track. At Road America, for example, he qualified 14th for the first race, third in the second race. At the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, he was 20th on the first try, fourth on the second.

Ericsson reached the Firestone Fast Six round – used in road course and street circuit events -- for the first time in his still-young INDYCAR career. His best qualifying effort in this series was fourth at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway, a short oval.

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