Jimmie Johnson ready to make the most of Indy 500 debut
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Jimmie Johnson was pulled tight by Indianapolis 500 great Dario Franchitti for some last-second encouragement.
Johnson then worked the rope surrounding his car — mobbed with fans, friends and family like no other driver — and hugged and high-fived everyone he could reach. His old NASCAR crew chief Chad Knaus watched from nearby. So did NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Jarrett.
Then came Johnson’s girls. The family that Johnson passionately persuaded to let him chase his boyhood dream and race the Indy 500 couldn’t let him go. Johnson’s two young daughters squeezed hard when they threw their arms around his waist and shoulders.
But daddy had to race.
With that, the seven-time NASCAR champion and one of the greatest drivers in auto racing history strapped on his helmet and slipped inside the 48 car, ready for his rookie race at Indy at 46 years old.
Johnson started 12th Sunday as he tried to join A. J. Foyt and Mario Andretti as the only drivers to win both the Indianapolis 500 and the Daytona 500. Andretti and Tony Stewart, members of Johnson’s former NASCAR team and even his dad, who worked the race as Johnson’s spotter, all sent video messages of support.
“I wish I had some advice to you that would be useful but you know what to do,” Andretti said.
Johnson walked out to driver introductions hand-in-hand with his two young daughters, Lydia and Evie. Johnson’s ovation from roughly 300,000 fans was topped only by the one for four-time Indy 500 champ Helio Castroneves.
Johnson’s wife, Chani, joined the family at the 48 car. Franchitti, the three-time Indy 500 champion, served as Johnson’s driving coach at Chip Ganassi Racing and appeared emotional as he hugged Johnson.
Johnson flashed a thumbs-up for a final photo for his helmet artist, Troy Lee.
“Tomorrow, my childhood dream becomes a reality,” Johnson tweeted Saturday.
Johnson partnered with close friend and country music star Blake Shelton to honor family members who served in the military. Johnson’s helmet features a red, white and blue paint scheme along with black-and-white photos of his grandfather and Shelton’s brother and father.
“Any time Jimmie Johnson asks you to do something, you’re going to do it anyway,” Shelton said as he watched the opening laps. “But this was extra special.”
Johnson won 83 times in NASCAR, claimed a record-tying seven NASCAR championships and could have walked away from racing after 2020 with his legacy secure.
Johnson, a four-time winner at the Brickyard in NASCAR, just couldn’t shake Indy.
He convinced his wife that the cockpit-protecting aeroscreen IndyCar added in 2020 had dramatically improved safety concerns surrounding the drivers’ exposed heads. His family was on board, and so was his sponsor and Ganassi.
Johnson is one of seven Indy 500 rookies in the field this year, and should he win rookie of the race, he’d be the oldest in the 106 editions of the Indy 500. Lyn St. James was 45 when she became the first woman to win Indy 500 top rookie honors in 1992.
It’s rare for rookies to win, though Juan Pablo Montoya (2000), Castroneves (2001) and Alexander Rossi (2016) have accomplished the feat.
Johnson has the worst starting spot of the five Ganassi qualifiers and teammate Scott Dixon started on the pole. But little of that mattered once the green flag dropped. Johnson has been steadfast in his belief that to win, he first had to finish.
And as he said goodbye to his family, it was clear he was off to a pretty good start.
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