Jimmie Johnson is halfway through his maiden IndyCar season, having switched to open wheel cars after retiring from a Hall of Fame-worthy career in NASCAR.
20 seasons and seven championships in stock car racing did not prepare him for the challenges he would face in his unique form of retirement.
Johnson has found himself in the back part of the field in most weekends, but that was not unexpected as he learned how to wrangle the high-downforce cars at the same time he was laying eyes on most of the tracks for the first time.
The 45-year-old admits that this season has been tougher than he imagined, but he’s improving every week and still having a great time while doing it.
“I’ve always been very fair and realistic and honest with myself about challenges I would take on,” said Johnson in a recent media call, “but learning a new track and learning this car all at the same time is a lot to handle.
“My progress I made at the Detroit race from a Saturday race to a Sunday race was measured and everybody can see it and notice it, and I haven’t had that opportunity again in the season.
“Sadly, there is very little testing and very little practice time, which has led to me not having as much track time in the car that I want to really help me develop as a high downforce race car driver.
“Just when the checkered falls I feel like I know where I am on the track, I know how to exploit the most out of the car and the setup, but I’m three days behind – more than that, compared to the other guys.
“It’s going really well, but this has been a bit more of a challenge than I first bargained for.”
Johnson has in the past pointed to the smaller margin of error and the physicality of driving a high-downforce car with no power steering as some of the main differences from his stock car days.
As the season goes on, he has noticed that the areas that have room for improvement have shifted around.
“I would say I seem to be kind of on a circle of sorts, where if you laid out all the challenges that I have, I just kind of work my way around back. The pattern is getting smaller and the deficit is getting smaller as it goes on.
“I can say I feel much more confident with cold tires, bringing tires in, the exit of corners. Those were pretty fearful moments for me in the test sessions that I had before the season.
“But I think right now where I’m leaving the most time on the table is on the brakes, and I’m finding that I’m getting in deep enough into the braking zone, but I’m just over-stopping the car and using a bit too much brake for a little too long.
“As my senses start to adapt to this very short and compact braking zone, I’m starting to develop a feel of how to release the brakes and when and how much speed I can carry to the apex because it’s so much faster than what I did in a [NASCAR] Cup car.
“I’m probably a tenth to two tenths depending on the corner off in these braking zones. Again, the pattern is getting smaller, but it’s really getting down to those fine little nuances.”
Johnson will be on more equal footing for the next race from the streets of Nashville, which will be a brand new circuit for the entire field.