NEWTON, Iowa – Jimmie Johnson has grown accustomed to having “given way” to his teammates but declined to yield Sunday en route to a career-best IndyCar finish – even with a championship at stake.
After battling with Marcus Ericsson tooth and nail for more than 50 laps around Iowa Speedway, Johnson finally nosed ahead of his Chip Ganassi Racing teammate – and the IndyCar points leader – for fifth place.
Though it was “a really special day” for the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion, Johnson said he was motivated to earn his first top five because he felt he should have passed another teammate earlier on the way to a breakthrough podium finish.
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“I’ve raced my teammates with the most respect that I possibly can,” Johnson told NBC Sports. “Every race I’ve been in, I’ve just given way, and that was really the first time I fought for position, and it was because I felt like I should have been up there passing (Scott Dixon, who finished fourth). I made a mistake and got up in the marbles, and I really felt a podium was in our reach, but today, I had it in me. I raced everybody clean and hard, and that was just had an awesome day.”
After impressing his rivals by leading 19 laps and rallying for 11th after a Lap 16 spin Saturday, Johnson put on an even steadier show in his No. 48 Dallara-Honda on the 0.894-mile oval.
Even Ericsson couldn’t be upset with his teammate despite losing two points in the standings on Johnson’s late pass (the Indy 500 winner still leads the championship by eight points over Will Power, Sunday’s runner-up).
“(Johnson) has a couple of more oval races than me under his belt,” Ericsson, who raced in road racing-based F1 before IndyCar, said with a smile. “I think that’s what I was thinking when he was battling me. All the time I was trying to sort of make him go in my dirty air. Every time I looked in my mirror, he was inside, out, inside, out. Oh, my God. Stay behind me, please, dirty air.
“No, it was really fun. I knew that it would be a clean fight and a hard fight. I think that’s what we did for pretty much a long time there. He went up in the gray there once. I got the position back. Let’s go again. He was just a bit too strong for me today. He deserved the top-five finish.”
It was a reversal of fortune for Johnson, who typically lags behind his Ganassi teammates on road and street courses but quickly has gotten acclimated to ovals in his first full season in IndyCar.
After a sixth place March 20 at Texas Motor Speedway in his oval debut, Johnson had a strong May at Indianapolis Motor Speedway until crashing late in the Indy 500. He will have one more shot at an oval podium this season in the Aug. 20 race at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway.
Johnson said Iowa was the closest approximation to the feel he had in NASCAR’s premier series, where 82 of his 83 career wins were on ovals.
“I’m understanding how these cars reward aggression, the confidence it takes to having yourself and the car that’s going to stick,” Johnson said. “The faster you go, the more downforce these cars create. It takes a lot of energy to turn these tires on and make them perform like they need to.
“I just think I’ve been on the soft side of this since I’ve ever sat in a car. The ovals feel more natural to me and I’m able to find my confidence, push the car, have the downforce and the tire work for me. But the street and road courses, I’m making gains. Unfortunately they’re not as obvious as what you can see here on the ovals. But I continue to make gains. Just enjoying driving these little rocket ships around. It’s a lot of fun. Every time I climb out, I just shake my head how hard you can drive these cars, the speed you can carry, the aggression you can drive with. They’re really fun cars to drive.”
With an IndyCar-NASCAR doubleheader weekend looming on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course this coming weekend, Johnson is hoping some of those stock-car lessons in turning left finally might apply to right turns, too. In 20 starts on road and street courses, Johnson’s best finish is 16th at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course three weeks ago.
“When I think of steering wheel inputs, where you use your feet, these cars are so pointy and react so quickly, I’ve been very delicate with the car,” he said. “But (at Iowa), the inputs that you drive the car with were much like a stock car. You just wrestle the thing around, force the steering wheel to it, jump on the gas and go.
“It really reminded me of a Cup car and the aggression. Maybe subconsciously I’ve learned something, learned something I can apply to the street and road courses. … Next weekend will be fun. I know I have a lot of (NASCAR) friends that will like to come see the IndyCar paddock.”
Jimmie Johnson earns career-best IndyCar finish after hard fight with teammate Ericsson originally appeared on NBCSports.com