IndyCar: How Jimmie Johnson’s oval debut almost didn’t happen

Jimmie Johnson, Chip Ganassi Racing, IndyCar, Indy 500 - Mandatory Credit: Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports
Jimmie Johnson, Chip Ganassi Racing, IndyCar, Indy 500 - Mandatory Credit: Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports /

Last year, Jimmie Johnson explained why driving in IndyCar oval races wasn’t as simple as flipping a switch and hopping in the car, even if he had wanted to. Yet here he is in 2022, set to compete in the Indy 500.

There was a point last spring when in almost every interview he did, seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion and rookie IndyCar driver Jimmie Johnson was asked if he was ever going to run the IndyCar oval races, specifically the Indy 500, at some point in the future.

Johnson had signed a deal with Chip Ganassi Racing to drive the #48 Honda in the road and street course races beginning in the 2021 season. Meanwhile, 2004 IndyCar champion and 2013 Indy 500 winner Tony Kanaan had signed a deal to drive the car in the oval races.

But despite past safety concerns, Johnson made clear that he was not ruling out competing in the oval races, including the Indy 500.

Johnson had called for IndyCar to abandon oval tracks after Dan Wheldon’s death in a crash at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in 2011, but a decade later, he felt that the sport had taken huge steps to enhance driver safety, most notably and recently with the introduction of the aeroscreen cockpit protection device in 2020.

But at this time last year, it wasn’t as simple as him wanting an oval drive and getting an oval drive, even though sponsorship wasn’t necessarily an issue, considering Carvana’s substantial investment into the sport and on his car since his arrival.

“There are a lot of factors in play there,” Johnson told Beyond the Flag when he spoke to us ahead of last year’s Indy 500. “I’m a little bit open to it and feel like a test session on an oval would be the next step for me.”

The big issue would have been Kanaan’s contract. Both Johnson and Kanaan signed multi-year deals for their respective new roles, so in order for Johnson to run the oval races in 2022, he would have effectively needed to jump in and take Kanaan’s seat.

“I have an arrangement with Tony Kanaan to drive the car for the next two years on the ovals while I drive the road and street courses,” he explained. “So there’s a lot to it. It’s not a simple fix if I decide that ‘Hey, I want to give it a try and go.’ Again, there are a lot of steps in the process.”

Now let’s skip ahead to where we are 12 months later.

Johnson has since gotten his oval test session — multiple, fact. And now he is the full-time driver of the #48 Honda, not just the driver of the car in the road and street course races.

But what about Kanaan?

Kanaan gave up his oval deal with Chip Ganassi Racing to allow Johnson to become a full-time driver. Yet he also finds himself back at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the 106th running of the Indy 500.

The fan-favorite proceeded to find the additional sponsorship necessary to be able to run a fifth Chip Ganassi Racing entry, the #1 Honda, for this year’s running of the 200-lap “Greatest Spectacle in Racing” at the four-turn, 2.5-mile (4.023-kilometer) oval in Speedway, Indiana.

And so far, the new arrangement has worked out quite well for both drivers.

Johnson finished in sixth place in his IndyCar oval debut at Texas Motor Speedway in March before a 12th place Indy 500 qualifying effort last weekend. Kanaan, meanwhile, qualified in sixth for his 20th Indy 500 attempt and his ninth attempt at becoming a two-time winner.

Next. Indy 500 - Full starting lineup. dark

Tune in to NBC at 11:00 a.m. ET this Sunday, May 29 for the live broadcast of the 106th running of the Indy 500 from Indianapolis Motor Speedway. If you have not yet begun a free trial of FuboTV, now would be a great time to do so!