Despite crashing out in the closing laps, former NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson was voted this year’s Indy 500 Rookie of the Year.
No driver got more media coverage leading up to this year’s running of the Indy 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway than seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson, and it stands to reason. Johnson was making his debut in the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing” behind the wheel of the #48 Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing.
He was considered a contender to win the 106th running of the 200-lap race around the four-turn, 2.5-mile (4.023-kilometer) oval in Speedway, Indiana after posting an impressive sixth place finish in his IndyCar oval debut at Texas Motor Speedway in March and earning four Brickyard 400 victories during his Cup Series career.
However, despite advancing to the second round of qualifying and starting on the outside of the fourth row in 12th place, Johnson was never really able to get it going on race day.
He led two laps late, but only because he still needed to make his final pit stop. Running in 24th place as the last car on the lead lap, he crashed in turn two with six laps remaining. He was officially scored in 28th.
Yet he was voted Indy 500 Rookie of the Year by a “panel of judges, which is composed of selected members of the media, historians, and a handful of other experts.”
While it may be a stretch to say that he was always going to win no matter what the outcome was simply because of name recognition and pre-race hype, it was always going to take a heroic effort by one of the other rookies to take it from him.
Even that may not have been enough, based on history. For all intents and purposes, once the starting lineup was set, all Johnson really needed to do was show up.
Four rookie drivers finished the race on the lead lap, led by Dale Coyne Racing with HMD Motorsports’ David Malukas in 16th place. A.J. Foyt Enterprises’ Kyle Kirkwood finished in 17th with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Christian Lundgaard in 18th and Andretti Autosport’s Devlin DeFrancesco in 20th.
The other two rookies, Juncos Hollinger Racing’s Callum Ilott and Andretti Autosport’s Romain Grosjean, also crashed out earlier in the race — and also in turn two.
Dale Coyne Racing are, of course, referring to the robbery of Ed Jones in 2017 with their “once again” remark. He finished in third place while Rookie of the Year Fernando Alonso was scored in 24th after a late engine failure.
But the two-time Formula 1 world champion was at least in contention to win earlier, having led 27 laps. With that being said, Jones was running a few spots ahead of him when he was forced to retire, so with his third place finish, he too deserved to win the award.
Many have referenced the fact that the Indy 500 Rookie of the Year Award isn’t guaranteed to go to the highest finishing driver (obviously) and the fact that there are many other factors taken into consideration, including how one performs throughout practice and qualifying and then in the race itself. Media and fan interaction, plus a “positive influence on the Indy 500”, are also factored in.
The main argument is that it’s “about the full month”, not just the 200-lap race.
But Malukas, the youngest driver in the field, fit the bill on all of that, doing far more than he was asked to do away from the race track.
As for “full month” performance, Johnson wasn’t even the highest qualifying rookie. That honor went to Grosjean, who qualified a row ahead of Johnson in ninth place. And Johnson only outqualified Malukas by one position.
Malukas had the best qualifying and finishing average (14.5) of all rookies. Additionally, Lundgaard, Kirkwood, and DeFrancesco all made up spots from where they started. Lundgaard led the charge by making up 13 positions from his 31st place starting spot, with Kirkwood moving up 11 spots from 28th and DeFrancesco making up four from 24th.
They didn’t drop 12 places each and then wreck at the end — and none of them had four teammates slated for top five finishes, either.
All in all, it would be a lot easier if everyone admitted that Jimmie Johnson won the award because he is Jimmie Johnson, instead of making up ridiculous excuses as to why Malukas didn’t.
Yes, it’s impressive what he has done, going from IndyCar to NASCAR after nearly two decades of stock car dominance and trying something new this late in his career.
And it’s impressive that he took on the challenge of oval racing after previously stating that IndyCar had no business racing on ovals due to safety concerns after Dan Wheldon’s death. There is no denying that.
But as to why NASCAR Cup Series wins and championships should matter in an IndyCar race, you’ve lost me on that one. If they did, a 28th place finish, which wouldn’t have been much higher even without the wreck, doesn’t happen. And Johnson would have a lot more than a single top 16 finish in 18 career IndyCar starts.
Even Johnson knows that. It’s why he took on the new challenge after 19 years in the Cup Series. The voters? Apparently not so much.
And by the way, if it’s really “about the full month”, shouldn’t Scott Dixon’s likeness be on the Borg Warner Trophy for the second time instead of Marcus Ericsson’s for a first?
He took the pole position with a four-lap record pole run, his fifth all-time, and he led a race-high 95 laps, the sixth time he’s done so, to became the Indy 500’s all-time lap leader.
He finished 21st thanks to an unforced error.
But, “full month”, right? Get him the milk!
Maybe the voters think that Johnson winning the award is going to attract more talent from other series to the Indy 500 in the near future. Alonso winning the award backs that up as well.
I guess there’d be nothing wrong with doing that, but why completely disrespect IndyCar’s own Road to Indy ladder (yet again) in the process?
We’d be remiss not to mention the fact that Johnson’s crash could very well have cost Chip Ganassi Racing the win, on a day Chip Ganassi’s team, which had inexplicably not won the race since 2012, were the clear favorites to win but shot themselves in the foot in every possible way leading up to the final few laps.
It led to a red flag with four laps remaining and a restart with two. When the crash happened, teammate Marcus Ericsson was leading the race by more than two and a half seconds over Arrow McLaren SP’s Pato O’Ward.
Ericsson hung on to win after a two-lap shootout with O’Ward, and Tony Kanaan, who is ahead of Johnson in the standings with just one start compared to Johnson’s six, finished in third place, giving Ganassi two of the top three spots even after earlier troubles involving favorites Dixon and Alex Palou.
I’m sure that some will chalk this up to nothing more than mere complaints about Johnson competing in IndyCar (despite ample favorable — and deserving — coverage ahead of time). It’s your choice to ignore the reality of the situation.
But the only thing that justifying Johnson being selected as the Indy 500 Rookie of the Year is actually doing is giving more credibility to the critics and haters who have been saying all along that this was nothing more than a publicity stunt. Wrong as they may be, that support is only helping to back up that argument, because on paper, that’s what this vote amounts to.