BY JENNA FRYER
MADISON, Illinois — The focus at IndyCar is clearly on the seven-driver championship race heading into the final oval race of the season. But one more lap on the racetrack also means Jimmie Johnson has the chance of his first series win.
The seven-time NASCAR Champion added the ovals to his schedule this year, his second since joining IndyCar, and he’s steadily improved. Johnson finished a career-best fifth place last month at the Iowa Speedway Oval, up one place from the start of the season at Texas Motor Speedway.
Now he has a chance Saturday night at World Wide Technology Raceway, a 1.25-mile oval outside of St. Louis where Johnson has previously raced three times.
only problem? Johnson cannot remember two of those three races.
“I remember my first race here, I think 1998,” Johnson said on Friday. “I don’t remember being here two other times… which is kind of weird. I had an argument with my social media team — ‘I’ve only ridden here once,’ and they were like, ‘We have these stats that show that you’ve been here three times.'”
All three of Johnson’s previous starts at Gateway were early in his career in NASCAR’s now second-tier Xfinity Series. He finished 15th in his debut race, then 13th in 2000 and 14th in 2001.
But he has good reason to only remember the 1998 race: It was the start of his NASCAR career and Johnson was desperate for his big break.
“Myself, Ryan Newman and Adam Petty were all fighting for this spot,” Johnson recalled. “Adam Petty sat in the stands and watched me. We’re literally fighting for this ride. I have more memories of that experience than the other two.”
For the record, neither of them got the ride. The seat instead went to Mike Dillon, father of current Cup drivers Austin and Ty Dillon, and it was more than a year before Johnson finally got a full-time ride.
He made it into the Cup Series in 2002 and never looked back, winning 83 Cup races and a record-breaking seven championships.
Johnson switched to IndyCar in 2021 but skipped the ovals, even those tracks were his specialty in NASCAR. He added the ovals to run a full season this year, and the tracks unsurprisingly were the scene of Johnson’s strongest runs since the switch.
He didn’t drive an Indy car at Gateway until first practice on Friday, but had tested a Cup car at the track before it was resurfaced. So does he go into Saturday night thinking he can win?
“I want to. I don’t know if it’s fair to think I understand it until I get on the track,” Johnson said. “I think when I look at my performance on the oval I seem to run well when there are multiple lanes. Until I get out of there, it’s hard to tell.”
Just 59 points separate the top seven drivers going into Saturday night’s race, the first of three that will decide the IndyCar Championship. Mathematically, however, 11 drivers can still win the title.
Leaders believe the numbers are a testament to IndyCar’s overall strength.
“There’s no series like it in the world,” said Will Power, who has a six-point lead over Scott Dixon. “You have to look at qualifying every week, you have to look at the time gap from first to last every week. There is no series as close, no series as tough as this one.”
The points lead has changed five times in the last 10 races and Indianapolis 500 winner Marcus Ericsson controlled the points for six races after his win. But consistency has been rewarded, as evidenced by Josef Newgarden, whose four wins are double any other rider in the field despite being fourth overall and not leading the points since April.
“In a way it’s undervalued,” Newgarden said. “You can be with any team and have a chance to win a race if you show up every single weekend. This isn’t just a marketing line – it’s a reality. It’s simply the best championship you can find on the planet, with the top line riders in the world.”
KNOW YOUR NEIGHBORS
With so much at stake it is essential for title contenders to be aware of their surroundings and who will be driving alongside them on Saturday night.
Reigning IndyCar Champion Alex Palou saw firsthand last year how this race can disrupt a title run. He was destroyed by Rinus VeeKay which cost him the points lead.
Though he rallied by winning the next race to retake the points lead and claim his first title, Palou understands that few at Gateway want to give up an inch.
“I wouldn’t ride the championship contenders (hard) just because they’re risking something and you don’t if you’re not a championship contender,” Palou said. “But I don’t expect people to treat us any differently. The good thing is that there are still so many cars fighting for this championship that everyone will drive the same way.”
Those in the title hunt aren’t ready to admit anything.
“I think you deal with them more aggressively because you know they probably have to back down,” said Alexander Rossi. “At the same time, you certainly don’t want to be the guy who hits her. You are almost more aggressive and cautious. It is hard to explain.”