INDIANAPOLIS — In the final moments before his Indianapolis 500 qualifying run Saturday — the first in his illustrious, two-decade racing career — Jimmie Johnson was reminded of the life he lived a year ago.
Beside the track, right next to where Johnson started his car, sat the NBC pit box. Johnson watched the 2021 500 from that very box, feeling left out of the action. He was a seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion but had just ventured into IndyCar.
In his first time qualifying on the oval at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Johnson turned in a stellar four laps, posting the sixth best average speed during the first day of qualifying for next Sunday’s Indy 500 — outpacing IndyCar greats and former 500 champions Scott Dixon, Will Power, Takuma Sato, Simon Pagenaud, Alexander Rossi and four-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves.
Romain Grosjean’s car had idled in front of Johnson, the back bumper almost touching the nose of Johnson’s Honda. Like Johnson, Grosjean had a long career in racing before joining the IndyCar series, competing in Formula One off and on since 2008. Also like Johnson, he was about to begin his qualifying run for his first Indy 500.
They’re two of the least experienced drivers in the series, and yet both excelled Saturday against drivers with more experience in that particular form of racing. Johnson and Grosjean both did well enough to make it into Sunday’s Fast 12, where the top six drivers will advance with a shot at the pole Sunday afternoon. Grosjean posted a 232,201 average during Day 1 of qualifying, good for ninth.
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“I’m glad to be here. It’s a good experience,” Grosjean said. “There’s a lot going on. It’s great to see that we have so many fans since we started running the practice. The race running is complicated. I watched it from Europe and was like, ‘Yeah, it’s just turning left and being flat out.’ It’s a bit more than that. It’s definitely something that every driver should do in the world.”
A quality first qualifying run was the culmination of a solid week of practice for Johnson. The majority of his IndyCar success has come on ovals, and he has had speeds in the top five among drivers three times since Tuesday.
Johnson is excited to be in Indianapolis and has loved every part of the past week; saying that repeatedly during his press conferences. That’s gone hand-in-hand with his desire to win, and his performance in practice and qualifying have shown that a Johnson pole or victory is well within the realm of possibility.
“I think there are expectations that I put on myself to run better on ovals,” he said. “So to gain that confidence, feel good about things, it’s just been a lot of fun.”
Participating in their first 500s, each could only draw from other series for comparison. Johnson said the qualifying process was more intense than its equivalent at the Daytona 500, which he won twice. Grosjean preferred it to the Monaco Grand Prix’s qualifying process because he had the entire track to himself for his four laps.
But neither had experienced anything similar to the pageantry of the Indy 500. Johnson noticed that his kids seemed scared to watch him, citing the speed of the cars and “energy that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway brings.” His kids were there, in part, to take the traditional family picture after the qualifying run. Grosjean’s family, who live in Switzerland, could n’t make it, so he posed with his engineer and his wife instead.
“I know my kids were booing everyone going after me on TV,” he said. “It’s very bad, but I was very proud of them.”
Indy 500 partial lineup
Here is the Indianapolis 500 lineup for positions 13-33, with Saturday’s four-lap qualifying average, beginning with Row 5 (R=rookie; W=past winner):
13. (18) David Malukas (R), Honda, Dale Coyne Racing with HMD, 231.607
14. (2) Josef Newgarden, Chevrolet, Team Penske, 231580
15. (23) Santino Ferrucci, Chevrolet, Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, 231.508
16. (60) Simon Pagenaud (W), Honda, Meyer Shank Racing, 231,275
17. (11) JR Hildebrand, Chevrolet, AJ Foyt Racing, 231.112
18. (20) Conor Daly, Chevrolet, Ed Carpenter Racing, 230,999
19. (77) Callum Ilott (R), Chevrolet, Juncos Hollinger Racing, 230,916
20. (27) Alexander Rossi (W), Honda, Andretti Autosport, 230,812
21. (15) Graham Rahal, Honda, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, 230,766
22. (24) Sage Karam, Chevrolet, Dreyer & Reinbold, 230,464
23. (98) Marco Andretti, Honda, Andretti Herta Autosport with Marco Curb, 230,345
24. (29) Devlin DeFrancesco (R), Honda, Andretti Steinbrenner Autosport, 230,326
25. (26) Colton Herta, Honda, Andretti Autosport, 230,235
26. (3) Scott McLaughlin, Chevrolet, Team Penske, 230,154
27. (06) Helio Castroneves (W), Honda, Meyer Shank Racing, 229,630
28. (14) Kyle Kirkwood (R), Chevrolet, AJ Foyt Racing, 229,406
29. (4) Dalton Kellett, Chevrolet, AJ Foyt Racing, 228,916
30. (6) Juan Pablo Montoya (W), Chevrolet, Arrow McLaren SP, 228,622
31. (30) Christian Lungaard (R), Honda, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, 227,053
32. (45) Jack Harvey, Honda, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, 226,851
33. (25) Stefan Wilson, Chevrolet, DragonSpeed/Cusick Racing, no speed