The Ganassi precedent Johnson is set to follow


10 Sep 2020

Jimmie Johnson has never shied away from his desire to race in IndyCar once he’s finally done with his stellar stock car racing career.

Now with his time in NASCAR edging ever-closer to its end, the seven-time Cup series champion has announced a two-year deal with Chip Ganassi Racing that will see him race for the legendary open wheel outfit on road and street courses, should all-important funding be secured.

It may seem a wild move for a 44-year-old veteran who hasn’t won a NASCAR race for over three years, but a quick look back through Ganassi’s roll of honour will show that such switches are something of a party piece for the team.

Juan Pablo Montoya was one of American open wheel racing’s brightest talents in the late 1990s. After winning the 1998 Formula 3000 title in Europe, he moved Stateside the following year and immediately won the Champ Car title with Ganassi.

The title defence in 2000 didn’t exactly go to plan, but he did win the Indianapolis 500 at his first attempt – the event then being the crown jewel event of the Champ Car-rivalling Indy Racing League series.

But then Formula 1 came calling. All during his US spell Montoya had been a test driver for Williams, and was signed to drive for the team from 2001-2004. He won four times during that spell, twice finishing third in the championship. A move to McLaren for 2005 yielded a further two wins, but title success still evaded him, and by the midpoint of 2006, the Montoya-Ganassi romance had been rekindled and the Colombian was on his way to NASCAR.

While IndyCar and F1 are broadly similar, hence why Montoya was able to be a frontrunner in both, stock car racing was a whole different ball game. In a seven-year spell, Montoya only won twice at the top level, both wins coming on road courses – he also won a road course race in Mexico in the second-tier Busch series in 2007.

Montoya’s first NASCAR win came in the Busch Series in Mexico City – Credit: Chris McGrath/Getty Images for NASCAR

Around the same time Montoya made his surprise switch to NASCAR, Dario Franchitti was finally winning his first IndyCar title and first Indy 500 with Andretti Green Racing. But with both big boxes ticked, the Scot looked for a new challenge for 2008.

He too moved to NASCAR with Ganassi, but while Montoya was able to eke out occasional top-20 runs, Franchitti never finished higher than 22nd in the Cup series. He did scoop a couple of top-10 results and a pole in the Nationwide series, but failed to see out the season in either series as the sponsorship money dried up and his teams shut up shop before the end of the year.

In a 2014 interview with Graham Bensinger, Franchitti attributed his lack of form to an unwillingness to go through the intensive learning process that would’ve allowed him to adapt to the radically different NASCAR world.

During a visit to an IndyCar race in Detroit towards the end of 2008, Franchitti realised he wanted to return to the category. Now being embedded in the Ganassi organisation, and being a past champion, the switch back was made easier than it probably would be for most, and a deal was hashed out in eight hours on that very weekend.

Dario Franchitti’s NASCAR career was short-lived – Todd Warshaw/Getty Images for NASCAR

Upon his return, Franchitti won three more titles consecutively, and another two Indy 500 wins.

Like Franchitti, Johnson was winning everything he possibly could in the late-2000s and early 2010s. But while most drivers in the twilight of their careers are looking towards a quiet life, or a big shift to something like team ownership or broadcasting, Johnson has spent much of his 2020 gushing about IndyCar opportunities much like a fresh-faced 20-something from Indy Lights would do.

The coronavirus lockdown dashed hopes of a test with the Arrow McLaren SP team early in the year, although he was embedded with the team during a group test at Circuit of the Americas in February. He has also tested a Formula 1 car with McLaren in late-2018, his first test of high-level open-wheel machinery.

Johnson’s IndyCar future looked to be on, with McLaren, but then it was announced that he would continue his IndyCar education in a test with Ganassi instead. The test, briefly postponed after Johnson returned a positive COVID-19 test, took place in July under the watchful eye of five-time IndyCar champion and Ganassi stalwart Scott Dixon.

“When I tested Chip’s Indy car earlier in the year, it only lit the fire more,” Johnson said in a press release. “I found that I wanted to do it more than ever before.”

Jimmie Johnson testing a Chip Ganassi Racing Indy car at Indianapolis – Credit: Chris Owens/IndyCar Media

As when he poached Montoya and Franchitti from F1 and IndyCar respectively, Chip Ganassi was extremely positive about Johnson’s IndyCar prospects, and less than two months later Johnson has been signed up to Ganassi’s crack IndyCar stable that also boasts race winner Felix Rosenqvist and ex-F1 man Marcus Ericsson along with Dixon.

“It is always difficult to find great drivers but for them to be great guys too makes it even that much more challenging,” said Chip Ganassi. “To pair Jimmie with the likes of Scott Dixon is quite an opportunity.

“They are truly in rarefied air and I think everyone knows by now that ‘I like winners.’ The goal right now is for us to run Jimmie in an Indy car for at least the next couple of seasons, and we want to show people we’re serious about the program.

“We felt it was important to get the partnership done and start putting the financial building blocks in place to make this a reality. Jimmie’s record speaks for itself and we feel a championship-level driver of his calibre can only make our team better.”

Unlike the other three drivers though, Johnson will be steering clear of ovals, and racing in just the road and street course events, of which there was set to be 12 on the original 2020 schedule.

That partial plan also leaves room for the odd NASCAR outing. Johnson has always insisted that his full-time retirement from NASCAR would leave the door open for potential one-off stock car appearances – and of course Ganassi has a moderately successful NASCAR operation too.