Indianapolis ( Associated Press) — Jimmy Johnson felt comfortable from his first phase of preparation for the Indianapolis 500.
The seven-time NASCAR champion knows his way around The Brickyard—he won four times in the stock car at Indianapolis Motor Speedway—so even the brush with the wall in an Indy car couldn’t rattle him.
The 46-year-old advanced into Sunday’s shootout for pole with some of the fastest laps ever in Indy. His single-lap pace of 233.961 mph in Saturday morning practice was his 14th fastest lap ever on the track. Hours later, he posted a four-lap qualifying average of 232.398 mph to lock himself in his first Indy 500.
Johnson was the sixth-fastest qualifier and has a shot at winning the Indy 500 pole on Sunday. The fastest 12 in a 33 car field has two shootouts on Sunday and a “fast six” will set up the first two lines for the May 29 race.
Can he really win pole?
“I got a shot,” Johnson said, “I don’t know what the chances are, but I’ll definitely send it.”
This journey at the Indy 500 is like nothing Johnson has experienced in a career spanning more than two decades.
“There’s really no comparison, it’s very intense,” he said. “Also, you have to run four laps, not just one. But there’s a lot more on the driver here than what happens in Daytona 500 qualifying.
Johnson qualified behind two of his Chip Ganassi Racing teammates as all five Honda-powered drivers advanced on Sunday. Defending Series champion Alex Palu was fourth fastest and Tony Kanan was fifth. Marcus Ericsson was eighth and Scott Dixon 10th.
In fact, all the Ganassi drivers were fast.
“I think the speed scared my kids,” Johnson said. “When he saw me, there was a look in his eyes. He’s been into a lot of races, but he’s never looked at me like this.”
Johnson’s trusted advisor, Kanan, cheered on his friend during the race. And when Kanan finished his attempt at 232.625, the two celebrated with a hug near Victory Alley. In Round 2 on Sunday, the two smiled, behaved friendly and wished each other all the best.
“That’s great,” Kanan said. “We’ve built a really strong relationship.”
Johnson probably wouldn’t have been here without Kanan’s help.
The 2013 Indy winner and 2004 series winner was expected to compete on the oval in Johnson’s No. 48 Honda. But when Californians expressed interest in adding the oval to their road and street course IndyCar repertoire, Kanan graciously stepped aside and found enough corporate sponsorship to fund his own 500 effort.
Now both are in shootout.
Johnson’s transition from heavy, slow cup cars to Indy cars required time, effort, patience and some reliable advice from Kanan.
But nothing prepared the four-time Brickyard 400 champion for just how much of an impact the weather has on Indy cars at the historic 2.5-mile oval. The changing weather throughout the week made even the most successful veterans struggle.
Johnson himself hit a wall in Friday’s practice. He did not make the same mistake again on Saturday.
“There are small windows where there’s extreme grip and you’re using tools to stay in that window,” he said. “That’s where I made a mistake yesterday.”
The hardest part was the wait: After nearly five hours, 27 more qualifying attempts, two power delays and some light rain, Johnson finally knew he had made the cut.
If he stays out of trouble on Sunday, which is expected to be more favorable race conditions, he could just cut a six-car, win his first IndyCar pole and be the fastest and fastest in this year’s 500 field. Might celebrate as the old cheater.
Johnson needed two more tries to become the first rookie to win the 500 pole since Tony Stewart in 1996.
“It’s a lot more intense, plus you’ve got to drive four of them,” Johnson said before turning his attention to pole day, but a lot more on the driver than what happens in Daytona 500 qualifying. ” “I have a shot. I’ll definitely send it and we’ll see.”
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