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Paddock Buzz: Johnson Fills Highlight Reel with Stirring Run

Jimmie Johnson was proud to provide “a highlight reel” for the weekend’s first NTT INDYCAR SERIES oval race Saturday at Iowa Speedway.

But more impressive than his three-wide, around-the-outside pass on Lap 109 was the overall performance the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion showed throughout the 250 presented by DoorDash. Johnson finished 11th, but he consistently – and legitimately – ran in the top six for most of the second half of the race.

Remember, this was just his third oval race in this series.

Johnson struggled late in the long tire run to the finish, losing five positions and falling off the lead lap. That’s no shame, however, as several other drivers with considerably more series experience were at the mercy of their fading tire grip.

Johnson’s career-best finish in this series came on March 20 when he placed sixth at Texas Motor Speedway, and this was a similarly strong performance. Johnson was impressive in qualifying 12th for the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge on May 29 before crashing in Turn 2 late in the race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Best of all Saturday, Johnson will get a chance to apply what he learned in his first NTT INDYCAR SERIES short-track race when the 26-car field lines up for Sunday’s Hy-Vee Salute to Farmers presented by Google (3 p.m. ET, NBC and the INDYCAR Radio Network).

“That last run, we just went so far I burned the right rear tire off the car,” the driver of the No. 48 Carvana Chip Ganassi Racing Honda said. “But still, a very strong performance.”

For the second time in his 23-race NTT INDYCAR SERIES career, Johnson led laps Saturday – a career-best 19 in all. His first two laps led came in the “500.”

Ironically, Johnson got the lead Saturday by virtue of his slippage. His car spun coming off Turn 4 on Lap 16, but he didn’t hit anything and pitted along with the rest of the back half of the field under that caution period.

With new tires and regained aggression, Johnson and many others began streaking past those who had not stopped. When Colton Herta, who had similarly pitted and drove to third place in the No. 26 Gainbridge Honda of Andretti Autosport with Curb-Agajanian, stopped again with the leaders on Lap 61, Johnson took the lead.

“Instinctively I tried to run the painted line (at the bottom of the track) like I would in a Cup car, and when I touched it I thought, ‘You idiot; why did you do that?’” Johnson said of his spin, and he added later that Kevin Harvick had encouraged him to run that low in a stock car. “Thankfully, I kept it out of the wall. I was able to bump-start it, got going on the frontstretch, was pointed in the right direction.

“It was just a lot of fun. I had the outside lane working on a lot of those restarts, making up spots. Racing hard with the regulars up front was a lot of fun.”

The “highlight reel” was achieved with a bold move around Jack Harvey (No. 45 Hy-Vee Honda of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing) and rookie Devlin DeFrancesco (No. 29 PowerTap Honda of Andretti Steinbrenner Autosport) in Turn 2. Johnson had a similar thrilling move around Ed Carpenter Racing’s Rinus VeeKay (No. 21 Bitcoin Racing Team with BitNile Chevrolet).

Teammate Scott Dixon (No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda) was impressed with Johnson as he followed him much of the second half of the race.

“Jimmie kind of had his own lane up there, (lanes) three and four,” Dixon said. “He did an amazing job, and he was really fun to watch because he was constantly trying stuff, which I maybe need to do more of that.”

Dixon finished fifth. Fellow Chip Ganassi Racing drivers Alex Palou and Marcus Ericsson finished sixth and eighth, respectively.

Johnson’s Fast Cup of Coffee

Qualifying for the NTT P1 Award was at 9:30 a.m. local time, and Johnson was fourth to hit the track. The speed caught his attention.

“Wow, that’s the best cup of coffee you could ever had,” he said on the team’s radio.

Johnson’s laps were 175.205 mph and 175.812 mph, which at the time topped the charts. He finished with the 15th and 13th starting positions for the races and was thrilled with the experience.

“What a rush,” Johnson said after climbing from the car. “To go that fast at such a short track – it’s such a crazy experience.”

Speeds were certainly up from the last time the series raced here, in 2020. In that doubleheader, Conor Daly won the pole for the first race at 175.188 mph while Josef Newgarden topped qualifying for Race 2 at 175.333 mph.

This year, Will Power won his 65th and 66th career series poles – drawing him with one pole of Mario Andretti’s all-time record – with laps of 178.199 mph and 178.013 mph.

Newgarden’s win in the No. 2 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet ensured that the pole winner at Iowa Speedway has won only one of 11 series races since the first race in 2007. Newgarden, who started second Saturday, won the second race of the 2020 doubleheader from the pole.

Hy-Vee Sets High Bar with Support

All around Iowa Speedway were signs that Hy-Vee’s foray into race sponsorship was outstanding.

From activation in its stores to track signage to food delivery to helping paint much of the facility built in 2006, the grocery store chain based in West Des Moines showed first-class support of the NTT INDYCAR SERIES’ return to Newton.

Sponsoring Harvey’s No. 45 Honda, Hy-Vee plastered Harvey’s likeness and that of his race car throughout the region. Hy-Vee operates more than 240 retail stores in eight Midwestern states, including Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, South Dakota and Wisconsin.

Harvey said he felt like a star.

“What they brought to the series is resetting the bar for how sponsors can utilize the series,” he said.

The weekend included concerts from Grammy-winning performers such as Tim McGraw and Florida Georgia Line on Saturday, Gwen Stefani and Blake Shelton on Sunday.

Hy-Vee CEO Randy Edeker said he was pleased with how Iowa Speedway looked.

“I think it turned out pretty good,” he said.

Odds and Ends

  • Herta’s strong run in the first half of the race ended with a mid-race clutch issue during a pit stop that cost him six laps to the leader. He finished 24th. He finished eight laps off the pace. 
  • Felix Rosenqvist (No. 7 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet) had the weekend’s first NTT INDYCAR SERIES wall contact, losing the back end of the car in Turn 2 on Lap 110. He said the rear was too loose late in the fuel run.
  • Daly (No. 20 BitNile Chevrolet of Ed Carpenter Racing) qualified third for both races, but his chance to win Saturday’s race took a hit during the caution for Rosenqvist’s wall contact. Daly had pitted only a few laps earlier, costing him a lap to the leaders after the reorganization. He finished 19th.
  • The race of owner/driver Ed Carpenter came to an end on Lap 161 when his No. 33 Alzamend Neuro Chevrolet spun into the Turn 3 wall.
  • Scott McLaughlin (No. 3 Freightliner Team Penske Chevrolet) lost the fourth position on a restart in the second half of the race when the lug nut came off the right rear wheel. He was forced to pit, losing two laps to the leaders. He fell all the way to 22nd at the finish.
  • David Malukas (No. 18 HMD Honda of Dale Coyne Racing with HMD) described a chaotic race in his first series race at the track. Most of that was based on heavy, non-stop traffic, but he also choked while drinking from his warm water bottle during a caution. Malukas said he almost couldn’t control his coughing and sneezing. “It was very frustrating,” he said.
  • It was a birthday weekend. Scott Dixon turned 42 on Friday. Rookie Christian Lundgaard turned 21 on Saturday and then finished 10th after starting 20th in the No. 30 Shield Cleansers Honda. It will be nearly a month before the next active driver has a birthday. That will be Dalton Kellett on Aug. 19. He will be 29.
  • Sunday’s Hy-Vee Salute to Farmers 300 presented by Google airs at 3 p.m. (ET), with the green flag for the 300-lap race scheduled for 3:30 p.m. There won’t be a morning practice; rather, the session at 11:55 a.m. will amount to each car getting an install lap to check the equipment.
  • Most of the car liveries will remain the same for Sunday’s race. Johnson will carry The American Legion; Takuma Sato switches to Nurtec ODT.
  • In between the out-and-in lap, the Gwen Stefani concert will be held. Blake Shelton performs on the front straightaway stage following the race.
  • Hunter McElrea led an Andretti Autosport sweep of the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires podium Saturday when series leader Linus Lundqvist, the first driver to cross the finish line, was penalized three positions for avoidable late-race contact with Matthew Brabham. Brabham’s car suffered heavy front wing damage after contact with the outside wall exiting Turn 2. He finished third behind his teammates, McElrea and Christian Rasmussen.
  • McElrea now has a two-race winning streak after capturing the July 3 race at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. He moved up two positions in the standings to second place, trailing Lundqvist by 77 points.
  • Indy Lights returns to action Aug. 7 with the Indy Lights Music City Grand Prix in Nashville. It will be the first such race at the downtown street circuit.
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