Jimmie Johnson takes a surprising turn on the road to Toronto Indy

He’s not your older brother’s Jimmie Johnson.

The seven-time NASCAR champion, one of the greatest drivers in motor racing history, moved to IndyCar and now faces a tough climb just to be competitive. And he’s okay with that.

The 46-year-old legend from El Cajon, Calif., will be among five entrants for Chip Ganassi Racing in Sunday’s Honda Indy Toronto at Exhibition Place. His teammate Alex Palou, the defending NTT IndyCar Series champion, is 25. And while Johnson can relate to six-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon, 41, he’s also looking over his shoulder at promising drivers as young as 15 in some of the feed series.

He said he was comfortable with where his career had taken him and was having a lot of fun.

“That’s the challenge I’m facing and the experience I wanted to have,” Johnson, who qualified 21st on Saturday, said in an exclusive interview.

“It’s understanding the balance here for me: my competitive nature and, of course, experiencing many victories and championships. And now it’s not in that chapter of the race for me. It’s really a matter of experience now. I’m a very driven guy, very motivated, very focused on improvement and performance (but) I try to stay within the arc of my improvement…with realistic expectations.

Johnson is not expected to fight for the win on Sunday. He has just one top 10 finish after nine races and considers himself one of the “greenest rookies” ahead of Sunday’s race on a bumpy 11-corner course.

“I didn’t even see the track until I drove a rental car there (Thursday),” he said with a laugh.

But the Johnson mystique remains. IndyCar drivers to crew members gravitate around him. Friends of NASCAR still keep in touch, and its former team owner, Rick Hendrick of Hendrick Motorsports, sponsors an IMSA Series car that Johnson also races.

Missing NASCAR?

“Yeah…I feel like I’m happy with the experience I’ve had in NASCAR, and I definitely feel like I’m ready to take it slow,” said Johnson, who took his retirement from the top tier of stock car racing at age 44. “Then (IndyCar) came along and I did everything but slow down.

“The one thing I’ve learned since stepping away from NASCAR…I know it’s a busy life, this lifestyle, and now I have a better appreciation for how long the NASCAR schedule is (36 races this season, spanning nine months) and the toll it is taking on everyone.

Johnson, his wife Chandra Janway and his daughters Lydia and Geneviève were in Italy before he arrived in Toronto. More time to travel with family and experience other cultures is part of the appeal of the shorter IndyCar season.

There is also the Indy 500 factor.

“I had the opportunity to do something that I never thought I would do,” Johnson said of his first Indy race at The Brickyard in May.

“It was a childhood dream of mine to race the 500, but my opportunities took me to NASCAR and I never thought I would have the opportunity. Then I said I would do IndyCar (last year), but not ovals. Then everything happened this year. And with my family there, it was really special – probably a top three moment for me.

Johnson’s father, Gary, sometimes works as a spotter for his son, and did so at the Indy 500. Forty years ago, the elder Johnson helped build the motocross park in Southern California where his son got his start. Johnson’s mother, Catherine, ran the food stand there.

“My dad was a heavy equipment operator and my mom was (also) a school bus driver…I feel like I’ve lived the American dream in everything that’s happened to me in life,” Johnson said.

Gary Johnson then worked in the tire business and Jimmie Johnson moved into buggy racing. That’s where Chevrolet discovered him, putting him on the path to those seven NASCAR championships.

Johnson says he is grateful for everything that has taken him from dirt bike tracks to the ranks of motor racing legends. Winning is not everything.

“Honestly, I feel like I’ve come a long way, but I didn’t know how far I would start in (IndyCar),” Johnson said. “Where I am now (21st in the standings) is where I thought I was last year. I guess I thought I was more competitive, but I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything.

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