Like so many curious racing fans, motor sports legend Mario Andretti will surely have his eye on Jimmie Johnson when he takes his first shot at the Indianapolis 500 later this month.
And Andretti has a feeling the NASCAR turned IndyCar driver will “be a force to be reckoned with” at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
The anticipation for Johnson’s first Indy 500 has been growing since he announced his plans to retire from the NASCAR Cup Series as a seven-time champion at the end of the 2020 season and make the jump to open-wheeled racing in the IndyCar Series, still behind the wheel of the No. 48 car.
It subsided a little during Johnson’s 2021 rookie IndyCar season with Chip Ganassi Racing, during which he only raced on the street and road courses — not the ovals, like Indianapolis Motor Speedway — because of safety concerns with a faster car that was new to him.
Now, Johnson is in the middle of a full IndyCar season with Ganassi, and that means he’ll run his first Indy 500 on May 29 at the iconic Brickyard.
And after his strong sixth-place finish in March at Texas Motor Speedway — his first IndyCar oval race and his best IndyCar finish to date — the hype over his first Indy 500 began building again. (Johnson won seven races at Texas in NASCAR.)
Though Johnson finished inside the top-20 drivers just once in IndyCar’s other three races so far this season, his performance at Texas, in part, led 82-year-old Andretti to praise the NASCAR turned IndyCar driver’s improvements and potential in oval races.
‘@MarioAndretti and AJ Foyt are the only two drivers to win both the Daytona 500 and the #Indy500. @JimmieJohnson can join them this year, and Mario thinks he’ll be “a force to be reckoned with.” pic.twitter.com/msc3agHFfr
— IndyCar on NBC (@IndyCaronNBC) May 13, 2022
Andretti, one of the greatest racers of all time, told NBC Sports:
“I’m a big fan. I just — I’m watching it as close as obviously [I] can, and he has progressed tremendously this year. I think there are a few glitches for road courses yet. But come the [Indy] 500, he’s gonna be a force to be reckoned with.
“I think he’s shown that during the [Indy 500] test and what I saw at Texas in Jimmie, he felt right at home at that point. He knows enough about the car, and yeah, he’s definitely a dark horse.”
And, as NBC Sports noted, only Andretti and AJ Foyt have won both the Indy 500 and Daytona 500. Johnson already has two Daytona 500 victories (2006, 2013), and there’s still a (perhaps long-shot) chance he could join that exclusive club.
‘@JimmieJohnson‘s first oval race was a home run.
— IndyCar on NBC (@IndyCaronNBC) March 20, 2022
However, Andretti clearly recognizes that Johnson’s chances of winning the Indy 500 are likely slim with so many experienced Indy 500 drivers in the field, including several previous champions. But he also likes what he sees from Johnson so far on the ovals.
This isn’t the first time Andretti has expressed his faith in Johnson, who’s still relatively new to open-wheeled racing.
In 2020 after Johnson’s IndyCar plans became public, Andretti praised Johnson’s bold discipline switch and said:
“He will slide in there just like a natural — I assure you — because he’ll be with a top team, so immediately, he’ll have the confidence.”
While many of Johnson’s road course races haven’t appeared particularly easy for the 46-year-old racer, he did look far more natural on his way to a sixth-place performance at Texas. So maybe the same will be true at the Indy 500 in a couple weeks.
The 2022 Indy 500 is Sunday, May 29 at 12:30 pm ET on NBC.