INDIANAPOLIS — In the final moments before his Indianapolis 500 qualifying run on Saturday — the first in his illustrious two-decade racing career — Jimmie Johnson was reminded of the life he lived a year ago.
Next to the track, right next to where Johnson started his car, was the NBC pits. Watching the 2021 500 from that very box, Johnson felt left out of the action. He was a seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion but had just ventured into IndyCar.
In his first qualifying round at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Johnson put in an excellent four laps and set the sixth-best average speed on day one of qualifying for next Sunday’s Indy 500 — passing IndyCar greats and former 500 champions Scott Dixon, Will Power , Takuma Sato, Simon Pagenaud, Alexander Rossi and four-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves.
Romain Grosjean’s car had coasted in front of Johnson, the rear bumper almost touching the nose of Johnson’s Honda. Like Johnson, Grosjean had a long racing career before joining the IndyCar Series and competing in Formula 1 on and off since 2008. Like Johnson, he was about to qualify for his first Indy 500.
They are two of the least experienced drivers in the series and yet both excelled on Saturday against drivers with more experience in this particular form of racing. Johnson and Grosjean have both done well enough to make it into Sunday’s Fast 12, where the top six drivers will advance with a shot to pole on Sunday afternoon. Grosjean averaged a 232.201 on Day 1 of qualifying, good for ninth place.
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“I’m happy to be here. It’s a good experience,” said Grosjean. “It’s busy. It’s great to see that we have so many fans since we started training. The racing process is complicated. I saw it from Europe and I thought, ‘Yeah, it just turns left and goes full throttle.’ It’s a little bit more than that. It’s definitely something every rider in the world should do.”
A superb first qualifying run was the culmination of a solid week of training for Johnson. Most of his IndyCar success has come on ovals, and he’s had top-five speed among drivers three times since Tuesday.
Johnson is delighted to be in Indianapolis and has enjoyed every part of the past week; said this repeatedly during his press conferences. That goes hand-in-hand with his drive to win and his performance in practice and qualifying has shown that pole position or a win for Johnson is well within the realm of possibility.
“I think there are expectations I set for myself to do better on ovals,” he said. “Getting that confidence, feeling good, was just a lot of fun.”
Anyone who competed in their first 500s could only refer to other series for comparison. Johnson said the qualifying process was more intense than his Daytona 500 equivalent, which he won twice. Grosjean preferred it to the Monaco Grand Prix qualifying process because he had the entire track to himself for his four laps.
But none had experienced anything quite like the pageantry of the Indy 500. Johnson noted that his children seemed afraid to watch him, citing the speed of the cars and “the energy that Indianapolis Motor Speedway brings.” Some of his children were there to take the traditional family photo after the qualifying run. Grosjean’s family, who live in Switzerland, couldn’t make it, so he posed with his engineer and wife instead.
“I know on TV my kids boo anyone who comes after me,” he said. “It’s very bad, but I was very proud of her.”
Indy 500 partial lineup
Here’s the Indianapolis 500 lineup for places 13-33, with Saturday’s four-round qualifying average starting with row 5 (R=beginner; W=last winner):
13th (18) David Malukas (R), Honda, Dale Coyne Racing with HMD, 231.607
14. (2) Joseph Newgarden, Chevrolet, Team Penske, 231.580
15. (23) Santino Ferrucci, Chevrolet, Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, 231.508
16th (60) Simon Pagenaud (W), Honda, Meyer Shank Racing, 231.275
17. (11) JR Hildebrand, Chevrolet, AJ Foyt Racing, 231.112
18. (20) Conor Daly, Chevrolet, Ed Carpenter Racing, 230.999
19th (77) Callum Ilott (R), Chevrolet, Juncos Hollinger Racing, 230.916
20th (27) Alexander Rossi (W), Honda, Andretti Autosport, 230.812
21. (15) Graham Rahal, Honda, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, 230.766
22. (24) Sage Karam, Chevrolet, Dreyer & Reinbold, 230.464
23. (98) Marco Andretti, Honda, Andretti Herta Autosport with Marco Curb, 230.345
24th (29) Devlin DeFrancesco (R), Honda, Andretti Steinbrenner Autosport, 230.326
25. (26) Colton Herta, Honda, Andretti Autosport, 230.235
26. (3) Scott McLaughlin, Chevrolet, Team Penske, 230.154
27th (06) Helio Castroneves (W), Honda, Meyer Shank Racing, 229.630
28th (14) Kyle Kirkwood (R), Chevrolet, AJ Foyt Racing, 229.406
29. (4) Dalton Kellett, Chevrolet, AJ Foyt Racing, 228.916
30. (6) Juan Pablo Montoya (W), Chevrolet, Arrow McLaren SP, 228.622
31. (30) Christian Lungaard (R), Honda, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, 227.053
32. (45) Jack Harvey, Honda, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, 226.851
33rd (25) Stefan Wilson, Chevrolet, DragonSpeed/Cusick Racing, no speed