By JENNA FRYER
The Associated Press
Jimmie Johnson, Scott McLaughlin and Romain Grosjean, oh my! That’s quite the rookie class for IndyCar, which opens the season Sunday at Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama stacked with storylines throughout the grid.
Johnson brings seven NASCAR championships to Chip Ganassi Racing for a career reset at 45 years old. Although he always wanted to be an IndyCar driver, his opportunities came in stock cars until Johnson was able to call his own shots.
The transition will be incredibly difficult. The opening practice today on the road course will be the first for Johnson, who will be doing nearly everything for the first time this weekend.
“If there’s a rocky day, am I going to be surprised? Probably not,” team owner Ganassi said Wednesday. “He’s a damn hard worker. He sets the bar at a new level for the amount of work a driver puts in. He’s always in the simulator, on the computer, on the phone, making calls, asking questions, working out, talking to sponsors, talking to the team.
“I mean, the guy doesn’t slow down. I had no idea what I was up against when racing against him in NASCAR, and now I’ve got a little feel for it.”
Grosjean comes to IndyCar from Formula One, where he’d grown frustrated at team disparity that prevented him from winning in nine seasons. His F1 career came to an abrupt halt after a fiery November crash in Bahrain; and instead of taking a ride with another team not capable of winning, the Frenchman signed with Dale Coyne Racing.
Like Johnson, Grosjean does not plan to race the four ovals on IndyCar’s 17-race schedule.
McLaughlin is the three-time defending Australian V8 SuperCars champion who moved to the United States to drive the full season for Team Penske and will resurrect the iconic “Yellow Submarine” paint scheme in the Indianapolis 500 driven by Penske winners Helio Castroneves, Rick Mears, and Johnny Rutherford.
“I didn’t think I’d be racing Jimmie Johnson and Romain Grosjean. It’s crazy. Very exciting,” McLaughlin said. “It just shows what IndyCar is all about right now. I hope the fans relish it.”
McLaughlin should easily take top rookie honors because he’s running the full schedule, but he’s got his sights set on winning races and even competing for the championship. But the competition is fierce starting at the top with six-time champion Scott Dixon and within Team Penske.
Dixon will be trying to tie A.J. Foyt’s record seven championships while leading an expanded Ganassi organization. The team will field four cars this season with only Marcus Ericsson returning for a second year. Dixon will be acclimating to new teammates Johnson and second-year IndyCar driver Alex Palou.
Dixon in 20 seasons has never won back-to-back titles but his current streak of two in the last three years is the best of his career. He turns 41 this July but noted Tom Brady recently won a sixth Super Bowl at 43.
“I don’t think you can ever really put a time scale on it or an age or anything like that,” Dixon said. “I think we’ve seen the longevity, not just in our sport but across sports in general, there’s so many different ways, whether it’s the mental game or training or anything like that.”
Penske has three IndyCar champions on its roster: Josef Newgarden has two titles, while Simon Pagenaud and Will Power each have one. Power has confirmed he’s in a contract year this season while Pagenaud declined to comment; Roger Penske said contract talks are ongoing with all his drivers, but he’s generally been on record as opposed to fielding four teams.
Penske has plenty on his plate beyond driver contracts as he begins his second season as owner of both IndyCar and Indianapolis Motor Speedway. His first year of ownership was decimated by the pandemic and he was forced to host the Indianapolis 500 without spectators for the first time in history.
He’s confident there will be fans this Memorial Day weekend — he wants the full 400,000 — and has held mass vaccination clinics at the speedway. IndyCar believes at least 90% of the paddock will have received at least the first shot by the time the the season begins Sunday. Mark Miles, president and CEO of Penske Entertainment Corp., said the series is considering regular COVID-19 testing for participants who choose not to receive the vaccine.
Penske is also negotiating a new television package as NBC enters the season in the final year of its contract. IndyCar will have a record nine races on network TV this season, but NBC has moved many practice sessions to its subscription streaming services and made production cuts that viewers will notice — Paul Tracy, for example, will be color analyst for just seven events as the network will use a two-person booth for the remaining 10.
Penske wouldn’t speculate on potential television partners and said he’s still learning about streaming services.
“We don’t really talk about the negotiations we’re having right now for the future, but we certainly want to have a broadcast partner as we go into the future, and if that entails streaming and other aspects of what might be available, we’re looking at all of those,” Penske said.