Jimmie Johnson takes first laps in Next Gen car at Phoenix test

Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson took his first laps in the next-generation car on Tuesday in a test at Phoenix Raceway and said the vehicle was “dramatically different” from what he’s used to in the Cup Series.

“You can’t drive these cars as sideways as the generation of cars I’ve driven because of the sidewall (of the tire) and also just the aero properties of the car,” Johnson told reporters after finishing his one-day session.

Johnson was allowed to test under NASCAR’s driver orientation selection testing rules. It limits the team to three sets of tires and how much data can be collected. The test is allowed to participate on a track where the pilot will not be included.

This rule allowed former Formula One champion Kimi Raikkonen to test a Cup car last year before racing for Trackhouse Racing at Watkins Glen in his first series start.

Johnson tested in the car in its 2022 configuration. Six other cars were tested Tuesday in Phoenix in 2023 configurations. Among the goals of NASCAR’s testing of those six cars was to improve competition primarily on short tracks and road courses. Johnson was not allowed to drive these cars.

Tuesday marked Johnson’s first time in a Cup car, still leaving the series after the 2020 season to compete in IndyCar.

“I was just trying to deal with it and find speed today,” Johnson said of his goal for the test. “The sim helped. I found out some big no-no’s about where I put my hands when going on the gas. … Ultimately, I wanted to go up against the limit today and feel things out.”

The Legacy MC co-owner said he felt good about the session.

“I think the fifth or sixth time was my fastest time in the car,” Johnson said. “To be able to keep up and be with the group so quickly, it was nice to just have that to fall back on and really, instinctively, drive the car instead of worrying about every little detail and where I’m going to put the car and how I used the pedals and the steering wheel like I have been doing in IndyCar for the last two years.”

Even with a simulator session last week, Johnson was grateful for some track time in the new car.

“Seat time is everything,” he told reporters. “Drivers, teams, you try to do what you can in the sim, but being on the track is where you learn everything.

“To run a limited schedule with (Team No. 84) running a limited schedule, we have to keep our expectations realistic about the work ahead of us. It’s a very competitive sport. Lots of great teams and drivers.

“I guess as I continue to get more time in these cars, I’ll figure out where to find the speed and continue to make myself more competitive.”

Tuesday also marked Johnson’s first day working with crew chief Todd Gordon at the track. The team announced this week that Gordon, a former Cup champion crew chief, will work with Johnson this season.

“Todd is a true professional,” Johnson said. “Obviously his stats speak for themselves. I’m trying to find someone who can really help me fit in and also help the organization. Todd is the perfect candidate for this, so we are very excited to have him on board.

Johnson will look to earn one of the four open spots in next month’s Daytona 500. He said he plans to run a “handful” of Cup races this season, but likely won’t have that schedule until “the next few weeks.”

Johnson remains hopeful that he will be one of the drivers for the Garage 56 program, which will take a specially prepared car to the 24 Hours of Le Mans Cup in June.

Johnson said the “door is probably closed” for any IndyCar race, meaning he won’t have the chance to compete in the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 on the same day this year.

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