Jimmie Johnson didn't even make it a lap in his first IndyCar Series race before he had to navigate through trouble.
Johnson started 21st of 24 cars on Sunday at Barber Motorsports Park and found himself having to avoid a large crash just seconds into the race after Josef Newgarden spun and collected a handful of other cars.
The seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion avoided the worst of the crash, though he did make contact with James Hinchcliffe while he was slowing down. And avoiding the worst is probably the phrase that sums up Johnson's first IndyCar race anyway. It wasn't great. He finished 19th, three laps down. And it could have been a lot worse.
Johnson could have been knocked out of the race before a lap was over like series champions Newgarden and Ryan Hunter-Reay were. Johnson could have hit the wall on Lap 10 when he spun by himself and brought out a caution flag.
But he didn't. Johnson got the car refired and rejoined the race, though he soon found himself a lap down.
Johnson was never back on the lead lap again after that as his three Chip Ganassi Racing teammates finished first, third and seventh. Alex Palou won the race ahead of Team Penske's Will Power. CGR's Scott Dixon was third, while Marcus Ericsson finished seventh.
"Very happy to have finished," Johnson told NBC after the race. "There were two very scary moments in the race. One, the original start, going into Turn 5 there was chaos. I bounced off a few cars, but nothing really happened to mine evidently."
Johnson entered race with limited IndyCar experience
A top-15 finish would have been an accomplishment for Johnson. That's an odd thing to say about a guy who has won 83 Cup Series races, but Johnson had spent less than a week in an IndyCar before the race weekend began. He had far and away the least amount of open-wheel experience of anyone in the field.
Sunday's race was always going to be a learning experience. Log laps. Gain data. Learn braking points and tendencies about a car that's completely different than a NASCAR Cup car. It's not unfair to call Johnson's day essentially a giant test session disguised as a race.
"Just a ton of learning experiences throughout the day today," Johnson said.
It's also not unfair to say that Johnson will have to get up to speed quickly to be competitive during the 2021 season. He posted the slowest laps in both practice sessions on Saturday. He posted the second-slowest lap of any driver during qualifying by a tenth of a second. His race pace on Sunday lagged behind the rest of the field.
But that's OK. If you thought Johnson was going to immediately take the IndyCar Series by storm after going winless over the last 130 races of his Cup career, you needed a reality check. That was never going to happen.
Top 15s could happen soon. Maybe even a top 10 or two before the season is out. Johnson's IndyCar foray is still in its infancy. Don't start judging it just yet.
"The guy's the hardest worker I know," Johnson's car owner Chip Ganassi said. "He never stops. He's got a hill to climb but he's going to do it."
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