INDIANAPOLIS — Jimmie Johnson used fast hands to wrestle his car out of a sideways slide that seemed headed toward a massive crash at 230 mph. He saved his car, but his Indianapolis 500 qualifying run was ruined.
The seven-time NASCAR champion is locked into his first Indy 500, but on Sunday had a chance to win the pole. The first three rows for the May 29 race were decided by a pair of shootouts, and Johnson, who this week has turned some of the fastest laps in Indianapolis Motor Speedway history, most definitely sent it as soon as the green flag waved for his attempt.
He sailed his car into the first turn of his first lap, but drifted too close to the outside wall. Johnson bobbled to avoid contact, the car shot sideways to the left, and his in-car camera showed his hands frantically wrestling the steering wheel to save the car from crashing.
Romain Grosjean, who like Johnson is making his Indy 500 debut, dropped his jaw in shock as he watched the save on a monitor from pit lane.
Johnson made it through the turn and finished the lap, but it was well off the pace needed to advance from the round of 12 into the “Fast Six” shootout that will determine the pole-winner. Although he rebounded to hit 232 mph on the next lap, his four-lap average of 231.264 was last in the session.
Johnson will start 12th in his first Indy 500.
“The track’s a little different than it was this morning,” Johnson said, laughing, on pit lane after his run. “The same approach wasn’t going to work. We certainly were trying for it.”
He’d been third fastest during a two-hour practice session Sunday conducted under a cloudy sky and cool track temperatures. But the sun came out about an hour before the shootouts began and considerably heated the track.
“Just committed to run one flat, and it just was so light on top of the track,” he said. “I was wide and trying to keep it off the fence at that point.”
He chalked his bobble up to “inexperience, ultimately.”
“I think the sunlight on the track and the track temp coming up, and these conditions, just trying to find that right balance in the race car,” Johnson said. “These guys are so good at what they do in these trickier conditions. I just need a bit more experience.”
All four of his Chip Ganassi Racing teammates advanced into the “Fast Six,” so Johnson certainly has a car capable of winning the race. But he’ll have to get past Scott Dixon, Alex Palou, Marcus Ericsson and Tony Kanaan, who had no power on his dash and had to qualify without telemetry and by feel.
The four Ganassi drivers went head-to-head against Ed Carpenter Racing, which claimed the final two spots for Chevrolet with team owner Carpenter and 21-year-old Rinus VeeKay.
VeeKay, who posted the third-fastest qualifying average in track history on Saturday, hit 234.099 on his first lap. But drop-off knocked him behind Dixon, and last year’s pole-sitter averaged 233.510 to end the first session on top. VeeKay averaged 233.429.
Speeds have been astronomical since Friday when IndyCar allowed a boost of horsepower ahead of qualifying and Dixon, a six-time series champion and 2008 Indianapolis 500 winner, held up his shaking hands after his run.
“Ohhh, man. This place does it to you every time. Oh my God,” said Dixon.
Grosjean, who survived a fiery crash in Formula One in 2020, was even rattled.
“That was scary,” said Grosjean, who earlier this week said turning 230 mph laps around Indy causes moments of “tight butt.”
The race will be Grosjean’s first Indy 500 in person — he’s only ever watched on television.
“I watched it from Europe, I was like, ‘Yeah, you know, it’s turning left and be flat out,'” Grosjean said. “It’s a bit more. It’s a bit more than that really.”
Grosjean will start ninth.