Max and Matt are back on their BS with a new podcast and article. For the full stream of consciousness check out the episode of MotorMax here, but for the tight and honed meat of the idea, check our out article below. Let’s get started Max!
Just a few weeks ago, it was revealed that Jimmie Johnson would be moving over to IndyCar for a majority of the 2021 season driving for Chip Ganassi Racing. Johnson, the 45 year old El Cajon native announced during the offseason that he would be retiring from full-time NASCAR Cup Series racing at the end of the 2020 season. Throughout his 19 year Cup series career, Johnson has amounted 83 wins (T-3 all-time), 7 championships (T-1 All-Time), 231 top-fives, 373 top-tens, 36 pole positions, and an average finish of 13.0, not to mention his 2 Daytona 500 triumphs.
In the midst of the crazy year we call 2020, Johnson found time to test IndyCars with Chip Ganassi and his team. About 2 years ago, Johnson also tested a Formula One car in a “Car Swap” with F1 driver, Fernando Alonso. At the time of Johnson’s retirement announcement, speculation started that maybe he was going to open-wheel racing. F1 seemed to be the top candidate for Johnson given the previous test, but soon he expressed interest in driving IndyCar.
Johnson and Ganassi lined up for a test in a CGR IndyCar. After this test, rumors began to spread of Johnson going to IndyCar. Soon after, the rumors were confirmed true. Jimmie Johnson would indeed be driving for Chip Ganassi Racing in 2021 on a part time schedule…
Let me stop you right there, Max. Before we get into what Jimmie Johnson needs to do to be considered a success with this unique racing journey, what if anything can we compare it to? What standard is there for Johnson to aspire to and hopefully conquer going into 2021? On Max’s podcast we tried to explore that…but just like the time before we went off on about 100 different tangents, we eventually came around to finally scoring some predictions and analysis. Be sure to check out the whole episode, but let’s try to hit some of the most important points here. First question: is there anything that we can compare Johnson to?
We will of course get to the drivers that achieved their success in open wheel before crossing over to NASCAR, but what stock car drivers have tried to do what Johnson’s slated to try? NASCAR has a healthy history of “one-off” attempts, targeted specifically around the Indy 500. Bobby and Donnie Allison, Cale Yarborough, Lee Roy Yarbrough, and most recently Kurt Busch are among the stock car elite that tried to win motor racing’s most coveted victory at Indianapolis, but all did so while still committed to NASCAR, and certainly weren’t chasing points or wins at other open wheel races. Considering that Jimmie Johnson most likely won’t even attempt the Indy 500, trying to make any comparison here would be a fool’s errand. The only other instance in which a NASCAR driver attempted to make a “conversion” to the world of IndyCar would be Stanton Barrett. Famed Hollywood stuntman and occasional NASCAR driver Stanton Barrett attempted a full season in IndyCar for the 2009 season with Team 3G, but only competed in 4 races, and failed to qualify for the Indy 500. If this is the only true comparison, then with Johnson’s test and iRacing experience we can already call it a success. So if there’s no true comparison, what’s the mirror image? How did some of open wheel’s finest competitors handle their attempts at stock car racing?
“Wow, those are some Rick Ware Racing numbers.”-Mad Max
This exploration won’t be complete, as there are many fine open wheel drivers that won’t be covered in this article. Certainly, legends like A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, and Dan Gurney all have their impact and influence on NASCAR history, but let’s focus on some of the drivers that went “all-in” and tried to conquer NASCAR with the same approach as any other rookie driver at the time. Five that come to mind are Tony Stewart, Juan Pablo Montoya, Sam Hornish Jr, Danica Patrick, and…-sigh-, Dario Franchitti. Look, I’ll try to be objective for the purposes of this article, but Franchitti’s little NASCAR vacation and its fallout actually says a lot about who I am as a person, and had an indirect influence on my life. We cover it in detail for the podcast episode, so give that a listen at the 77:50 mark if you want to hear your ol’ buddy Matt go on forever about some self-serving anecdotes.
Let me say again that this list is NON-exhaustive, but these particular drivers are the ones that best fit the situation I’m looking to explore. Anyway, these five open wheelers each brought a level of success, sponsorship and/or popularity from their previous occupation before starting their stock car racing careers. Let’s rank them from least accomplished to the most based on their overall expectations and performance. We’ll consider the entirety of their stock car careers, but Cup series stats will be the most important. Counting down from number 5….
5. Dario Franchitti (10 Cup races, Zero Top-10s, 1 Lap Led)
Dario Franchitti, fresh off an IndyCar championship for Andretti Green Racing signed with Chip Ganassi to drive the famous number 40 in the Cup series for the 2008 season. Expectations were high as Dario was considered at the peak of his career and was joining a team with the mojo and resources to win (but struggling from the two previous seasons). Armed with only six stock car races of experience under his belt Dario went steaming into the 2008 season and put up the following run of finishes:
-DEEP BREATH- 33rd, 32nd, 33rd, 33rd, 36th, 22nd (nice), 32nd, 41st, 43rd, and 38th. When Max was looking at the stats he aptly called these “Rick Ware numbers” with Ganassi resources. The Scottish Wonder Boy was quickly deported back to IndyCar, but not before over 75 people were laid off and the #40 Cup team was shut down. It’s too easy to simply blame one driver for the failure of a team, and I’m sure Franchitti tried his hardest, but this experiment was nothing short of a complete failure. Thankfully for Dario, his overall career actually improved upon returning to IndyCar scoring another three championships and two Indy 500 wins, and to his credit Dario has more recently said that he was in over his head for the NASCAR task. Anytime in the future something like this is attempted, the unspoken goal is to “not be like Dario,” but then again, he may have killed the very idea forever.
4. Danica Patrick (191 Cup races, Zero Wins, 7 Top-10s, 1 Pole)
Perhaps learning from Dario’s failures, the plan to bring Danica Patrick into full time Cup racing was a much more calculated endeavor. Given her popularity, as polarizing at it may have been, preparation in the ARCA or xFinity Series would still receive national attention for sponsors. While not an IndyCar legend as far as statistics, her driving ability was notable, and she did indeed win an oval race while competing there. Still, the bar for success wasn’t too terribly high all things considered, and the patience was there for her to “learn.” Unfortunately, Danica’s NASCAR career was plagued with accidents and incidents, both of the unlucky and the unforced error variety. Worse still, broadcasters at the time (looking at you Darrell Waltrip) were WAY too quick to pile on the excuses seemingly coddling a professional race car driver for their mistakes. There’s far better deep dives into her statistics and analysis’ the length of War and Peace on Danica’s NASCAR attempt, but we can’t in good conscious say that an average finish of 24.1 was a rousing success. I personally think history should be a little more kind to what she tried to do…but most of this criticism was well deserved.
3. Sam Hornish Jr. (167 Races, Zero Wins, 3 Top-5s, 12 Top-10s…*5 xFinity series wins*)
Sam Hornish Jr. had an intriguingly translatable skillset when he made the move from IndyCar to NASCAR. IndyCar from his time was still primarily an oval racing series, and Hornish was one of the best at it. A three-time champion and Indy 500 winner with the idea of hitting the same marks hundreds of times consistently was something Hornish could hopefully translate easily. Full time Cup racing started in 2008, but for the dreaded 3rd Penske car and finished 35th in points without a single Top 10. He slightly improved in 2010 and 2011 however noted success was eluding both Hornish and the team. Ordinarily, the thought would have been to cut losses and head back to open wheel, however that door was more or less closed as IndyCar had converted to a road racing dominated series. Being forced to stay with NASCAR turned into a blessing however, as his approach to the xFinity series translated into near immediate success. Winning a race nearly every year he was full time in the series (in an era when Cup drivers could race in that series all they wanted) and being a points contender in multiple seasons, opportunity came again for Hornish to race in Cup. Hornish drove respectably for both Penske as a substitute and for Richard Petty Motorsports, finishing out his career in 2015. He didn’t set the world on fire, but he did just as well as many drivers who had raced stock cars their entire lives.
2. Juan Pablo Montoya (255 Cup Races, 2 wins, 24 Top-5s, 9 Poles, 1 Playoff Appearance)
Montoya most certainly had the most internationally recognized career leading into NASCAR. With 7 wins in Formula 1, a CART Championship, and an Indy 500 win most every race fan on earth knew of the legend from Bogota, Columbia. Despite these lofty expectations, Montoya had some very respectable results during his first few seasons in NASCAR. While still honing his craft on ovals, Montoya made the most of his road course racing background, winning at Sonoma in his rookie year of 2007 along with 3 top-5s. While Ganassi struggled overall, Montoya still performed well to the equipment winning one additional race in 2010 and making the Playoffs in 2009 finishing 8th overall. Sure, not a Hall of Famer in the stock car world, but had Montoya been in top rung equipment for the entirety of his career, it’s possible he could have added a bucket full of wins to his total.
1. Tony Stewart (618 Cup Races, 49 Wins, 187 Top-5s, 3 Championships)
Yeah yeah, I know…I’m not breaking any new ground with this steaming hot take that Tony Stewart was good in NASCAR. I debated whether to even include him in this article, but his career meets the same metrics as being a crossover attempt. After winning the Indy Racing League Championship for the weird-ass 1996-1997 season, talk arose immediately about Stewart making the move to NASCAR. IndyCar style racing at this time was seemingly falling apart in the United States thanks to a civil war between sanctioning bodies, and everyone involved was suffering. Hell, had IndyCar had its act together Stewart may never have had the career he cut for himself starting Cup in 1999. There’s not much to really say, Tony Stewart was one of the best ever, no matter the type of car he drove. He’s a legend. He was an asshole more often than not, a rabble rouser, an overweight Neanderthal that I could actually believe ate the Whoppers from those Burger King commercials he starred in. He’ll be the last guy you ever see in Cup racing passing out on the side of his car based solely on being out of shape. In many ways he’s a vison of America, and we should consider ourselves lucky to have seen it. Everyone else on this list got their opportunity because Stewart was there to say it could be done. We’ve been chasing that high ever since, trying to find the next Tony Stewart from the ranks of the open wheels.
So now that we’ve examined where we’ve been, what’s a good realistic goal for Jimmie Johnson going into 2021? Take us home Max!
My thoughts/predictions are this: Johnson won’t be anywhere near a threat to win on a week-to-week basis, let alone a threat to even make the podium. My thoughts are that Johnson will be mediocre at best and he’ll consistently run midpack. Even though CGR’s Indy team is a championship caliber team with drivers Scott Dixon, dominating week in and week out, and Felix Rosenqvist, a young prospect filled with talent who already has a win in 2020, Johnson won’t stack up, especially since he’s never driven an IndyCar in a competitive event. Maybe in a few years, if Johnson hangs around, he may develop into a threat to win races, but I doubt he will match the success that he had in NASCAR.
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