Speaking three days before the opening practice for the first round of the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series, Ganassi, whose drivers have won the championship 13 times in the last 25 years, said he was anticipating a strong debut season from stock car convert Johnson, while also anticipating some difficult days.
Asked what he would consider a successful inaugural season for Johnson in IndyCar, Ganassi replied: “I think there’s no question some podiums would be considered a success, and maybe squeak a win out. It’s certainly not impossible.
“He has the talent. He has the race craft. I know he can do it. It’s just a matter of him getting comfortable in the environment, with cars on the track now.
“Obviously testing has been fine, so once we get out there with some traffic, with some cars he can pass, I think the racer will come out in him very easily.
“I mean, if there’s a rocky day, am I going to be surprised? Probably not. But… he has all the talent that you need, and certainly has the race craft and the experience of knowing what to do, when to do it.
“That’s half the game in motor racing – what I like to say as ‘doing the obvious things right.’ I’m sure Jimmie has got plenty of practice at that. It doesn’t matter what kind of car you’re in.”
On the subject of what 45-year-old Johnson, an 83-time race winner at NASCAR Cup level, brings to the Chip Ganassi Racing organization, Ganassi commented: “I think any time you can add a championship-winning driver to your team it says something. NASCAR championships or IndyCar championships, they’re tough battles. It doesn’t always mean you’re only talking about the car. Drivers bring a lot with them.
“I’ve always said, there are guys who can drive cars fast, there are guys who can win races, and there are guys who can win championships, and that’s three different kinds of drivers. Each one of those brings a certain thing to the team.
“Obviously when you bring a championship driver in – it could be a Super Bowl champion like Joe Montana. I can’t tell you the intangibles he brought to our team over a two- or three-year period back in the late ’90s and early 2000s.
“Anytime you have access to that book of knowledge, and in this instance race craft and what I would consider just tools that you bring along that get downloaded to the rest of the team, it’s invaluable. It’s invaluable.
“I just talked to [Johnson] on the phone an hour ago. A little something rubs off every time he talks to you. You see what kind of guy he is, what kind of person he is.”
Ganassi later added, “He’s a damn hard worker. I’ll tell you what, he set a new: he set the bar at a new level for the amount of work a driver puts in. My hat’s off to him… 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. Yeah, he’s a hard worker.”
Johnson is set to drive the 13 road and street course races on the 2021 IndyCar schedule, while the four oval races – two at Texas, the Indy 500 and Gateway’s World Wide Technology Raceway – will see the #48 Chip Ganassi Racing-Honda piloted by Tony Kanaan. Ganassi, asked whether he’d welcome the opportunity to let Johnson try out an IndyCar on an oval.
“Absolutely!” he responded. “What owner wouldn’t want to have the opportunity, first of all, to have Jimmie Johnson on your team, but second of all, say he wants to test your car on an oval? Of course. Yeah, the answer is an easy yes.”
Last year, Ganassi’s six-time champion Scott Dixon observed that Josef Newgarden and Team Penske’s #1 crew (this year, #2) had become more difficult to beat in the championship because they had adopted the Dixon/Ganassi #9 team’s long-held policy of garnering top-five finishes on bad days, rather than the win-or-bust mentality prevalent among others.
Last year, two next-gen stars, Colton Herta (Andretti Autosport-Honda) and Pato O’Ward (Arrow McLaren SP-Chevrolet), appeared to have that policy nailed as well. Asked by Motorsport.com if that means it was going to become ever harder for his team to win titles, Ganassi said: “Well, I don’t think it ever gets any easier.
“I mean, that’s the one thing about sports teams; people can go around and count your people and count your assets, pretty much laying out all your things every weekend. It’s not hard to understand what you have to do to win a race. I think doing it is another story.
“I think the good news is we don’t win races the same way, week in and week out. Fortunately at our team we have alternate ways of winning races, so there’s not just one way to do it.
“You know, these drivers are maturing, and with maturation in the process comes some speed and race craft. I think it’s just a natural progression of their careers more than anything, as opposed to copying another team.”
Ganassi also expressed high hopes about his other newcomer, series sophomore Alex Palou.
“I think the jury is out about what he’ll bring to the team,” he said, “[but] I can tell you this: at two tests over the winter he was the fastest of our group of cars. We have high hopes for Alex.”