Johnson, who retired from NASCAR last season after a distinguished career with Hendrick Motorsports, is running all the non-oval races this year for Chip Ganassi Racing-Honda. After qualifying 21st for his first start in America’s premier open-wheel series, he was almost taken out in the opening lap chaos caused in the aftermath of spinning frontrunner Josef Newgarden.
Having escaped that without damage, despite hitting another car, Johnson ran on the lead lap until he spun and stalled, which caused a full-course yellow during which he dropped a lap. He was then lapped again by the leaders but was classified 19th.
“Very happy to have finished,” Johnson told NBC. “There were two pretty scary moments in the race. One heading going into Turn 5 at the original start, there was chaos and I bounced off a few cars but nothing really happened [to damage my car] evidently, so that was very fortunate.
“Then I spun in traffic following someone up over the hill into Turn 13, and unfortunately I lost a lap at that point. Just a ton of learning experience throughout the day and just very thankful for this opportunity that Chip’s given me.”
On the subject of the physical strain on the demands of the recently-resurfaced track, Johnson replied: “I’m not bad, my left hand is about to blister. All in all, I could have gone a few more laps, I wasn’t totally taxed, the training worked out well, so I’ll heal up and be ready for St Pete.”
Team boss Chip Ganassi paid tribute to Johnson after the race, commenting: “What a great leader he is. What a great guy. It really makes me mad to know what I was up against in NASCAR for all of those years.
“Now I understand why he won seven championships, the guy’s the hardest worker I know, he never stops and he’s having a great time. He’s got a hill to climb, but he’s going to do it.”
Ganassi won the race with second-year IndyCar racer Alex Palou, who won on his first start for the team.
Johnson added: “Huge congrats to Alex, the kid is on it. He showed he can get it done today. He’s an amazing guy and to be his age, with so much talent, and so much wisdom, and speaking to him is always very impressive for me. We did have a good laugh the other day, when he informed me that I’m older than his father, so after that laugh I’ve been picking on him a bit!
“Just an amazing job today.”