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Sport Jimmie Johnson, Romain Grosjean exceed own expectations in IndyCar debuts at Barber Motorsports Park

15:25  19 april  2021
15:25  19 april  2021 Source:   usatoday.com

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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Alex Palou wasn't the only IndyCar driver to exceed expectations during Sunday's season opener at Barber Motorsports Park.

Two IndyCar rookies — one 11 years Palou's senior, the other 21 — came away satisfied with their performances in what, for Romain Grosjean and Jimmie Johnson, was a vastly different series and car than their combined 28 seasons of Formula 1 and the NASCAR Cup Series experience.

As expected, the Frenchman Grosjean turned in the better performance, thanks to nearly a decade in high-level open-wheel cars. But he didn't merely turn laps for one of the smallest teams in the paddock. At times, Grosjean led full-field sessions, including Saturday's second practice and Sunday's warmup. And his performance during qualifying Saturday evening in his first relevant experience on Firestone Red Tires left him fractions of a second out of the Fast Six.

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a person driving a race track: Jimmie Johnson during Sunday's IndyCar race at Barber Motorsports Park. © Marvin Gentry, USA TODAY Sports Jimmie Johnson during Sunday's IndyCar race at Barber Motorsports Park.

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That surprised even Grosjean.

"No. Honestly, no," he said, when asked Sunday if he'd expected to finish seventh in qualifying.

So too did he and his Dale Coyne Racing with Rick Ware Racing team's ability to compete with the rest of the field. That level of competition was something Grosjean hardly experienced during nine years in F1, which played a major role in pulling him over to IndyCar.

"When I heard my engineer say, 'P1, P1', I was like, 'Oh, that hasn't happened in a long time!' " he told IndyStar on Sunday. "That was really good fun. There are bigger teams than us, but that doesn't mean we can't compete at the front, and we showed everyone that they should count on us when we're doing a good job."

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So much so that, at times during Sunday's race, Grosjean found himself inside the top-five, though he dropped back to finish 10th. His team picked the aggressive, two-stop strategy that all of Sunday's podium (Palou, Will Power and Scott Dixon) chose, but the DCR team didn't quite master the fuel-saving towards the back half of the race.

More: Alex Palou rides two-stop strategy to first win in dominant day for Ganassi at Barber

"All in all, it was very positive, but now we have to go back next weekend and almost restart from zero," he said, referring to next Sunday's race on the streets of St. Pete. "It's a street course I don't know. I don't know the tires. I don't know the setup. I don't know the circuit. But let's go again.

"Obviously, I have a lot to learn and a lot to look forward to, but after (my crash in) Bahrain last year (in F1 in November), I think we did very well this weekend. We can be proud of ourselves."

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Does he think a top-10 start could be signs for something much, much more later on in 2021?

"Yes, I think we can win a race," he said, matter-of-factly, with a grin.

Jimmie Johnson: 'That was chaos'

Johnson isn't nearly there and has said bluntly he doesn't expect to be in 2021 at minimum.

But for a driver who had childhood dreams of driving in IndyCar and then spent nearly 20 years in the top-level of stock car racing and tied a legendary series record with seven championships, nearly finishing all the laps Sunday was good enough.

In the end, Johnson finished three laps down in 19th after starting 21st — one day after simply celebrating not being last following qualifying.

And maybe his biggest win came before he'd even completed a lap, navigating the Lap 1 carnage caused by Josef Newgarden's spin that ended Ryan Hunter-Reay's day and set Colton Herta, Felix Rosenqvist, Max Chilton and Rinus VeeKay back.

"That was chaos," Johnson said post-race on the broadcast. "I bounced off a few cars, but nothing really happened to mine, so I was very fortunate there."

Johnson's own on-track mistake came eight laps later when he spun on his own and caused a full-course yellow flag, but managed to keep his car running and out of the tire barriers.

"It all brought a ton of learning experiences throughout the day," he said. "Once again, I'm very thankful for the opportunity Chip (Ganassi) has given me at Chip Ganassi Racing."

Email IndyStar motor sports reporter Nathan Brown at nlbrown@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter: @By_NathanBrown.c

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Jimmie Johnson, Romain Grosjean exceed own expectations in IndyCar debuts at Barber Motorsports Park

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