Palou: Jimmie was a big help to me

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Jimmie Johnson finished 20th at Portland International Raceway – he wasn’t last, Johnson has yet to finish last of 10 IndyCar races – then hopped on an electric scooter for a quick ride to the victory lane.

Johnson wanted to spend a minute congratulating his teammate Alex Palou, the second-year IndyCar driver who had just won his third race of the season to regain the lead in the championship standings.

Johnson is a seven-time NASCAR champion who doesn’t have a lot of track results to show for this mid-life career change in the IndyCar series. But the intangibles he brought to Chip Ganassi Racing cannot be measured and Johnson might just be the guy helping Palou win his first IndyCar title race.

Johnson left NASCAR at the end of last season as the most dominant driver of his generation. His nearly two-decade journey included 83 career Cup Series wins, a record-breaking five consecutive NASCAR championships, a record-breaking seven overall titles, and an unfazed mental focus that infuriated rivals who never knew how to take down. Johnson of his game.

Still, he was there in Portland, an IndyCar rookie five days before his 46th birthday, reminding Palou that the young Spaniard is in control of his own destiny.

Palou had taken the lead in points after the start of the IndyCar season, where he won his first career race on his debut with Team Ganassi. He hadn’t slipped below third in the standings all year, but an engine failure last month followed by an accident at Gateway had wiped out Palou’s 42-point lead and he fell. made it to Portland behind Pato O’Ward.

When his engine broke in Indianapolis when he was fourth, Palou found Johnson to talk about overcoming setbacks. And when he was recovered in a crash the following week on the oval outside of St. Louis, the 24-year-old once again sought advice from one of the sport’s greatest champions.

“Jimmie was a big help to me,” Palou said after Sunday’s victory. “After Indy’s road trip, I sat down with him and he was telling me that when he was in his NASCAR career, he had times like this and he always wins. He told me a few things. He did the same after Gateway, and hopefully we can win a championship at home.

Johnson’s career is well documented in that he won 18 races – including three consecutive Coca-Cola 600s and a Southern 500 – but lost four consecutive championships in his first four Cup seasons. Team owner Rick Hendrick eventually sat Johnson with team leader Chad Knaus over milk and cookies and asked the duo to stop bickering over their shortcomings and focus on closing the ditch. ‘a championship.

Johnson responded by winning five straight titles behind 35 wins. He developed a toughness of steel. Outside distractions simply did not exist.

Although Palou would not share the advice he gleaned from Johnson over the past month, Johnson said he was simply speaking from his own experiences.

“I shared some of my tough championship moments with him as a starting point,” Johnson told The Associated Press. “I’m just trying to make the point that big trophies don’t come without a struggle and without the need to win.”

Johnson didn’t stop there either.

Palou has never won a major racing championship. His last titles came as a teenager in karting in Spain, five or more years ago. His goal has always been to qualify for the IndyCar series, but his winding route took him to Japan for two seasons – halfway around the world where anyone who had even heard of Palou before he showed up. last season as a rookie with Dale Coyne Racing.

Palou managed to secure a free seat in Ganassi for his second season, joining a squad that includes six-time defending IndyCar champion Scott Dixon, drivers coach Dario Franchitti, a four-time series champion and three-time winner. of the Indianapolis 500, former Indy 500 winner Tony Kanaan, former Formula 1 driver Marcus Ericsson and now Johnson, who heads to the NASCAR Hall of Fame but challenges himself in another series at the end of his career.

Palou is surrounded by veteran leaders and seems to be treated like the serious younger brother. He’s not afraid to pester his teammates with questions, and his only mood seems to be happy all the time, happy to have finally achieved his dream job in IndyCar with a powerful team.

“He’s still smiling. I always tell him he’s too nice, ”Dixon said. “He’s obviously very adaptive. He’s done a tremendous job in the junior categories, but yeah, he’s a little boring sometimes when he asks a lot of questions, but he’s definitely done a huge job this year.

That’s what Johnson focused on when he spoke to Palou after Gateway, where Palou was knocked out of the race and dropped 10 points behind O’Ward with three races remaining. The advice worked as Palou returned from the two-week hiatus in IndyCar to win his first career pole, recovering from an incident in the first corner in Portland to win the race and take a 25-point lead over O ‘Ward with two races to go.

“I keep telling him to be fair Alex,” Johnson told AP. “He’s so good and in the zone. He doesn’t need to try harder or think more. It’s about staying where he is and being himself. Hope this all makes sense? ” (Report by Jenna Fryer)


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