Indianapolis ( Associated Press) – Jimmy Johnson was bullied by Indianapolis 500 great Dario Franchitti for some last-second encouragement.
Johnson then worked the rope around his car – with fans, friends and family like no other driver – and hugged and reached everyone he could. His old NASCAR crew chief, Chad Nose, watched over. So did NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Jarrett.
Then came the Johnson girls. The family that enthusiastically persuaded Johnson to pursue his childhood dream and race the Indy 500 could not let him go. Johnson’s two young daughters squealed hard as they threw their arms around his waist and shoulders.
But dad had to run.
With that, the seven-time NASCAR champion and one of the greatest drivers in auto racing history buckled his helmet and slid inside a 48-year-old car ready for his rookie race at Indy at Indy.
Johnson began Sunday 12th as he tried to join AJ Foyt and Mario Andretti as the only drivers to win both the Indianapolis 500 and the Daytona 500. Andretti and Tony Stewart, members of Johnson’s former NASCAR team, and even his father, who worked in the race as Johnson’s spotter, all sent video messages of support.
“I wish I had some advice for you that would have been useful but you know what to do,” Andretti said.
Johnson hands over for driver introductions with his two young daughters, Lydia and Evie. Out of nearly 300,000 fans, Johnson’s praise was topped only by four-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves.
Johnson’s wife Chani 48 joined the family in the car. Franchiti, a three-time Indy 500 champion, served as Johnson’s driving coach at Chip Ganassi Racing and appeared passionate while embracing Johnson.
Johnson flashed a thumbs-up for the final photo for his helmet artist, Troy Lee.
“Tomorrow, my childhood dream will come true,” Johnson tweeted on Saturday.
Johnson partnered with close friend and country music star Blake Shelton to honor family members who served in the military. Johnson’s helmet features a red, white and blue paint scheme with black-and-white photographs of his grandfather and Shelton’s brother and father.
“Whenever Jimmy Johnson asks you to do something, you’re going to do it anyway,” said Shelton, watching the opening laps. “But it was extra special.”
Johnson has won 83 times in NASCAR, claims a record-tying seven NASCAR championships, and could walk away from racing after 2020 while preserving his legacy.
Johnson, a four-time winner at the Brickyard in NASCAR, couldn’t shake Indy.
He reassured his wife that the cockpit-protecting aeroscreen IndyCar, added in 2020, has dramatically improved safety concerns around drivers’ exposed heads. His family was on board, and so were his sponsors and Ganassi.
Johnson is one of seven Indy 500 rookies in the fray this year, and if he should win the rookie of the race, he will be the oldest of the Indy 500’s 106 editions. Lynn St. James was 45 when she became the first woman to win the Indy 500 top rookie honor in 1992.
It is rare for rookies to win, although Juan Pablo Montoya (2000), Castroneves (2001) and Alexander Rossi (2016) have achieved the feat.
Johnson has the worst start in five Ganassi qualifiers and teammate Scott Dixon starts on pole. But it was of little importance after the green signal fell. Johnson has stuck to his belief that in order to win, he must first finish.
And as he said goodbye to his family, it was clear he was off to a great start.
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