Column: Johnson’s leadership stabilizes Palu for title fight

Portland, Ore. – Jimmy Johnson finished 20th at Portland International Raceway – he was not the last, Johnson has yet to finish last through 10 IndyCar races – then jumped on an electric scooter for a quick ride to the victory lane .

johnson wanted to spend a minute congratulating teammate Alex Palu, The second-year IndyCar driver who won his third race of the season to take the lead in the championship standings.

Johnson is a seven-time NASCAR champion who hasn’t had much in the way of on-track results for this midlife career turnaround in the IndyCar Series. But the intangibles he has brought to Chip Ganassi Racing can’t be measured and Johnson just might be the guy who helps propel Palu through his first IndyCar title run.

Johnson left NASCAR at the end of last season as the most influential driver of his generation. His nearly two-decade run included 83 career Cup Series victories, a record-setting five consecutive NASCAR championships, a record-tying seven overall titles, and an indomitable mental focus, impressing rivals who never quite figured it out. How to beat Johnson at his own game.

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

Palu took the point lead after the IndyCar season-opener, where he won the first race of his career in his debut with the Ganassi team. He had not slipped less than third in the standings all year, but Palu’s 42-point lead was missing after a crash at Gateway last month following an engine failure and trailing Pato O’Ward in Portland .

When his engine failed in Indianapolis while he was running fourth, Palu found Johnson to talk to about overcoming the failures. And when he crashed on the oval outside St. Louis the following week, the 24-year-old again sought the advice of one of the greatest champions in the sport.

“Jimmy has been a really big help to me,” Palu said after Sunday’s win. “After the indie road course, I sat with him and he was telling me he had moments like that when he was on his NASCAR career and that he still won. He told me some tricks. He did the same after the getaways. Well done and hopefully we can get the championship at home.

Johnson’s career is well documented in that he has won 18 races, including three consecutive Coca-Cola 600s and a Southern 500 – yet lost four straight championships in his first four cup seasons. Team owner Rick Hendricks eventually sat Johnson down with crew chief Chad Knows over milk and cookies, demanding that the two give up on their shortcomings and focus on closing out a championship.

Johnson responded by winning five consecutive titles on the back of 35 wins. He developed a steely brutality. External distractions simply did not exist.

Although Palu would not share suggestions he received from Johnson last month, Johnson said he only spoke about his experiences.

“I shared some of my challenging championship moments with him as a starting point,” Johnson told the Associated Press. “Just trying to enforce the fact that big trophies don’t come without a need to struggle and overcome.”

Johnson did not stop here.

Palu has never won a major racing championship. His last title came five or more years ago as a teenager karting in Spain. His goal was always to make it to the IndyCar Series, but his winding path took him to Japan for two seasons – half the world from where anyone had heard of Palu, before he signed a deal with Del Coin Racing last season. Came in as a cheater.

Palu was able to snag an open seat at Ganassi for his second season, joining a lineup that included six-time and current IndyCar champion Scott Dixon, driver coach Dario Franchitti, four-time series champion and three-time Indianapolis 500 winner. , includes the former. Indy 500 winner Tony Kanan, former Formula One driver Marcus Ericsson and now Johnson, who is in line to the NASCAR Hall of Fame but at the end of his career, are challenging themselves to a different series.

Palu is surrounded by experienced leadership and seems to be treated as the youngest brother. He is oblivious to troubling his teammates with questions, and his only mood is happy at all times, content to eventually reach his dream job at IndyCar with a powerhouse team.

“He’s always smiling. I always tell him he’s great,” Dixon said. “He is obviously very adaptive. He has done a tremendous job in the junior category, but yes, he gets a little nervous sometimes when he is asking a lot of questions, but this year he has definitely done a great job. has done.”

When Johnson spoke to Palu after the Gateway, the focus was on where Palu was knocked out of the race and 10 points behind O’ward with three races remaining. The advice worked as Palu returned from a two-week IndyCar break to win his first career pole, recovering from an incident for the first time in Portland to win the race and with two races to go 25 points ahead of O’Ward. Proceeded.

“I keep telling him just to be Alex,” Johnson told the AP. “He’s very talented and in the field. He doesn’t need to put much effort or overthink. It’s about staying where he is and being himself. Hope it all makes sense?”


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