TALLADEGA - Three days after creating a storm of controversy, five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson has clarified his statements about the safety of racing Indy cars on ovals in the aftermath of Dan Wheldon’s death at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Wheldon was killed instantly Sunday when his No. 77 Sam Schmidt Motorsports Dallara was involved in a 15-car crash just 11 laps into the IZOD IndyCar Series championship final.
On Monday of this week during testing of NASCAR’s new electronic fuel injection engines at Charlotte Motor Speedway Johnson said: “I have a lot of friends that race in that series, and I’d just rather see them on street circuits and road courses. No more ovals.”
Almost immediately Johnson came under attack from IndyCar fans and, more seriously, from IndyCar legends Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt.
Foyt said Johnson’s remarks were “stupid” because the NASCAR champion has never driven an Indy-type race car and Foyt claimed the dangers of racing isn’t exclusive to IndyCar.
“You could say the same about stock cars,” he said in an interview with USA Today. “I’ve driven both, and I’ve been hurt real bad in both.”
Johnson now says his original statements were misunderstood.
“By no means did I ever want to take a bad position against IndyCar racing because I’m a huge fan of it,” Johnson said. “As a kid growing up, that’s what I wanted to do. I love those cars. I love that sport. I love the (Indianapolis) 500. I love what they’re about.
“That was my dream as a kid. So through all of this, I just want people to know my support of that series and my support for the safety of those drivers.”
Johnson said he has reached out to his friends in the IndyCar series — including Toronto’s Paul Tracy — to make sure they understood where he was coming from.
“I have a lot of friends over there,” Johnson said. “So we’ve all been discussing things.”
In those discussions with Tracy and others, Johnson said they agreed he was not being critical of open wheel racing in general or IndyCar racing in particular.
He said his concerns were about racing IndyCars on high-banked oval tracks like Las Vegas.
In fact Tracy, as well as four-time IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti, were saying much the same thing after the tragedy at LVMS.
“As my comments from the test Monday came out, (IndyCar drivers) were all very supportive and understood what I was trying to say,” Johnson said. “If I had used the words ‘high-banked’ ovals when I spoke on Monday, that probably would have alleviated a lot of the discussion and the misunderstanding, I guess.”
Johnson said he also reached out to Andretti and Foyt to calm the waters.
He said he is just as concerned about racing NASCAR Sprint Cup cars at super speedways — like he will on Sunday in the Good Sam Club 500 at Talladega — as he is about IndyCars racing at one and a half mile banked ovals.
“(Andretti and Foyt) shared the same concerns about the safety of the sport,” Johnson said. “I had great conversations with both. ... What seemed to be a common thread in talking to Mario and A.J., the high-banked ovals for those guys is like Talladega for us.
“I agree with them and hope that we can move forward and the series will take the steps it needs to make it safe on those tracks and the drivers have a concern for that. We need to get this behind us and remember Dan in the right way and figure out how as a group to make racing safer.”
Johnson said in no way did he ever intend to imply that a series like NASCAR was superior to Indycar or visa versa.
“Motor sports needs IndyCar. NASCAR needs IndyCar. The (IndyCar series) was heading in a great direction,” Johnson told The Associated Press. “We need to figure out as a group how to make racing safer. We’ve got a lot of smart people and we can all pool together and make motor sports smarter.”
Meanwhile Johnson will need a top finish at Talladega on Sunday to stay in the hunt of a sixth NASCAR crown.
After he crashed at Charlotte last Saturday night Johnson fell from third to eighth in the standings, 35 points back of leader Carl Edwards.