SPARTA — One of the advantages to working in sports journalism is when you wonder about something, occasionally you get the chance to ask somebody who is uniquely in position to explain it.
Last weekend at Kentucky Speedway, I asked NASCAR star Jimmie Johnson why IndyCar drivers such as Dario Franchitti, Sam Hornish Jr. and Danica Patrick have tended to struggle when they try to switch to NASCAR.
In reply, the five-time Sprint Cup champion gave one of the more illuminating — and expansive — answers I've ever heard from a major sports figure.
1.) Driving an IndyCar and a stock car are fundamentally different experiences.
"The Cup car has a lot of mechanical grip (created by car mass and tires and suspensions) and very little down force (downward thrust created by aerodynamics). It's just the opposite for an IndyCar race car," Johnson explained.
"I know when I raced a GRAND-AM car, the way you use the brakes in a braking zone is totally different than if you do the same thing in a Cup car on the same track at Watkins Glen. They all have four wheels, but they are very, very different (to drive)."
2.) Open-wheel racers coming into NASCAR are not used to the side-by-side racing that is common to stock-car drivers.
"One other element that's involved in all of this — and I think it's something that's always worked in my favor — (is) I'm used to running side-by-side with people in racing," Johnson said. "And I'm a far better racer than I am somebody who qualifies or posts practice speeds (while alone on the track).
"IndyCar guys and girls don't have a lot of side-by-side racing. They do, kind of now on the 1.5-mile ovals they run on, but it's like a plate track, (you are) running wide-open. It's not the competitive passing and racing and fighting for position like you see in NASCAR. And it takes a while to figure it out.
"Even with my background, I can remember my first three races in ASA (American Speed Association, a stock-car series) that I ran, I would catch a car and be stuck behind it and couldn't pass it. I remember being on the radio and being upset that I didn't know how to pass the car. It took time to figure out how to do that."
3. Different cars, different style of racing, different challenge entirely.
"So, when I summarize it all, it's really that they are different cars. And then the racing that takes place on the track, the door-to-door racing and where you position your car to keep the air on it so you don't make a mistake and how you can affect others around you to get the position, that's just something that takes laps," Johnson said.
"I have a lot of friends that race in other series that want to come NASCAR racing and I tell them all (that) they need a five-year plan before you have high expectations. You need to go out there and hit walls. You need to make mistakes. You need to make people mad. That's what you do. You have to go out there and learn and learn through experience."
4.) Sam Hornish Jr. is an example of the benefits of time. The three-time IndyCar champ switched to NASCAR, lost his ride in the Sprint Cup Series in 2010 after three years but has stuck it out in stock cars and is now contending for the Nationwide Series championship.
"In time, you see Sam is really off to a great year in Nationwide winning races and leading the championship at times," Johnson said. "I think he's proof that you just need time. He's a great driver. He just needs to figure it all out in this style of car."
5.) What would happen if a stock-car star tried to race in IndyCar?
"I'd be very interested to watch a closed-bodied driver go to an open-wheel vehicle," Johnson said. "Guys that I've talked to that have come our direction like Dario, and maybe even Juan (Pablo Montoya), when you take the down force off the car your eyes are calibrated for a certain speed and it's tough for them to come our direction.
"I'm very curious too, to what it's like to go from a car that doesn't stick in the corner all that well (a stock car) to something that has a lot of grip (an IndyCar). Would the transition be easier going from our car to theirs?
"I have the same question. I don't know the answer. But I do know, ... you're not just going to show up in your first year and race for a win. But, theoretically, there's an argument that going from low down force to high down force is an easier transition than the other way."