It wasn’t like his previous races at Watkins Glen. Instead of the NASCAR Cup Series car he’s driven in his previous 19 races at the famous road track, last year Johnson was behind the wheel of a Cadillac DPi-VR in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.
“During my years of driving, my senses and body have recognized a certain level of grip, speed, and reference points for throttle marks and throttle marks,” Johnson said. “When you crash everything you know, it makes you laugh. Inside the car, I literally laugh. I’m like, ‘I can’t believe I just did that in a race car.’ That’s the part of the sport I really enjoy.”
Johnson returns this week in The Glen’s six-hour Sahlin in the DPi, the 48th Ally Cadillac made by Action Express Racing. His first attempt in the car at WGI last year ended in fifth.
“It was that experience that opened my eyes last year,” Johnson said. “I had six laps of practice before the race, and I wasn’t even close to my pace. After that, I think my time to end, I had 20, 25 laps in the car, and I was finally close to speed and ran the fastest lap in my lap. I took 30 laps To finally find the level of aggression.”
Adding to the modification is the use of four corners (turns from 6 to 9) for IMSA races that are not run by NASCAR. The extra “boot” section is a demanding, high-speed downhill/uphill track, and getting it right is part of Johnson’s delight.
“In one of these DPi Cadillacs, the speed and effort you have to drive around this racetrack are impressive, especially compared to my days in NASCAR,” Johnson said. “Some of the braking areas, the bus stop, the Carousel, it’s just amazing how fast these cars can travel through those little tight areas. (I) am so excited to be back and enjoy this experience again.”
The seven-time Cup Champion has expanded his experiences to include the IndyCar Series and the IMSA Michelin Endurance Cup for the WeatherTech Championship since leaving NASCAR. Johnson will team up with Kamui Kobayashi and Mike Rockenfeller in the #48 Ally Cadillac in the Sahlen’s Six Hours car, which begins Sunday at 10:40 a.m. ET.
Johnson, Kobayashi, Rockenfeller and Jose Maria Lopez opened the WeatherTech Championship season with fifth in the DPi at the Rolex 24 in Daytona. Johnson had to miss the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring presented by Advance Auto Parts in March due to a conflict with the IndyCar schedule.
“Really excited to see Kamui and Mike – two great people and two great guys,” Johnson said. “Overall, I have a lot of excitement coming back to Watkins Glen. It’s a track and area that I really enjoy. And to be on track through the full loop – the boot – I haven’t done it many times in all the rides I’ve been there, so I’m excited to run the track the full distance .”
Johnson said he plans to spend time in racing simulations on Wednesday to get back to Watkins Glen, but nothing beats the time in an actual race car. The more seats a DPi has, Johnson says, the faster it goes.
“You can see that gap close and I feel more comfortable and more competitive in the car,” Johnson said. “In a short sprint, a six-hour race, the importance of being at a higher pace yet. I’m excited to get a few laps in practice, and I’m not sure I’ll get much more than that with the way the practice sessions do. I hope the time I spend In (the simulation) it will really pay off, and I can get a step closer to the pace I want to run.”
We know one thing: He’ll laugh, just like he did last year.
“I am delighted to be back in the racing car and happy to be back with everyone in Action Express Racing,” Johnson said. “It makes me feel like a kid again.”
The Glen’s WeatherTech Championship schedule features two practice sessions — late Friday afternoon and early Saturday morning — before playoffs on Saturday afternoon (streaming live at 1:15 p.m. ET on IMSA.com/TVLive).
Sunday’s race, the third of four stages of the Michelin Endurance Cup, kicks off with a live stream of flag to flag on the peacock starting at 10:40 a.m., with USA Network television coverage at 2 p.m. through to the close.