Jimmie Johnson is NASCAR’s #1 again – but how would he fare in Formula 1?

Jimmie Johnson in his Chevrolet Impala NASCAR

Jimmie Johnson in his Chevrolet Impala NASCAR

Jimmie Johnson won the NASCAR title for the third year in a row last week. In the past six years he’s also been runner-up twice, in 2003 and 2004.

He doesn’t fit the NASCAR stereotype of a drawling redneck: Johnson is from California and flies to races in a Gulfstream jet. He’s also clearly one of NASCAR’s top drivers. So how would he compare to a typical F1 driver?

I was disappointed to read a few weeks ago that Johnson’s rival Kyle Busch was no longer going to be testing an F1 car for Toyota, denying us a rare glimpse of a top NASCAR driver in a pukka F1 car. Although we’ve seen several recent F1 drivers try their hands at NASCAR including Jacques Villeneuve and Juan Paclo Montoya, the last time I remember seeing a NASCAR driver try out an F1 car was Jeff Gordon in 2003.

It’s very hard to compare drivers between two of the world’s most popular forms of motor racing, because the two disciplines are different in almost every way.

It’s easy to get bogged down in the ‘F1 is better than NASCAR because…/NASCAR is better than F1 because…” Let’s just accept that the two are almost entirely different and leave it at that.

No modern driver has come close to winning championships in both disciplines. Montoya has won races in both, though only one in NASCAR, and that was at one of the series’ few road courses last year.

Johnson plays the NASCAR game very cannily. If on occasions this year it looked as though Lewis Hamilton had lost site of the importance of being conservative and collecting points, you could not accuse Johnson of the same.

Several years ago NASCAR adopted a new championship system called ‘Chase for the Cup’ with the aim of keeping championship battles open until the last round. Under the current system, with ten races to go the top 12 drivers points are equalised, and the championship decided over the final races.

Last year Johnson ran a consistent season up until the chase, collecting points with regularity. With the chase in sight he won the final two races before it began, then added four more victories in the final ten races. It was a similar story this year: four wins in the first 26 races, three in the final ten. Over the last 72 races, only five DNFs.

In short, he plays the system: Collecting points in the main part of the championship, then dominating the chase. He does it so effectively, NASCAR are considering changing the chase system, much like the FIA tweaked F1’s points after Michael Schumacher’s dominant 2002 season.

Here’s how Johnson’s career stats compare to some of F1’s top drivers:

Driver Races Wins Win rate Pole positions DNFs
Jimmie Johnson 255 40 15.69% 23 25
Fernando Alonso 121 21 17.36% 17 26
Kimi Raikkonen 139 17 12.23% 16 45
Lewis Hamilton 35 9 25.71% 13 2
Felipe Massa 105 11 10.48% 15 21

Statistics can only tell us a fraction of the story – and as I’m no great NASCAR fan this is about as much as I can tell you about Jimmie Johnson. But still I’d love to see an oval-bred, panel-bashing NASCAR racer try out an F1 car.

Do any NASCAR watchers out there have some thoughts on how Johnson could do?

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18 comments on Jimmie Johnson is NASCAR’s #1 again – but how would he fare in Formula 1?

  1. Charles said on 23rd November 2008, 7:31

    It’s obviously hard to say but I think Johnson would struggle because of his relative poor performance on road courses to drivers who have previously driven F1 in NASCAR.

  2. Seedy001 said on 23rd November 2008, 11:07

    I agree with Charles, Jimmie is a great driver but it comes down to the consistancy versus wins debate because out of those 3 championships he would only have won one under the old NASCAR points system. I think if you wanted to put a NASCAR driver in an F1 car then I’d suggest Jeff Gordon (already tested) and Tony Stewart who are probably the two most complete NASCAR drivers and the best on road courses.

  3. Warren said on 23rd November 2008, 23:04

    I’m an American who grew up an F1 fan and gradually have been watching more NASCAR. The two sports take a completely different mindset for success. F1 has hyper-sensitivity, hyper-performance, limited track time, adrenaline, sprint type racing. Whereas NASCAR has almost 40 races a year, brutally long races, heavy slug-type race cars that nearly flop over when a sway bar breaks, but they do have pretty big power though. The restricter plate races take no skill whatsoever but are cool to watch. And during races they have long stints and shorts stints where they make changes to the car and shuffle backwards and forwards. And deal with grip-in, grip-middle and grip-out of corners in terms of roll, bite and wash, of the same corners over and over again. That being said, the top NASCAR drivers are at the top for a reason. They drive the wheels off those cars a lot more than a road coarse purist would think and for long periods of time. Some of the TV perspectives of how they push those cars were a real eye opener and I gained a lot of respect for what they do. Road course results, I don’t think, are that great of an indicator of potential in NASCAR for several reasons (too few, so drivers never even get on a potential learning curve with them if they didn’t already have experience on them). Put Jimmie Johnson in the number two McLaren for 3 seasons , just my dopey opinion, but I think he would do respectable but never threaten the number one guy. No chance. To be the best on each side of the sport takes two different skill strengths. Great F1 drivers could sometimes be described as brilliant. There are a lot of descriptive words for great NASCAR drivers (skill, talent, knack, feel, know-how), but brilliant isn’t quite at the top of the list. NASCAR is great for the fans, likable characters, it’s on TV all the time, many weekly potential winners etc, but nothing can compare to the purity of performance in F1. Not to mention the last lap in Brazil this year.

  4. HounslowBusGarage said on 23rd November 2008, 23:08

    Wouldn’t it be good to have a sort of ‘Best of the Season’ type event with the two best Nascar, Formula 1 and WRC drivers competing against each other in their home disciplines.
    There could be a Craftsman Truck type race, and a Formula Renault road race followed by a few off-road sections in identical Citroens or whatever.
    Winner to be crowned ‘World Motor Racing Champion’?
    Should help enliven the dark days from October to March, anyway.

  5. winterbear said on 24th November 2008, 1:00

    Bloated clown car sedans going in circles in a fake racing championship… low tech steel brake, tubular frame crap cars… insane point system, rules to keep everyone on the same lap and simple tracks in that require very little skill located in bizarro little towns.

    Yeah.. Nascar is terrible stuff. Its a minor league regional racing series that has terrific marketing. Its like Pro Wrestling if they had better PR.

    So, IF a nascar driver spent a few years driving in the feeder systems he might develop some skills that would be useful in F1.. But thats a lot of if.

  6. First up, great article Keith! I always enjoy the occasional look into other motorsports like this.

    Being born and raised here in the U.S. and living a short distance from the NASCAR circuit at Pocono, I see a good bit of coverage on Johnson and the rest, despite not being a real fan of the series. In terms of Johnson and the others you mention making it to F1, I think Jimmie has the raw racing skills and determination and could do well, but open-wheel racing is a bit different than stock cars, so we would never really know until he did some extensive testing.

    On one basic note, in a stock car series like NASCAR, things such as physical height and size are not as much of a factor as they would be in F1. I don’t know how tall Johnson is, but there is a chance that some great NASCAR drivers coulden’t even fit into an F1 cockpit if they wanted to.

    As for Stewart, he also has raw racing skills, but his physical fitness leaves a bit to be desired, to put it mildly…..

  7. Winterbear,

    I had my first comment typed and sitting on my computer while attending to other work for awhile, so forgive my response to your comment in a seperate post.

    I’m not a big fan of NASCAR, but the point I disagree with is your comment about “bizarro little towns” making up the series schedule. As you can see above, one of those tracks is a short drive from my home, and our area enjoys the excitement (and revenue) that the NASCAR circus brings to town.

    I don’t know where you live or from what part of the world you’re checking in from, but how would you like it if I talked trash about your neighborhood sometime? Daytona is far from isloated, same thing with Phoenix and Las Vegas- both former F1 stops. Sure, some others are out in the woods a bit….but can’t the same be said of Spa? Silverstone? Magny Cours? Oh, and how about Bahrain? There’s some great landscape for you……

    Perhaps NASCAR may not have the most exotic locations, but they also aren’t busy securing boring street circuits that feature Bernie’s glitz and glamour but dirt-poor racing and zero passing chances. Oh, and that night racing that you probably adore about an otherwise-boring Singapore circuit? NASCAR had Bernie beat on that concept for a few years as well my friend.

  8. Steve K said on 24th November 2008, 4:42

    Put him in a Ferrari or Mercedes and I say within a year he is running up front. Put him in a Force India or a Honda and the guy will suck. It works the same way, Montoya has caught on, but the Dodge engine sucks (JPM’s team has merged with DEI and will be running Chevy’s, he will be MUCH more competitive). A racer is a racer, just give them a year to learn the new car and the new courses.

  9. Hounslow, great idea, but to be fair I think you would also have to include DTM and WTCC drivers too, and what about the Japanese Touring Cars and Austrailian V8s come to that?
    I know that the Race of Champions tries to include everybody, but it is really only half the picture. It would be cool to see maybe a short sprint GP2 race with all sorts of ‘guest’ drivers competing on equal terms

  10. As for Jimmie Johnson doing well in F1, I think that it would take a long time for him to adapt enough to be any good. Look at how other Americans have done – Scott Speed and Sebastien Bourdais most recently. Montoya didn’t get on that well, and even Villeneuve had problems. I know they hadn’t come from NASCAR, but IRL seems to run on similar tracks, and the drivers need a different mind-set to the F1 guys.
    Maybe if F1 does ever get back into North America, it could look at running an oval race, to really challenge the drivers and the engineers to get the right set up, and maybe get more American interest?

  11. Being a F1 fan in a small town in the US, I feel like I am alone on an island. Never had much use or interest in NASCAR but to think Johnson could come over and compete in F1 would be next to impossible. Comparing NASCAR to F1 is like comparing professional “wrestling” to UFC. Totally different discipline.

  12. Being that I started watching NASCAR first, I tend to favor it well over F1. To the comment of fake racing, I could get in to this one about what makes NASCAR good but what is the point. I know what I like and will not waste time trying to convince others. NASCAR and F1 are the two bigest in motosports and in there own right have the best drivers for the disipline. Johnson is in a great driver in a great car and a great crew. Yes the new chase system has played in to his favor, but this championship was not won by a landslide and would have been a lot closer had luck not went there way and bad luck for other drivers. But that is part of racing. I think Johnson would fare in F1 about as well as if you put Hamilton straght in to a Cup car with just a few races in the lower brackes as Johnson would if he did a race or two in GP2 and then went to F1. They would suck. You just cant go from one disipline to another. Most open wheel drivers have a hard time in Cup cars caues they are jumping straght in them and that is one hell of a learning curve. Plus truth betold the O/W in Cup are driving for Mid to Backmarkers. Even if you put Johnson a top team he is not conditioned for it. Just like Hamilton is not conditioned for NASCAR. Johnson would fare well in Melborne due to the close quarters and the fact that any hit at all and it is over. Also he is used to have 4 hours and a dozen pit stops to fix his car and has a great realtionship with his crew cheif. Hamilton put in to a Hendrick car would be ok, top team and no experince. No technology to tell him what is wrong with the car, for that matter there is no speedomitor, So he would have to learn to feel the car more. Get in good with the crew and learn how to drive closed cockpit and for 4hours in many differnt types of tracks from .5 yo 2.5 miles. He would also have to learn to deal with getting hit. Also from what I have seen they would have to deal with the big culture shock of the new racing world they are entering. So how would he far. In truth the only way to know is he would have to go through the lower ranks to get to F1 and then we would see the true answer. But that is not going to happen, The same for if Hamilton came to NASCAR, again not going to happen.

  13. Why don’t American racers gravitate to F1? Besides the required indenturement to European feeder series? In the last three years JJ has won the championships, his race winnings are in excess of 38 million bucks. That’s not including salary and marketing income.

    Sure Kimi might make 33 mil a season, but there are only a handful of drivers in that salary range, whereas in NASCAR million dollar paydays are more common. Or at least they were before the depression hit.

    Which is why Jeff Gordon could not have cut the cord and raced in F1, he wouldn’t tolerate the pay cut.

    As far as skills go, I think it would take at least two full seasons of racing and testing to see if JJ or JG could race in F1. My guess would be no, the cars are so different, and the pressure so much more intense.

  14. Chalky said on 25th November 2008, 11:18

    You can get a good driver at both, but to excel and be the champion takes that little bit extra.

    Having not watched a NASCAR race on TV for donkeys years, I was wondering what sort of braking force the drivers go through. Mainly oval racing tends to a sort of endurance aspect or racing. However F1 is very much G force orientated, especially in the braking areas.

    I would think that this would be the hardest thing for a NASCAR driver to adapt to.
    F1 to NASCAR would be the reliance on mechanical grip over aero. Having a good feel for the car would be an advantage, but good team work \ setup knowledge seems to be a big plus in NASCAR.

    Rather than NASCAR, maybe we should be wondering how would some of our current F1 drivers fare at the Indy 500, if they were still allowed to compete in it?
    Maybe bring it back as a round of the F1 championship?

  15. Paige said on 26th November 2008, 1:13

    Johnson would hack up Formula One. He is a very good oval racer, but his team- and in particular, his brilliant crew chief, Chad Knaus- account for a large portion of his success. Johnson’s record on road courses leaves a lot to be desired, and he’s never won a road course race.

    The only NASCAR driver (excluding Montoya) who would be a top Formula One driver is Jeff Gordon. He’s one of the most naturally gifted drivers who has ever raced. He holds the NASCAR record for wins on road courses (9), and his technique on them is superb. The only bad race he has ever had on a road course is this past year at Watkins Glen, but his car in that race was inexplicably horrible. He’s defeated Sebastien Bourdais and Nelson Piquet, Jr. in straight up matches at the Race of Champions. It’s a shame he never took the opportunity to jump to Formula One, as he was offered a shot by BAR back in the late-90s.

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