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Column — Johnson enters INDYCAR, McLaughlin driver to watch

ESCANABA — You would be hard-pressed to find a more stout field of drivers than the one that will be showcased in the 2021 NTT Data INDYCAR Series.

A paddock that already includes five-time INDYCAR champion Scott Dixon — considered one of the all-time greats of American open-wheel racing — two-time series champion Josef Newgarden and other strong competitors like Indianapolis 500 Champions Simon Pagenaud (2019), Takuma Sato (2017, 2020), Will Power (2018), Ryan Hunter-Reay (2014) and Alexander Rossi (2016) are gaining two major names.

The first is seven-time NASCAR Cup Champion, Jimmie Johnson. He retired from NASCAR at the end of this season at Phoenix.

It could be argued that, in stock car racing, there is no one better than Jimmie Johnson.

Aside from his seven championships — he is tied for most all-time with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt — Johnson ranks sixth on the all-time NASCAR wins list with 83. The drivers ahead of him, Richard Petty (200), David Pearson (105), Jeff Gordon (93), Darrell Waltrip (84) and Bobby Allison (84), are all members of the NASCAR Hall of Fame. No doubt, Johnson will join them as a first-ballot inductee.

He is also a two-time winner of the Daytona 500 (2006, 2013).

Johnson will run all of the road and street course events for Chip Ganassi Racing next year and has already started testing his new ride for 2021 — a car that will bear his familiar number 48.

Johnson’s journey into INDYCAR began earlier this year when he tested a Ganassi prepared car on the road course at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in July. He took to social media afterward to express his excitement.

“That was incredible,” Johnson posted. “Sign me up for more!”

In the weeks following, his 13-race deal with Ganassi was announced to the public.

At this time, it is unknown who will drive the 48 in place of Johnson in the four oval events, including the Indianapolis 500, he has chosen not to compete in.

The other major name making the jump to INDYCAR is someone many in the States may not be familiar with. His name is Scott MacLaughlin, and to me, his arrival in the series is just as, if not more, exciting than Johnson’s.

While Johnson enters the latter stages of his racing career at age 45, McLaughlin is just getting started.

A native of New Zealand, the 27-year-old McLaughlin will race INDYCAR full-time for Team Penske in 2021. He has competed full-time in the Australia Supercars series — the country’s premier motorsport — since 2013.

In 2017, McLaughlin moved from Garry Rogers Motorsport to DJR Team Penske, a decision that led to incredible success in Supercars and, eventually, his new INDYCAR ride.

During his tenure with Garry Rogers Motorsport, McLaughlin earned a total of eight wins. He would equal that in just his first year with DJR Team Penske while also finishing runner-up in the championship standings.

He did one better in both categories in 2018, winning nine races and earning his first championship.

McLaughlin’s 2019 and 2020 seasons, though, will go down as the stuff of legend.

In 2019, McLaughlin won 18 of 32 races, including the crown-jewel event the Bathurst 1000. He followed up his remarkable 2019 season with 13 wins in 27 events in 2020. He won the series championship both years.

With 56 wins, 106 podium finishes and 76 pole positions in 252 Supercars’ races, McLaughlin now comes to America to try his hand at INDYCAR.

In several test sessions, McLaughlin has been just as quick as the series regulars. He did compete in his first INDYCAR race in the series finale in St. Petersberg, FL.

While an incident ended his race in the 22nd position, the main goal of the weekend was to gain experience.

If McLaughlin can match his Supercars performance in INDYCAR, the future is bright for the young Kiwi.

Regardless of how McLaughlin and Johnson perform on the track, the idea of having three — including Scott Dixon — of the best drivers from their respective forms of motorsport converge in the INDYCAR Series is going to be a sight to behold.

With several seats remaining thus far unfilled for next year, the rumor mill continues to swirl around who might be taking those empty rides.

Who else might join the already strong field for 2021?

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