BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — Jimmie Johnson hopped on a scooter and navigated his way through an unfamiliar Alabama paddock. He stopped to lean against a stack of tires for a quick conversation with childhood hero Rick Mears, then went to work on his new career.

The seven-time NASCAR champion turned 22 laps in the first IndyCar practice of the season Saturday morning. He was slowest of the 24-car field but thrilled with the experience.

“Amazing. What a rush,” he said. “These cars are so physical, so demanding. It’s not two-or-three laps in and tongues hanging out panting, just wrestling this monster around the racetrack. Fun-meter is pegged, to say the least.”

Johnson will be a 45-year-old rookie when he takes the green flag Sunday at Barber Motorsports Park, a picturesque permanent road course located roughly 40 minutes from Talladega Superspeedway, where Johnson won twice in his storied NASCAR career.

But he wanted a new challenge and he’ll get that in IndyCar.

He’s part of a stacked rookie class that includes former Formula One driver Romain Grosjean, racing for the first time this weekend since he was badly burned in a November crash in Bahrain, and three-time defending Australian Supercars champion Scott McLaughlin.

McLaughlin was eighth fastest in first practice while Grosjean, who turned 35 on Saturday, was 21st.

It was Alex Palou, a second-year IndyCar driver but in his first season with Chip Ganassi Racing, who led the session. The Spaniard has been fast through preseason testing and outpaced the four-driver lineup of six-time champion Scott Dixon, Marcus Ericsson and Johnson all winter.

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Colton Herta was second fastest in practice and followed by Josef Newgarden, Dixon, Pato O’Ward, Alexander Rossi and Will Power.

There is a second practice Saturday afternoon followed by an evening qualifying session.

Sunday’s race is sold out with capacity capped at 20,000 000 attendees — a figure that includes spectators and distributed credentials to sponsors, vendors, race personnel and volunteers.

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