It should come as no shock that Jimmie Johnson will be part of this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans. He was officially introduced Saturday at Daytona International Speedway prior to the running of this year’s IMSA Rolex 24 as one of the drivers who will be part of the Garage 56 entry in this year’s running of the prestigious 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race.
The entry itself is being built and tested by Hendrick Motorsports, and Johnson was a longtime driver with the team winning 86 races and 7 Cup titles in the course of 18 seasons until he retired at the end of 2020. Johnson also helped convince team owner Rick Hendrick to step outside his NASCAR comfort zone and enter the world of sports car racing.
After spending two seasons racing in the IndyCar series, Johnson is returning to NASCAR as a co-owner of Legacy Motor Club a NASCAR team that includes NASCAR legend Richard Petty as an owner.
Johnson will be NASCAR racing parttime this season in Legacy Motor Club entries starting with next month’s Daytona 500. When he was announced as the new co-owner of the team last November at Phoenix Raceway, Johnson made no secret of the fact that racing at Le Mans is something he very much wants to do.
“I’m so pleased to be here and be a part of this program.” Johnson said at a press conference in the Daytona media center. “When Rick called, I couldn’t resist the opportunity. It’s been big dream of mine to go to La Mans and compete and be in La Mans and experience what it’s all about and to have the experience I have had here.
“I know how special this event is, and I’m sad that I’m not out there today. But to know that we’re going to the Le Mans with this great group of drivers, this great team, the collaboration between GM, NASCAR, everybody involved. I mean, it’s really a special, special opportunity.
For Le Mans, Johnson will be teamed with 2010 24 Hours of Le Mans winner Mike Rockenfeller,
“Well, I just can underline what Jimmie said,” Rockenfeller said. “It’s, you know, incredible group of partners in this project to be involved from day one. It’s just a great honor, a lot of fun. And yeah, I can’t wait, you know, now to share the car with these two, especially young teammates,” he added laughing.
The third member of the team will be F1 champion Jenson Button.
“Yeah, I mean this is a total surprise. I was on the way to Disneyland and, I took the wrong road,” Button said laughing. “No, it’s really, really special to be here. And yeah, seriously, I’ve always thought of myself as a racing driver. I’ve finished my F1 career, and I look for new challenges and this is definitely an exciting challenge to work alongside these two.”
The Garage 56 class doesn’t actually compete for the win but one that is allowed by the race’s organizer, Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO), as an extra entry that tests new technologies.
The NASCAR Next Gen car is backed by Chevrolet, longtime supporters of Hendrick and has already undergone extensive testing. The data from those tests has been shared with other teams to deny Hendrick any sort of advantage for its cars that compete in NASCAR’s Cup series.
The primary purpose for the entry is to showcase NASCAR to the world and marks a return to Le Mans for NASCAR. The sport’s founder Bill France entered stock cars at Le Mans in 1976 after reaching a deal with the event’s organizers. Two NASCAR race cars, a Dodge Charger owned and driven by Hershel McGriff, and a Junie Donlavey owned Ford Torino driven by Richard Brooks and Dick Hutcherson, competed in a Grand International class which NASCAR and the ACO had negotiated. The race got underway on June 12, 1976, but sadly NASCAR’s time at Le Mans ended early as both cars never finished; the Dodge lost an engine on the second lap, and the Torino’s transmission broke in the 11th hour.
All three drivers will participate in a two-day test scheduled at Daytona this coming week. It will mark just the second time Johnson has driven the new car. His first opportunity was this past week at Phoenix as part of an organizational test.
“it’s a much different vehicle than what I remember,” Johnson said. “You know, from the drive line perspective and shifting the just the general feel, the attitude of the car. I’m not used to the cars running so nose up, but not with the underwing on the car.
“It’s just a different animal. So I’m very thankful I got those laps. It did feel foreign, but it felt a hell of a lot closer to home… It was within six laps I was, you know, right there on pace with the, so it was, it was nice to go back.”