For Jimmie Johnson, the Rolex 24 at Daytona always has held “a special place in my heart,” but there’s another reason that returning to the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season opener will have extra meaning — his IndyCar debut.
As the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion makes the transition from stock cars into a 13-race schedule for Chip Ganassi Racing on NTT Series street and road courses, the Cadillac DPi being raced by Johnson next month at Daytona International Speedway will be an important stairstep.
“To have such a high caliber opportunity, it’s a no-brainer,” Johnson said during a Zoom news conference Wednesday. “But one other piece is I’m trying to understand how to use downforce in the race car and get up to speed in IndyCar (with) how little testing there is in IndyCar.
“This is a great way for me to get reps in a high-downforce car. The power isn’t the same, but the downforce is very significant and the trends and habits that I need to break and then re-create. I can use this experience to start that process.”
Johnson spent Tuesday and Wednesday testing at the Daytona road course with the Action Express team (in a No. 48 whose Ally sponsorship was brokered by Rick Hendrick, Johnson said).
In an all-star melding of championship pedigrees, Johnson will be teamed with Simon Pagenaud (2016 IndyCar champion, 2018 Indianapolis 500 winner), Mike Rockenfeller (DTM touring car champion and 24 Hours of Le Mans GT winner) and Kamui Kobayashi (a Formula One veteran and Le Mans overall winner who won the past two Rolex 24s at Wayne Taylor Racing).
Pagenaud, who also is a former ALMS champion with a deep sports car background, believes it can be a winning lineup formed “from the world of racing altogether, which is very exciting.
“Action Express has won here, and they have a winning combination when it comes to car setup,” said Pagenaud, who drove for Action Express prior to spending the last three years as an endurance race driver for Acura Team Penske. “I think the Cadillac is a proven winning machine around this track, so I think it’s definitely a big advantage. And Mike and Kamui have both won the biggest 24-hour races in the world. So I think we stand a really, really good chance. Jimmie’s getting used to the car really well. All of us together, we should be on pace, and I didn’t see any reason why we wouldn’t be competitive.”
This will mark Johnson’s eighth Rolex 24 start but first since 2011 when he raced a Grand-Am prototype for Bob Stallings. Much has changed in American sports car racing since then, notably a merger of the Grand-Am and American Le Mans Series that resulted in a restructuring of classes and rules in the rebranded IMSA circuit.
Driving a car with a narrower cockpit and a “more efficient” setup, Johnson was lapping Daytona’s 3.56-mile layout at “probably 8 to 10 seconds quicker” than nine years ago. “I don’t believe that the Grand-Am car was really even close to the potential that this car has on brakes and turning speed into the corner,” he said.
But while enjoying the acceleration and performance of the DPi, Johnson said “the Indy car is a whole different ballgame of power to weight. It’s like wrestling a monster. It is quite a vehicle. This one is very impressive, but the Indy car is something else.”
IndyCar will have a priority on his 2021 schedule. That means the Rolex 24 could be a one-off, though Johnson would be open to racing the Twelve Hours of Sebring or Petit Le Mans (neither of which conflict with the IndyCar schedule) and has long-term aspirations for more, especially with the future LMDh class that will rebuild a bridge between Daytona and Le Mans.
“I’ve had a bit of a journey here trying to let it be known that sports cars and racing in these events have an interest to me,” Johnson said. “I’ve always felt like sports car racing was something I wanted to do after my Cup career. I feel like I need to let it be known that sports car racing is definitely an interest for me. And being in this race is crucial for that to set up for things down the road and obviously a good run and good performance should help open doors or at least keep me in people’s minds.”
Beyond the professional accolades, an inaugural victory in the Rolex 24 also would fulfill some personal dreams for Johnson, who has dreamed about the Rolex 24 since childhood. “I just was fascinated with an endurance race,” he said. “I knew of Le Mans, but we had one here in the U.S., and cars and teams and drivers would come far and wide to participate. And it was just a feeling of what this race represented.
“And as a young kid, I wanted to do that. I thought it was really neat. And I did grow up around endurance racing with the desert off-road series. So I feel like that maybe also played into the mindset and understanding of how tough endurance races are and how special it is to get a group together and achieve success in a big way. It’s been on my radar since my early, early years.”
Would winning the Rolex 24 put the Indianapolis 500 on his radar?
Johnson, a four-time winner of the Brickyard 400 and two-time Daytona 500 winner, said he remains cautious about big trophy hunting at IMS, noting that Ganassi’s hiring of Tony Kanaan for oval races in the No. 48 Dallara-Honda for the next two seasons also might preclude his chances.
“I think my journey for the 500 will really take place when I’m around Indy cars more,” he said. “It’s easy to have a perspective of things when you’re watching on television. And then the further you get into a sport, the deeper the understanding is so I’ll see as the year develops and I hope to be able to test on an oval and experience it firsthand.
“By myself out there, I feel plenty comfortable and safe with doing that. But 250 (mph) four wide in the closing laps of the 500, I don’t know if I can help myself and not race like a 20-year-old for the win. And I’ve always felt that if I’m thinking about my safety in a car, I don’t need to be in it. I’ve just always had that golden rule in my head.
“I’m not really sure if there’s even an opportunity there if I do change my mind, but we’ll see as 2021 develops and hopefully I can get at least a day on an oval and see how it goes.”
Jimmie Johnson returns to Rolex 24 with eye on IndyCar - NBC Sports