Graham Rahal moving on from Barber disappointment as Month of May opens

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When considering practice times from the first day of testing the new superspeedway aero kits at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, feel free to disregard Graham Rahal’s.

The ninth-year driver’s fastest time over two sessions in his No. 15 Steak ‘n Shake Honda was 40.5929, the 25th fastest overall among 28 cars.

But Rahal isn’t concerned. While the day was devoted to starting work with the aero kit, his Rahal Letterman Lanigan team was also finishing its use of some old equipment.

“I think our car was actually pretty quick, we just had an old, worn out engine,” Rahal told MotorSportsTalk in a phone interview. “We were trying to get it to the end of its mileage, to get it through and we did it.”

In the new aero kit, Rahal turned 77 laps around the 2.5-mile track where he finished dead last in the 2014 Indianapolis 500 due to electrical issues.

“It felt good and frankly, the nice thing is there was nothing that was too shocking about it,” Rahal said. “I was kind of worried about the first day of running it. I didn’t know what to think about it and frankly it ran really well. I was pleased with it for a first day.”

Once the series is past the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis this Saturday, Rahal’s team will move on to breaking in a new engine for the Indianapolis 500, where his best career finish is third in 2011.

“I think the biggest thing for us is going to be getting that new engine in there, seeing how it runs for us, seeing what kind of speed we can find I think,” Rahal said. “We’re a little bit unsure still…with the car. I don’t think anybody has a great idea of where these things are going to be, we only have one day under our belt, there’s going to be a lot to learn before we get too far down the road here.”

The test on Sunday was Rahal’s first time on a track since he came in second to Josef Newgarden in the Grand Prix of Alabama. Rahal led 17 laps in the race, but a late charge saw him come up 2.206 seconds short of the lead and a shot at his second career win in nine years.

But Rahal isn’t torturing himself by reliving the moment, which he admits is one of the top three of his career, grouped with his 2008 win at St. Petersburg and coming in second at Texas Motor Speedway in 2012 after hitting the wall with three laps to go.

“Maybe one of these days I’ll sit down and take a peek at it,” Rahal said. “I have to admit, I haven’t spent too much time focusing on it at this point.”

Rahal doesn’t believe he needed more than a lap to catch up to Newgarden, as he was gaining two to three seconds a lap after getting past Scott Dixon for second.

“The amount I was catching him was pretty extreme,” Rahal said. “Of course if I got up behind Josef, I think he would have got quicker than what he was. Getting to him and passing him are two different things, but obviously I had a pretty good car and I was able to work around everybody else.”

Rahal says he thought it would be his day for awhile, though he believes had he not received a controversial penalty for contact at St. Petersburg, the season opener would have been an even better chance for win No. 2.

“I was trying to tell myself, ‘Stop, just focus on the job,’ so then I quickly went back to that,” Rahal said. “It’s kind of a shame we came up short, because days like that are hard to come by where you’re so in control of everything. That’s the way these things go and we’ll be back to fight hard for the second win here soon.”

Jenson Button joins NASCAR Garage 56 at Le Mans with Jimmie Johnson, Rockenfeller

Jenson Button NASCAR Le Mans
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The NASCAR Garage 56 entry in the 24 Hours of Le Mans will be driven by champions of three major-league series — Jenson Button, Jimmie Johnson and Mike Rockenfeller.

The lineup of the Hendrick Motorsports-prepared Next Gen Camaro was announced Saturday before the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

NASCAR’s Garage 56 project was announced in March 2022 as a joint effort by NASCAR, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear. It marks the return of a NASCAR team to Le Mans for the first time in nearly 50 years with Hendrick fielding a Camaro ZL1 as the “Garage 56” entry in the 100th edition of the sports car classic.

It’s long been expected the car would include Johnson, the seven-time Cup Series champion who is returning to NASCAR’s premier series as a driver-owner in 2023. Rockenfeller, the 2013 DTM champion and 2010 Le Mans overall winner, has attended every NASCAR Garage 56 test since last year while racking up simulator testing hours.

The surprise was Button, the 2009 Formula One champion who has become a popular commentator. Rick Hendrick initially said wanted four-time Cup champion and current Hendrick Motorsports COO Jeff Gordon to drive the car, and Gordon had raced a sports car at Indianapolis last year to test his race shape.

GARAGE 56 ANSWERS, ANALYSISMore on the NASCAR-Hendrick entry for the 24 Hours of Le Mans

“Since the beginning of the Garage 56 project, it has been our goal to partner with the top racers in the world to represent us in Le Mans,” NASCAR chairman and CEO Jim France said in a release. “The lineup of Jimmie, ‘Rocky’ and Jenson is everything we could have dreamed of – three elite drivers who have won at the highest levels of motorsports worldwide. As we celebrate the 75th anniversary of NASCAR, we are honored to have these world-class champions help bring the sights and sounds of a NASCAR race car to fans in Le Mans, and across the world.”

Button had one of the most prolific careers in F1 history finishing with 15 wins and 50 podiums on top of his 2009 World Championship and is widely considered one of the top British drivers of all time.

“As a lifelong racing fan, I have always dreamed of racing certain cars, with and against certain drivers and competing in certain events,” Button said in a release. “In June, a number of those dreams will come true in one event when I get to bring NASCAR to the world stage alongside my pals Jimmie and ‘Rocky’ for the 100th anniversary of the most prestigious race in the world. I’m really looking forward to sharing this journey with NASCAR, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear, and current and future NASCAR fans from around the world.”

Johnson will make his 24 Hours of Le Mans debut a year after starting his first Indy 500. He has 83 victories in the Cup Series, where he will return for the Daytona 500 next month with his Legacy Motor Club team.

He also has been involved with testing the Garage 56 Camaro.

“I’m super thrilled – it’s been at the top of my bucket list to compete in the 24 Hours of Le Mans someday,” Johnson said. “To have this opportunity come – and to partner with everybody and this driver lineup – is truly an incredible opportunity and one that I am thankful to be a part of.”

Rockenfeller teamed with Johnson on the No. 48 Ally Cadillac in the Rolex 24 at Daytona in 2021-22. The German driver has been the lead test driver for Garage 56 and has driven during every on-track test.

“It has been a great journey so far with the whole team and project,” Rockenfeller said. “To be involved as a driver from day one until now was already a great honor, and to now have Jimmie and Jenson alongside me as teammates in Le Mans is unbelievable.”

The car will continue testing with all three drivers next week at the Daytona International Speedway road course. Rolex 24 and four-time IMSA champion Jordan Taylor, who drives for Corvette Racing, will be the team’s backup driver and coach. Taylor also won the GTE Pro class in 2015 at Le Mans, where he has four podium finishes.

The project also is being supported by IMSA GTP team Action Express, whose general manager is former NASCAR executive and Daytona 500-winning crew chief Gary Nelson. Action Express built the first test car for the Garage 56 but since has handed off the project to Hendrick, where it’s being over seen by vice president of competition Chad Knaus (the crew chief for Johnson’s seven championships).

“Action Express got it going and built the mule car, and then Hendrick joined the program, took it from where we had it, and they’re doing a major percentage of the work,” Nelson told NBC Sports. “We just did a test a couple months ago on a wet track. We’ve done a couple of other tests as they were ramping their program up. Now their car is good, tested and running. We’re still involved and here to help. The Hendrick guys have taken the reins, and Rick Hendrick and Chad Knaus are a thrill to work with and doing a much better job. It’s more NASCAR than prototype racing.”