IndyCar to take “first priority” for Rossi’s 2016 campaign

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – The Verizon IndyCar Series will serve as “first priority” for Alexander Rossi’s 2016 season, as he prepares to embark on his maiden voyage in the championship in the No. 98 Andretti Herta Autosport with Curb-Agajanian Honda.

Rossi, who returns to race in the U.S. full-time for the first time since securing the Formula BMW Americas championship in 2008, will see IndyCar’s 16 rounds take precedence against any conflict weekends. His role as Manor Racing reserve driver in F1 will occur on the 11 non-conflicting weekends this season.

While optics-wise, the timing of Rossi’s Manor’s reserve role announcement wasn’t ideal in coming after his IndyCar confirmation, Rossi ensured IndyCar has his full focus, attention and dedication as he looks to succeed in a deep 22-car field.

“IndyCar is first priority. That’s it,” Rossi told NBC Sports Thursday at St. Petersburg.

“I think from the very beginning when the announcement came out about me joining Andretti, it was about how excited I was – and am – for that opportunity.

“But I was still keeping the relationship with Manor, keeping my foot in the door. The reserve role is an extension of that.”

Michael Andretti, team principal, added in a separate interview: “This gets first priority, but I’m happy he’s still doing that. I think it’s really good he’s still doing that.

“It’s no problem. I think it’s all off weekends. Any conflicts, he comes here. I’m impressed with him. He has a good head on his shoulders, is fast and will be a good addition.”

Having already worked within his first few weeks to embed himself with the team, from moving to Indianapolis, visiting the shop on a regular basis and attending the Phoenix Test in the West before his first two days in the car at Sebring, Rossi has been diligent in his preparation.

Rob Edwards, Andretti Autosport’s director of engineering and race operations, expanded on that diligence.

“I would have to say, right from our first interaction with him, I’ve been super impressed,” Edwards told NBC Sports. “I think his approach and his level of commitment [is there].

“We had a session at the shop earlier this week, which was two hours, and was nothing but questions he had. And not one of which was written down. He’d retained all the level of detail of what he was asking.

“I was really impressed with his commitment to it. After two days at Sebring, and Honda impressed with his feedback. So far, we’re really impressed with him in and out of the car.”

Rossi also noted he’s well versed in having a dual program, having done so last year with a GP2 full season to go along with his first five grands prix.

“What a lot of people forget is I did an entire season in GP2 last year and finished second. I only did five F1 races,” he said. “While I was an F1 driver, I was also a GP2 driver. For me it’s a direct transition from GP2.”

Even while Graeme Lowdon and John Booth are no longer with Manor Racing this year, the Stephen Fitzpatrick-owned team has ensured Rossi’s stayed on their radar for another season, which was key for Rossi to keep his F1 dreams alive. Rossi noted they’ve been through a lot together over the last year and a half.

“That relationship remains strong regardless,” he said. “My relationship with the team as a whole has had a lot. We went through some pretty intense stuff from the middle of 2014 through this year, so as a general group I’m very close with all of them.”

Meanwhile Rossi spoke of his integration into the Andretti team, working with Edwards, team principal Michael Andretti and his three teammates, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and Carlos Munoz.

“It’s a process that grows every day,” he said. “Not only am I trying to get immersed in the environment, but with the combination of Bryan Herta Autosport and Andretti Autosport, they’re getting used to as well.

“We’re all growing and getting more comfortable, and knowing what the respective roles are. We had a positive test in Sebring with very few testing issues. The performance was pretty good straightaway. Hopefully we carry it over. We all have very high expectations.”

Race formats change slightly for him this year. The GP2 feature races were roughly an hour on Saturdays with a pit stop, while Sunday’s sprint races were straight 45-minute sprints without pit stops. The F1 races do not feature refueling, just tire changes.

Adjusting to shorter circuit lengths will also be something for him to adapt to.

“The track for me is a normal street track; I’m not used to the tracks being so short. I’m used to them being around the 3-mile mark. Generally, there’s nothing too extreme about it.

“If a caution comes out, it’s nothing you can control or anticipate. There’s a lot of strategy that [IndyCar] involves. Refueling is new to me, but until I get into a race environment, and move forward, there’s always going to be some unknown questions. Thanks to the people around us, we’re more than capable of going in the right directions.”

Rossi noted the team support and a continued determination to grow day-by-day.

“Everyone’s been very supportive of what I’m doing. You have to take it day-by-day as it comes up.

“Everyone across all four cars has been open. It’s helped me progress an exponential amount.”

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.”