Belardi bounces back big with Sunday Indy Lights double podium

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – A day after electronic glitches bogged down a potential debut win for Felix Rosenqvist or a potential comeback win for Zach Veach, both Belardi Auto Racing drivers made up for it on Sunday in the second Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires race of the weekend on the streets of St. Petersburg.

The Brian Belardi-owned and John Brunner-led team, now with the added engineering services of veteran Len Paskus, had an impressive weekend all around with Veach leading the first 17 laps on Saturday and then Rosenqvist starting on pole and translating that into a win on Sunday.

For Rosenqvist, the 24-year-old Swede who will balance Indy Lights, the Blancpain Sprint Cup series and a reserve role with Mercedes in DTM this year, it was a significantly better Sunday after running Saturday’s race on an inadvertently incorrect engine mapping in his No. 14 Dallara IL-15 Mazda en route to ending seventh.

“I think having full power today was the huge difference, and being on pole is easier too,” Rosenqvist told NBC Sports post-race. “You can decide when to go! I think Zach didn’t have a great start. I could just pull away. It was a perfect race.”

For Veach, who fell from second to third in the No. 5 car off the line behind Juncos Racing’s Kyle Kaiser, it was a needed result after the mechanical heartbreak on Saturday that left him 16th and last.

“I’m always gonna be sick to my stomach thinking about yesterday. There’s not many times in racing that it just opens up and gives you a win like that,” he told NBC Sports.

“But to come back and be on the podium, first weekend back, to start off where I left off makes me feel really good. To be completely honest with you, after a year off, I didn’t know how I’d be. I was afraid people might have thought I’d lost it. But I think we showed we’re right back where we used to be.”

Both drivers are new to the team and, with two podiums in the first weekend of the year, are only one behind the total combined output turned in by Felix Serralles and Juan Piedrahita last year (Serralles had two, including a win at Milwaukee with Piedrahita having one).

“Felix is the best teammate I’ve ever had,” Veach said. “With him coming from Europe, I thought he’d be closed off. But him and I together helped to basically revamp the setups from what they had last year to make ourselves as competitive as we did. The engineers have to take a lot of credit for that as well.

“Felix and I, I think we work so well because we’re like minded. It’s refreshing compared to what I’ve had in the past.”

Added Rosenqvist, the FIA Formula 3 European champion of a year ago, “There’s nothing I’m hiding from him or him from me. That was the deal when we signed. Both the engineers and drivers are helping each other all the time. That’s the way to go if you want to win.”

Both will still look to improve upon this weekend. Veach admitted he’d made a mistake on the start on Sunday, with some extra wheel spin helping Kaiser to go past – although he noted Kaiser was strong enough that even if he was behind his countryman, he’d have had a whale of a time holding him off.

For Rosenqvist, his challenge from here is maintaining focus on whatever his next race is, regardless of series, car or continent.

“I think the biggest challenge is the time difference going overseas. It’s always 7-9 hours,” he explained. “In Europe, it’s a bigger challenge.

“But I knew that when I signed up to do it. That’s my job to be able to handle it. I might be tired by end of the year but I am in it all the way, and I’m gonna go through it.”

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.”