Jimmie Johnson returning to Rolex 24 for his love of sports cars and with an eye on IndyCar

Jimmie Johnson Rolex IndyCar
Brian Cleary/bcpix.com

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 who won the past two overall 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.

Jimmie Johnson talks with Action Express driver Pipo Derani during a test at Daytona International Speedway (Brian Cleary/bcpix.com).

“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.”

Brian Cleary/bcpix.com

2023 SuperMotocross Power Rankings after Seattle: Cooper Webb, Eli Tomac overtake Chase Sexton


Another crash while leading at Seattle dropped Chase Sexton from the top of the NBC SuperMotocross Power Rankings while solid performances by Cooper Webb and Eli Tomac allow them to climb the chart and threaten to make this a two-rider battle with six rounds remaining in the 2023 Monster Energy Supercross season.

SuperMotocross Power Rankings Seattle
Cooper Webb wags his finger at Chase Sexton after winning his heat in Seattle. – Feld Motor Sports

During the race, Webb knew he had ground to make up. Riding behind both Tomac and Sexton early in the Main, he was as far back as fifth on Lap 7 at Seattle. That position would cost him the red plate and give away the advantage he began to build with his first win of the season in Tampa. Sexton is often at his best as he battles from the back and he methodically worked his way through the field. At the end of the feature, he was nearly five seconds off Tomac’s pace, but during the past 45 days, he holds the advantage. A resurgent Tomac that could erase that advantage quickly though.

Tomac struggled in Indianapolis with a neck strain. That contributed to his worst performance of 2023 and his second result outside the top five. He finished third in Detroit two weeks ago, but it was a distant third after finishing off the podium in his heat during that round. In Seattle, it appeared the same thing might happen when Tomac finished third in the prelim behind his two principal competitors Webb and Sexton. The Main was a different story.

Tomac dropped to fourth in the opening laps behind both of his rivals early in the race, but he got around Webb on Lap 2 and kept charging. When Sexton fell to the ground on Lap 11 and dropped to fourth, Tomac was in position to strike. He scored his sixth win of the season to tie James Stewart for second on the all-time wins list. He now shares the red plate with Webb as the rounds wind down.

MORE: Eli Tomac gets rebound win in Seattle

Sexton has the speed, but he lacks the seasoning of Webb and Tomac. He’s pressing hard on every lap and that has bitten him several times this year. Sexton’s mistakes are costing him with a 10th-place finish at Indy, the loss of seven points at Detroit and a fifth in Seattle as the riders he’s battling stood on the podium. No one seriously questions Sexton’s talent or speed, but ultimately the results are what counts.

Justin Barcia is hitting his stride. He advances two positions this week after scoring his fourth consecutive top-five and second podium in that span of races. Barcia finished between sixth and eighth in five consecutive rounds from Anaheim 2 through Arlington, but he’s mostly avoided controversy and that puts him fourth in this week’s SuperMotocross Power Rankings after Seattle.

Jason Anderson had a solid performance in Seattle, but with a fifth-place finish in his heat and fourth in the Main he just keeps losing a little ground to the leaders. The biggest impact to his standing in the NBC Power Rankings is a 10th-place finish in Indianapolis that will take a while to age out of the 45-day formula. He’s tied for fourth in the championship points with Ken Roczen, who sits sixth in the rankings below. It’s important to be the rider “best in class” with Webb, Tomac and Sexton stealing the show.

450 Rankings

Rider Power
1. Cooper Webb 87.77 2 1
2. Eli Tomac 86.23 3 1
3. Chase Sexton 85.77 1 -2
4. Justin Barcia 80.71 6 2
5. Jason Anderson 80.69 4 -1
6. Ken Roczen 80.46 5 -1
7. Aaron Plessinger 75.86 7 0
8. Adam Cianciarulo 71.13 8 0
9. Christian Craig 69.86 9 0
10. Justin Cooper 62.88 10 0
11. Justin Hill 59.86 11 0
12. Dean Wilson 52.86 12 0
13. Josh Hill 49.00 15 2
14. Colt Nichols 48.67 13 -1
15. Shane McElrath 45.62 14 -1
16. Benny Bloss 43.00 16 0
17. Grant Harlan 38.08 20 3
18. Max Miller 37.67 24 6
19. Lane Shaw 36.67 21 2
20. Cade Clason 34.67 19 -1

Supercross 450 Points

The 250 West riders were back in action in Seattle and that gave Jett Lawrence the opportunity to break out of a tie with his brother Hunter Lawrence on the all-time wins list. It also provided Jett the opportunity to take back the top spot in the NBC SuperMotocross Power Rankings after Seattle.

SuperMotocross Power Rankings Seattle
Jett Lawrence regained the top spot overall in the NBC SuperMotocross Power Rankings with a near-perfect race in Seattle. – Feld Motor Sports

Jett has stood on the podium in every race this year with the exception of the second Triple Crown race at Anaheim 2 and that level of perfection gives him bragging rights. Rest assured that while the two brothers have a bond that is unapparelled in motorsports, there is no one they would rather beat. Neither has been particularly successful in Triple Crown rounds this year, however, and Jett could lose his advantage in two weeks in Glendale, Arizona under that format.

Lawrence is now two wins away from capturing the fourth-most wins at this level.

A rivalry is developing between Lawrence and Cameron McAdoo. Tired of losing to the affable Australian, McAdoo pushed the envelope last week in Seattle. He crowded Lawrence in the whoops during their heat race and sent both to the ground. That frustration could bubble over with four rounds remaining. One thing is certain, when these two riders are in proximity on the track, the cameras will be aimed in their direction.

Supercross 250 Points

A little means a lot this season. Finishing second to Lawrence in four of five rounds, RJ Hampshire would be losing ground to the leader no matter what, but an 11th-place finish in the overall at Anaheim 2 places him eighth on the chart below behind two of the 250 West riders and five 250 East competitors.

In the mains, Levi Kitchen has been all over the board with a win, one more top-five, two results on the high side of the single digits and a crash-induced 21st at San Diego. He’s really shown his speed in the heats, however, with a perfect record of top-fives and a win.

Mitchell Oldenburg makes the top five list among West riders with a perfect record of top-10 finishes. He’s heading in the wrong direction, however, falling from ninth overall to 11th after finishing outside the top five in both his heat and the Main last week.

250 Rankings

Rider Power
1. Jett Lawrence – W 90.75 2 1
2. Hunter Lawrence – E 90.43 1 -1
3. Nate Thrasher – E 84.00 3 0
4. Cameron McAdoo – W 80.50 4 0
5. Haiden Deegan – E 78.21 5 0
6. Jeremy Martin – E 78.00 6 0
7. Jordon Smith – E 76.77 7 0
8. RJ Hampshire – W 76.75 10 2
9. Levi Kitchen – W 76.67 8 -1
10. Max Anstie – E 74.43 11 1
11. Mitchell Oldenburg – W 73.67 9 -2
12. Max Vohland – W 72.55 13 1
13. Tom Vialle – E 72.07 12 -1
14. Pierce Brown – W 68.64 19 5
15. Enzo Lopes – W 67.83 17 2
16. Chris Blose – E 67.43 15 -1
17. Chance Hymas – E 67.10 16 -1
18. Michael Mosiman – E 65.80 18 0
19. Stilez Robertson – W 64.45 14 -5
20. Phil Nicoletti – W 59.25 20 0

* The NBC Power Rankings assign 100 points to a Main event winner and 90 points for each Heat and Triple Crown win, (Triple Crown wins are included with heat wins below the rider’s name). The points decrement by a percentage equal to the number of riders in the field until the last place rider in each event receives five points. The Power Ranking is the average of these percentage points over the past 45 days for the 450 class and last 90 days for 250s (because of the split nature of their season).

POWER RANKINGS AFTER WEEK 10 AT SEATTLE: Chase Sexton narrowly leads Cooper Webb
POWER RANKINGS AFTER WEEK 7 AT ARLINGTON: Jason Anderson narrowly trails Tomac
POWER RANKINGS AFTER WEEK 6 AT OAKLAND: Perfect night keeps Tomac first
POWER RANKINGS AFTER WEEK 4 AT HOUSTON: Tomac rebounds from A2 crash, retakes lead
POWER RANKINGS AFTER WEEK 3 AT ANAHEIM 2: Consistency makes Ken Roczen king
POWER RANKINGS AFTER WEEK 2 AT SAN DIEGO: Roczen moves up, Sexton falls
POWER RANKINGS AFTER WEEK 1 AT ANAHEIM 1: Tomac, Jett Lawrence gain an early advantage