Rolex 24 at Hour 6: Similar drives, different reactions for Chase Elliott, Jimmie Johnson

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – A quarter of the way through the Rolex 24 at Daytona, NASCAR champions Jimmie Johnson and Chase Elliott each had taken a turn behind the wheel and had very different reactions to similar performances.

True to form as a perfectionist who never shies from withering self-criticism, Elliott assessed his debut in a double stint as “terrible” for Action Express Racing’s No. 31 Cadillac after handing over to Mike Conway.

“I put these guys way, way, way, way, way, way too far behind,” Elliott told NBC Sports pit reporter Marty Snider. “Hopefully Mike can make up some ground, and Pipo (Derani) after him. We’ll just try to keep pushing. Obviously, a long way to go, but I hate to put them in a big box like that.”

HOW TO WATCH THE ROLEX 24Full broadcast schedule on NBC Sports

‘STEEP LEARNING CURVE’: Chase Elliott and Jimmie Johnson make sports car transition

Because of an extra pit stop under yellow, the car already was seventh overall and last among the top DPi division when the defending Cup Series champion took over from pole-sitter Felipe Nasr.

Chase Elliott talks with Jeff Gordon before the Rolex 24 at Daytona (Jasen Vinlove/USA TODAY Sports).

Elliott said he hit a curb early in the run and was lacking speed (especially compared to his most recent practice) in virtually every sector of the 12-turn, 3.56-mile road course.

“Probably (Turn) 6 and the Bus Stop were the two worst places for me,” he said. “I didn’t do a good job there at all of finding a rhythm and getting going. So I need to step up for these guys this next go around. I was really worried that I damaged the underneath (of the car), so the next caution, we definitely need to get a look at that. Definitely can’t be doing stuff like that, bottom line.”

The numbers, though, didn’t quite bear out Elliott’s pessimism, particularly for a Rolex 24 rookie who was competing at speed for the first time against the best sports car drivers in the world. Elliott consistently turned lap times in the 1-minute, 37-second range, usually matching the times of the other six DPi drivers on the track.

He appeared to stay within a second of the pace in an extremely deep field of talented drivers and formidable teams that were setting blistering speeds from the green flag.

NBC Sports analyst Dale Earnhardt Jr. knows Elliott’s self-flagellating side well, having been a Cup teammate for two seasons at Hendrick Motorsports after fielding a championship Chevrolet for him in the Xfinity Series at JR Motorsports.

“Chase is harder on himself than really anybody I’ve ever met that drives race cars,” Earnhardt said. “His pace wasn’t that bad. But yeah, he’s going to keep pushing until he finds the pace that he feels his competitive with his teammates, and that may bring him back to this race more than once because he’s just a competitor and wants to win.”

Punctuating the support he has expressed for Elliott since last week, Nasr said he had encouraged him to watch the team’s gearing and how to enter the corners and manage the tires.

“I think he’s ready,” Nasr said. “We’ve all been giving him enough information the whole weekend. I think he’s really pumped to be jumping in the car. I know he’s going to learn a lot and much more in the race. Because there are things you can only experience in the race. I’ve been there before.

The No. 31 Cadillac started on the pole position in the Rolex 24 at Daytona (Nigel Cook/USA TODAY Sports).

“I think he’s going to find out now everything seems to be much quicker when you’re driving at night. But I’m really confident he’s going to do well.”

After starting the race in the No. 48 Cadillac, Johnson handed off after two stints to two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Simon Pagenaud. The seven-time Cup champion was roughly as fast as Elliott but in a more upbeat mood, joking that he babied the car because he “didn’t want to be the one to break the toy.”

Johnson had a few close calls with the prototypes in LMP3, a new division that has drawn scrutiny for its lack of experienced drivers.

“One was spinning and came back up on the track and turned right in front of us,” Johnson said. “That really got my attention because the dirt, dust was up in the air, and I couldn’t see. Certainly a lot of nerves to deliver the car in one piece. I’m so happy to have that out of the way so I can go rest and just kind of fall into the rhythm.”

Making his eighth Rolex 24 start but his first in a decade, Johnson is here as much to win his first Rolex as to rack up laps in a high-downforce car as he makes the transition to a part-time IndyCar career.

“It’s a balance of obviously taking care of the car and trying to hit a lap time,” he said. “And I’m finding that this field is so stacked with drivers that it’s much like what I’ll experience in the IndyCar Series this year. And I’m trying to get (within a second) or even closer to a half a second off the pace of the others so that’s kind of where my head is.”

One of the greatest drivers in NASCAR history admittedly is the least accomplished sports cars racer of a lineup that includes 2019 Indy 500 winner Pagenaud (who started as a champion sports car driver and has raced the 24 Hours of Le Mans), two-time defending Rolex 24 winner Kamui Kobayashi and Le Mans winner Mike Rockenfeller.

The No. 48 Cadillac on track as the sun begins to set at Daytona International Speedway (David Tucker/USA TODAY Sports).

After leading Hendrick Motorsports’ four-driver stable for most of his 19-year career in Cup, Johnson, 45, can handle being ranked fourth on this team if it means his first Rolex 24 victory.

“I know the world that I’m stepping into, and I know what I walked away from and the comfort that I had there,” he said. “And I’m very aware of how uncomfortable stepping into this new arena is, and it makes me feel alive. I’m so excited to be uncomfortable. And so excited to learn something new, so excited to drive these cars and really kind of grow as a driver and have a bunch of new experiences in life.”

Continuing a theme of the past two weeks at Daytona International Speedway, Cadillacs held four of the top five spots through six hours. Sebastien Bourdais was leading in the No. 5 Mustang Sampling Cadillac, followed by six-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon in the No. 01 Cadillac of Chip Ganassi Racing. Helio Castroneves was the highest-ranked Acura in third, followed by Rockenfeller in fourth and Derani in fifth.

In other classes, the No. 11 WIN Autosport led LMP2; the No. 4 Corvette was tops in GTLM; the No. 74 Riley Motorsports was first in LMP3; and the No. 16 Wright Motorsports Porsche led GTD.

Other notable developments during the first six hours:

–The race got off to an eventful start with a wreck on the opening lap when the No. 79 Porsche collided with a BMW in the GTLM class.

–Turner Motorsport said that a team member and Bill Auberlen, the all-time winningest driver in IMSA, would be able to continue after both were splashed with fuel when a hose came loose on a pit stop for the No. 96 BMW.

–Among the IndyCar and NASCAR crossovers in the race, 2020 NTT IndyCar Series rookie of the year Rinus Veekay had a short Rolex 24 debut as the No. 52 DragonSpeed entry (the two-time defending LMP2 class winner) retired in the first three hours.

–There also was a late driver change because of a positive COVID-19 test as Michael de Quesada was replaced by Alegra Motorsports shortly before the green flag.

The No. 48 Ally Cadillac of Jimmie Johnson, Kamui Kobayashi, Simon Pagenaud and Mike Rockenfeller (Jasen Vinlove/USA TODAY Sports).

Cadillac confirms WEC driver lineup with Chip Ganassi Racing that will race Le Mans in 2023

Cadillac Ganassi Le Mans
Cadillac Racing
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Cadillac and Chip Ganassi Racing announced their driver lineup for a 2023 entry in the FIA World Endurance Championship, the sports car series that includes the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

The Cadillac V-LMDh entry will be driven by Earl Bamber and Alex Lynn, who were teamed on the No. 02 Cadillac that competed in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship DPi class this season and won the Twelve Hours of Sebring. The third driver will be Richard Westbrook, who will return to Ganassi after helping the team to a GT class win at Le Mans in 2018.

The team also will compete in the Rolex 24 at Daytona in the rebranded Grand Touring Prototype premier category, which is designed for crossover between the top prototypes in IMSA and WEC. Ganassi will field a second entry at Daytona with its No. 01 Cadillac that will compete full time in IMSA with Sebastien Bourdais and Renger van der Zande.

A Ganassi spokesman said the team hopes to run its second entry in the 2023 24 Hours of Le Mans but only its WEC team is confirmed (an AOC invitation would be required for the IMSA team). The team also is exploring options but currently plans to have the WEC’s team base of operations in Indianapolis.

Ganassi is the first American-based prototype team to confirm its entry in the 2023 24 Hours of Le Mans. It’s expected that Team Penske, which raced this year’s Le Mans with a full-time WEC entry in LMP2, also will race Le Mans with Porsche’s new LMDh car that is set for IMSA, but the manufacturer has yet to confirm its driver and team lineup.

Next year will mark the return of Cadillac to Le Mans for the first time since 2002.

Before joining Ganassi last year, Lynn made 28 WEC starts since 2016, winning the LMGTE Pro class at Le Mans in 2020.

“I’m absolutely thrilled to continue with Cadillac and Chip Ganassi Racing,” Lynn said in a release. “It’s a huge honor to drive for Chip in any capacity but certainly on a full factory sports car program, it’s seriously cool. Cadillac has so much heritage as a luxury North American sports car brand, so to be able to represent them is a huge privilege. I’ve had a lot of fun in my first year doing it and to continue that onto the World Endurance Championship stage is fantastic.

“For me, returning to WEC is sort of what I’ve always known and it’s a bit like going into my wheelhouse. This year in IMSA was a bit different with getting to know all-new circuits and a new style of racing so 2023 will be filled with a bit more of what I’m used to with more of a European focus. I think what’s significant about WEC is without a doubt Le Mans. As a sports car race, Le Mans is the crown jewel and everything that we want to win. To be able to take Chip Ganassi Racing and Cadillac back to Le Mans to fight for overall honors is a huge honor and that’s something that I’m going to work tirelessly to make sure we achieve.”

Bamber won the Le Mans overall in 2015 and ’17 with Porsche teams and also was a 2019 GTLM champion in IMSA.

“I am really happy to continue at Chip Ganassi Racing and Cadillac,” Bamber said in a release. “I’ve loved my first season in DPi and now to continue over into the LMDh era and WEC is super exciting. Looking forward to fighting for a world championship and another Le Mans victory.

“The World Endurance Championships gives us the opportunity to race at the world’s biggest race, which is Le Mans, the crown jewel of sports car racing. I’ve been lucky enough to win it before and it’s obviously a huge goal for Cadillac and everyone at Chip Ganassi Racing. To have that goal in sight is really exciting. It’s been great to have Alex as a teammate in 2022. We’ve been able to learn and grow together in the DPi, and we have a really good partnership going into WEC. We know each other really well and believe adding Richard will be a seamless transition.”

Said Westbrook: “After four really good years at Chip Ganassi Racing, I’ve got so many friends there and I’ve always dreamt to come back one day. It just worked so well between 2016 and 2019, and I’m delighted we found a route to come together again. I can’t wait, it’s an exciting era in sports car racing right now.

“I feel like I know Alex and Earl really well. I did Le Mans with Alex in 2020 and I’ve known him for years. It feels like I’m going back with an ex-teammate and exactly the same with Earl. Although I’ve never shared a car with Earl, we’ve always done the same sort of racing be it in WEC or in IMSA. We’ve had lots of battles, including this year in our dueling Cadillacs. We’ve always gotten along quite well, and I can say we’re going to have a great year together.”

The seven-race WEC season, which also includes a stop at Spa, will begin March 17 with the 1,000 Miles of Sebring at Sebring International Raceway in Florida.