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 24: Full 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.
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.
“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.
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.
A follow-up from the team: https://t.co/zOPZ2tWdOr
— Motorsports on NBC (@MotorsportsNBC) January 31, 2021
–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.