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).

Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Formula One embrace the United States

Verstappen Perez United States
Fatih Aktas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
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Last week, Red Bull Racing revealed its new car, the RB19, and a new relationship with Ford Motor Co. in an event in New York City complete with drivers Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and team principal Christian Horner.

It’s the first Formula 1 team to launch in the United States for 2023, but even that small move of the needle reflects a major shift in the attitude of both F1’s management and their teams – and the extent to which the American audience has fully embraced the sport.

“It’s something fantastic and unique, for the sport to be able to break it into the U.S,” Perez told NBC Sports. “The market is huge and it’s a huge opportunity for everyone involved, for the drivers, for the team. It’s always a huge market.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Sergio Perez finished fourth in the Unites States Grand Prix, but he was first with the fans.  – Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

In 2023, Formula 1 will race three times in the United States and five times in North America. The Circuit of the Americas will host their 11th consecutive race in October before heading south to Mexico City. Miami returns for a second time in May on a temporary street course around the Hard Rock cafe and the third addition is in downtown Las Vegas in November.

With the Canadian Grand Prix on the schedule for June and the Brazilian Grand Prix in November, American fans are now in the ballpark of Europeans, who have eight events on the continent and one in England.

In 2022, Verstappen won every race in North America. He was kept from sweeping the hemisphere only by George Russell, who won in Brazil. That fact is less remarkable when one considers that Verstappen won 15 times in the season – nearly two-thirds of the races on the schedule.

By the time Formula arrived in Austin, Texas, for Round 20 of 23, Verstappen already had wrapped up his second consecutive championship.

“Sometimes it can be hard to replicate the season, but I think it’s the same as with the car, right? You always try to improve it,” Verstappen told NBC Sports. “And I always look at the little details that even when you have had a good race, you could have done better. And then of course you also learn from the bad races. So we always try to look for these little improvements and general experience you gain year after year.

“You try to do better, but of course it also depends a lot on the package you have.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Max Verstappen United States Grand Prix win was one of 15 for the drivers and 17 for Red Bull.
(Gongora / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Now Verstappen’s thoughts inevitably will turn to establishing a dynasty, and America will again play a pivotal role.

“I just enjoy what I’m doing,” Verstappen said.  “After the years in Formula One, when you have to be on top of your game and you gain a lot on your experience – in that sense nothing really can get to you anymore. Every year you just try to do the best you can. But a lot depends on the material around you. It’s always a bit of a guess. Start the season as fit as you can be and be well prepared. But if you don’t have the car, you’re not going to win the championship.”

Perez added two wins to Red Bull’s total, at Monaco and the Marina Bay Street course. With two of the US 2023 races on street courses, Perez hopes to close the gap on Verstappen and potentially be his chief rival for the championship.

“The strategy is clear; it is to maximize the potential of the car – and we believe we have a good car, but how good?,” Perez said “We don’t know what the competition is doing. We just give our best in building this car and we hope that it’s good enough to get us to win races.

“I think we have to work together as a team. At the same time. We both want to win the championship. It’s just having good compromise. The competition will be really strong out there, so we really need everything we possibly can get from each other.”

Formula One returns to the United States for Round 6 and the Miami Grand Prix on May 7.