DAYTONA BEACH, Florida – Styled, designed and built with many characteristics of sports cars, the new Next Gen would seem the impetus for NASCAR Cup drivers flocking to the Rolex 24 at Daytona.
Instead, the revolutionary new model seems one of the primary reasons that many Cup veterans shelved their hopes of racing in the 2022 IMSA WeatherTech Sports Car Championship Series season opener, which will take place Jan. 29-30 on the Daytona International Speedway road course.
Last year, the Rolex 24 included three drivers who had raced full time in Cup the previous season: Chase Elliott (who co-drove in the No. 31 Action Express Cadillac that would win the 2021 championship), Jimmie Johnson and Austin Dillon (who made his debut in LMP2).
Johnson is back with the No. 48 Ally Cadillac of Action Express — but this time as one of 12 full-time IndyCar drivers in the field.
INFORMATION FOR THE 60TH ROLEX 24: Schedules, start times, entry lists
ON THE POLE POSITION: Wayne Taylor Racing wins qualifying race
The only Cup driver in the 2022 Rolex 24 is Austin Cindric (who is part of the No. 15 Mercedes-AMG GT3 in the GTD Pro category) despite an increase of 12 cars – and at least three dozen more seats – from the 2021 entry list.
Why the dip in NASCAR participation despite the rise in opportunity?
Action Express general manager Gary Nelson said he broached the idea of returning to the No. 31 Cadillac with Elliott, the acknowledged best road racer in NASCAR, and the team also had discussions with other Cup drivers.
Despite a lot of interest, Nelson said drivers were unable to commit to squeezing in a December test at Daytona, hours of preparation in the simulator and spending the final two weekends of January in Daytona (last week’s Roar before the Rolex 24 precedes the main event and is essential for being competitive).
As the Next Gen has undergone unexpected modifications, there already have been offseason tests at Charlotte Motor Speedway and Daytona International Speedway with another crucial session this week at Phoenix Raceway. The car will make its race debut Feb. 6 in The Clash on a temporary quarter-mile oval at the Los Angeles Coliseum, the first time NASCAR has held its preseason exhibition event on the West Coast.
“I think the Next Gen car was a big factor, and the Coliseum race coming up so quick,” Nelson told NBC Sports. “The NASCAR drivers that I’ve talked to, and I did talk to Chase about his thoughts of coming here, and I think those two things were pretty much the focus. They felt like they needed to have to get a championship season going with the new Next Gen NASCAR car, and the early season race in February at the L.A. Coliseum. It was hard to balance that schedule with the Rolex 24.”
Action Express elected to stay with three drivers in its No. 31 for the Rolex 24 instead of adding a fourth as with Elliott last year.
Cindric, who started his career in sports cars and was headed toward a full-time IMSA career before detouring to NASCAR five years ago, said he talked with several Cup drivers exploring the Rolex 24. They were stymied by either logistics, scheduling or just getting a foot in the door.
Though the Team Penske driver had hoped to race against his stock-car peers this month at Daytona, he isn’t surprised to be the only NASCAR representative.
“I know how hard it is to get in the race no matter what your situation or status is,” Cindric said. “There are a lot of really, really talented drivers that aren’t in the race that aren’t NASCAR drivers that probably have more on their resume that would make them valuable to a team, but it is challenging because there’s a lot more than just being a good driver that gets you a seat in a race car.
“That’s the reality of the sport and it’s frustrating, but at the same time, I know there are plenty of Cup drivers that did try and make the race or understand what it would take to do so. But I think my relationships within that world certainly keep eyes on me as far as what I do in the NASCAR spectrum.
“There are a lot of people I’ve worked with – probably half of the race teams that are down there that know me — so it’s about relationships just like anything else.”
Cindric will have some NASCAR company this Friday at Daytona while racing a Mustang GT4 in the Michelin Pilot Challenge, an IMSA support series. Wood Brothers Racing Cup rookie Harrison Burton and 2021 rookie of the year Chase Briscoe of Stewart-Haas Racing also will be in the race, along with Hailie Deegan.
“I’m excited to see how much it drives like a Next Gen car and see what I can take away from it this time,” said Briscoe, who also teamed with Deegan in the event three years ago. “Whether that’s things I can do as a race car driver or even things the team might change for setups or adjustments that I can take back to the Cup side and tell our Cup team to maybe try on a road course weekend.”
The prospect of extra laps in a car with similar features also is enticing to Burton, who is facing a steep learning curve as many Cup rookies since NASCAR began limiting practice during the pandemic.
“The Next Gen car is gonna kind of perform a little bit more similar to this car will, so that’s gonna be a good thing for me to kind of get in the mindset,” Burton said. “The biggest thing I’m looking for is learning the braking capability of a new car. I’ve never sat in this car before and I’m gonna have to show up and race against some really, really talented race car drivers and go try and beat them.
“That’s kind of what I’m going to do all year is show up in a series I have never competed in with a bunch of guys that I don’t normally race against in a new car and go try and beat them. So just being used to change, being comfortable being uncomfortable, that’s one of the biggest things I look forward to kind of taking away from this and just learning basic road course techniques.”
Briscoe also is among several NASCAR drivers who also recently raced the Chili Bowl, compressing an already short offseason that is more hectic because of the Next Gen.
Johnson suspects that’s another reason for limited participation. The seven-time Cup Series champion raced in the Rolex 24 seven times from 2004-11 and then took a break for his last nine seasons in NASCAR.
“The Cup schedule is just so intense,” Johnson told NBC Sports. “And January is really your only month to have for yourself. That’s why I had that big gap. So I put a lot more weight in a 38-race schedule on top of a new car being debuted in NASCAR and all the testing that’s going with that. I just think a lot of guys are trying to have a couple of weekends home.”
Johnson also said the highly competitive level of the Rolex 24, which draws star road racers and manufacturers from around the world, can be intimidating.
“Chase came and had a great time last year, but he was caught off guard just how different these cars are,” Johnson said. “Chase had been winning a lot of road course races, so I imagine that sent a signal back through the Cup garage about trying to come here and moonlight in the IMSA Series.”
Three-time defending Rolex 24 champion car owner Wayne Taylor had Kurt Busch in one of his prototypes for the 2008 Rolex 24 and won in 2017 with a lineup that included Jeff Gordon coming out of retirement. But Taylor said “there’s really nobody else” in NASCAR he’s considered while employing Indy 500 winners Alexander Rossi, Helio Castroneves and Scott Dixon over the years in his No. 10 Acura (which will start on pole in the hunt for a record fourth consecutive Rolex 24 overall victory).
“Well, IndyCar guys I can understand because they’re road racers, and they understand about setup on road courses and stuff, whereas I think it’s difficult to find that in a NASCAR driver,” Taylor told NBC Sports. “You’d need a Jeff Gordon-type guy. Kurt Busch did a good job, but we did a lot of testing beforehand.”
Though he was impressed by the ability of two-time Cup champion Kyle Busch as a GTD teammate in the 2020 Rolex, IndyCar on NBC analyst Townsend Bell said lack of experience is a major hindrance. Though he has won three Supercars championships as an elite road racer, Penske IndyCar driver Scott McLaughlin has been unable to land a ride for the Rolex.
“That’s what is shocking to me,” Bell told NBC Sports. “McLaughlin is so talented and so proven in a tin-top car. The absolute best of the best coming out of V8s, which we know is incredibly competitive. But he doesn’t have Daytona experience. He doesn’t have GT3 experience with traction control and ABS and all that. Not that he couldn’t figure it out. But I think for the team owners in (IMSA), they go with proven guys. It really has to do with the people that have sports car experience that are the known quantities are the first chosen.
“Even when Kyle Busch came into our team, it’s not easy. You’ve got three teammates, limited track time, trying to figure all this out. Then it’s time to go race, and even for Kyle, I think he’d say it was probably a little harder than expected to get dialed in, even in the GTD class. I think experience counts for a lot.”
There are five active Cup race champions with Rolex 24 experience. In addition to Elliott, Kurt and Kyle Busch, defending series champion Kyle Larson has three Rolex 24 starts with Chip Ganassi Racing (including the overall victory in 2015). Kevin Harvick raced a Corvette in the 2002 opener at Daytona.
During a Next Gen test last October on the Charlotte Motor Speedway road course, several more Cup drivers expressed an interest in the Rolex 24 and other IMSA races to help hone their skills.
With an independent rear suspension, a lower profile tire, sequential shifters and rack and pinion steering, the Next Gen will have more in common than sports cars than any point in NASCAR’s history. “I’d love to sign up for more races,” Joey Logano said. “I think our cars are still heavier and probably less downforce, but it definitely probably takes us halfway to what those (sports) cars are. I think the most laps you make the better, especially these days where you don’t get any practice anymore.”
“Your Trans-Am and IMSA racing would lead you to a better path now, especially on the road courses,” Ty Dillon said. “It probably should be more on my radar.”
With a background nearly exclusively in Late Models, William Byron said he wants to branch out but first plans to evaluate how he does in a national go-kart race this month against IndyCar champions Will Power and Josef Newgarden. “I want to see how that goes, and if I’m fast in that, maybe I’ll be decent in a sports car,” Byron said.
Said Hendrick Motorsports driver teammate Alex Bowman: “For sure, I’d love to run some sports car stuff. Looking at my road racing skills, I don’t know a sports car team that would be like, ‘Yeah, let’s get him in a car!’ ”
Earning a job on merit might be what Cindric is most proud of in making his fourth Rolex 24 start.
He regularly wore out his cell phone battery to land the Proton USA ride that will team him with Dirk Mueller (a 2017 Rolex 24 winner with Chip Ganassi Racing in the GT class) and Patrick Assenheimer, an accomplished veteran of the Nürburgring and other European tracks.
“Being in GTD Pro, you look at the entry list and my jaw kind of dropped, so I’m excited for that challenge,” said Cindric, whose previous best GTD finish was fifth in ’19. “That’s why I’m so excited about this Rolex probably more than any other one I’ve competed in because if you’re doing something in that class, that means you’re good because you’re going to beat the best. It’s the same mentality that I’m probably gonna have to take away to bring to the Cup Series this year. There are no excuses, no external factors. Everybody is good, so if you’re doing something, it’s because you’ve earned it as a team or as a driver.
“I have a very strong desire to win the Rolex 24 and that’s my motivating factor to do this race. I’ve worked really hard every offseason to try and make something happen, not to get in a five-driver lineup just to go do the race and experience it. I’ve kind of done all that. The Rolex is probably the most realistic race I can look at and say I would like to win that race, and I think this is a great opportunity for me to do that or at least establish my capabilities to do so against a group of drivers that are incredibly talented and incredibly experienced.”