Why fewer NASCAR drivers racing Rolex 24? Next Gen car surprisingly a limiting factor


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 24Schedules, 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.”

Austin Cindric will drive the Mercedes-AMG GT3 in 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.

Austin Cindric and Harrison Burton will co-drive the No. 41 PF Racing Ford Mustang GT4 in the Michelin Pilot Challenge race at Daytona (IMSA).

“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.”

NASCAR drivers Rolex 24
Kyle Busch drove the No. 14 Lexus RC-F GT3 for Jimmy Vaser’s GTD team during the 2020 Rolex 24 (IMSA).

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!’ ”

The No. 15: Proton USA Mercedes-AMG GT3 of Dirk Mueller, Patrick Assenheimer and Austin Cindric will start fifth in the GTD Pro class of the 60th Rolex 24 (IMSA).

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.”

With fierce racing, IndyCar found redemption and rebirth on the streets of downtown Detroit


DETROIT – A lap in the IndyCar Grand Prix had yet to be turned on the streets of Detroit, and race drivers were doing what they sometimes do best – expecting the worst of a new race course.

It was the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix, and some of the top drivers in the NTT IndyCar Series, including pole winner Alex Palou, were questioning the nine-turn, 1.645-mile street course in downtown Detroit. Even after he won the pole on Saturday, Palou had said the Indy cars were too big, the race course was too small, too tight and too bumpy for the series to put on a competitive race.

It was Sunday morning, five hours before the race, and the IndyCar morning warmup session just had ended. Penske Corp. president Bud Denker, the Detroit GP chairman, was talking to NBC Sports as the Indy cars were being wheeled back to the paddock following the warmup session.

Instead of his trademark smile and optimism, Denker was determined and stern. As Palou’s No. 10 Honda was being pulled by the team’s tire wagon into the paddock, Denker expressed his feelings.

“I’m really not happy with some of the comments that driver has been making,” Denker said.

Denker’s team had spent the better part of two years envisioning and developing a street course that could create a major racing event without shutting down the Detroit business community.

Jefferson Avenue, the main thoroughfare in the city’s business district, remained open thanks to some creative track design (because the race course crossed Jefferson over a bridge and also couldn’t impede the adjacent tunnel that was an international crossing to Windsor, Canada).

Alex Palou leads into Turn 1 on the start of the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix (USA TODAY Sports Images Network).

From an event standpoint, the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix was already electric with a vibe that brought tens of thousands daily to this revitalized urban center known as “Motor City.”

But would the actual race prove to be worthy?

Fast forward to Sunday late afternoon and – wouldn’t you know it – the winner of the race was its most vocal critic leading up to the green flag.

Alex Palou.

It was a chance for Denker and Palou to speak.

“Alex and I actually had a conversation after the race on the way to pit lane,” Denker told NBC Sports. “I congratulated him because he was a worthy champion, did a great job, great win, great run, pole qualifying also.

“His comment to me was, ‘This track proved very worthy.’

“I’ll take that from him.”

The race itself exceeded expectations. It may have been the best street race of the season on the NTT IndyCar Series schedule.

The racing was fierce, the competition phenomenal, and the restarts brought even the most jaded motorsports observers to their feet.

“Oh yeah, myself included,” Palou admitted to NBC Sports. “The event was amazing. The crowd we had was unbelievable. The energy was great. It was a really great race.”

Palou’s complaints entering the race were from his frustrations in finding a clean lap during qualification sims in practice and the actual qualifications on Saturday.

With 27 cars on a 1.645-mile street circuit, just do the math – it’s hard to get a gap.

But the race course proved to be a much better “race” track than a qualifying layout.

“Yes, 100 percent,” Palou said. “I like to go fast. I like to race. When you have traffic every single lap, you don’t like it that much, but for the race, it was great. It was a great event for the fans, for the teams and for the drivers.

“The energy we had here was amazing.”

The drivers’ worst fears never developed in the race. There were no blocked corners. No red flags. Plenty of passing zones.

Denker and his team could feel vindication and a strong sense of redemption.

“It is ironic,” Denker said of Palou winning the race. “I think a lot of the comments early on was because of the first practice. There was no rubber on the track. A new track for them. A lot of cars going into the runoff and stalling their cars in the runoff, not turning the cars around fast enough. I think a lot of perceptions were created in that first practice.

“Some of our turns look tight. Turn 1 for instance, the apex is 27 feet, much larger than some other tracks where it is tight. The issue going into the race was, are you going to have two cars block the entire track and then you have to go Red Flag.

“We never had that situation today where you had a car block the track, even in the tightest turns. We never had an issue where cars could not get around you.

“The corners were wide enough to support the fact that when you had an issue, cars could get around and continue moving around without having a red flag.”

Will Power enters Turn 3 during the Detroit Grand Prix (USA TODAY Sports Images Network).

It also proved that in an actual competition, the teams and drivers in IndyCar can figure out how to adapt and put on a good race.

“We saw them figure it out in the Indy NXT race on Saturday,” Denker said. “It was a great race. We saw so many IndyCar drivers go off into the runoff on Friday that there were concerns. Many of them were stalling their cars and couldn’t get them spun around.

“That led to, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re going to have caution after caution after caution because we aren’t going to be able to get our cars stopped to make a turn, or slowed down to make a turn, and the runoff will happen continuously.’ “Guess what? We had seven cautions for 32 laps and very few of those were for a stalled car in the runoff. It was for a mistake on the race track made by a driver.

“We proved the thoughts that came out on Friday, we proved them very, very wrong in the race on Sunday.”

Fans watch from the Franklin Garage parking deck near the GM Renaissance Center as safety workers attended to David Malukas after he hit the wall out of Turn 9 during the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix (USA TODAY Sports Images Network).

As the president of the Penske Corp., Denker is a man who understands business and decorum. He is one of Roger Penske’s most valued executives, practically his right-hand man.

The impeccably dressed Denker is never rattled, and he backs up his style with substance.

IndyCar racing, however, is a highly competitive game and in the heat of battle, the energy level tends to increase.

That is why Denker was more emphatic than usual once the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix had concluded.

“Eighteen months ago, it was an idea that Michael Montri had after the success of the Nashville Grand Prix and what it did for that city,” Denker said. “The businesses coming together, the community coming together and the city just glowing.

“We came back in August of 2021 and asked if that could ever happen in downtown Detroit and off Belle Isle. We found a great circuit that was worthy of that, that wouldn’t compromise business or the international tunnel in the middle of our race track. That was a dream at the time.

“It’s a cliché, but dreams really came true this weekend. We saw the success of great racing, competitive racing, safe racing and very importantly, fans that we haven’t seen came out in a very diverse way and enjoy this sport.”

It was certainly a major weekend for Detroit as the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix was the lead story on seemingly every TV newscast in the city. The business community of the city flourished – something that didn’t happen when the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix was held 4 miles up Jefferson at Belle Isle Park from 1992-2022.

“One hundred percent,” Denker agreed. “The fact of the matter is most of the people that come to our race are within a four-county area. Just like Indianapolis, one state for them.

“I think the fact is Belle Isle you came down, you parked in the same parking deck where the sponsors parked that had been there for 13 years, get in a bus, come back, get in their car, they go home.

“Here you had to park somewhere. You had to come downtown. Took the People Mover, the Q Line, all these different places and you came downtown. That was the difference for us.

“Belle Isle in my mind, it’s 50 miles away from Detroit in some respects because we didn’t see the benefit the city would get. We saw the benefit this time because of how busy it was. You saw it. You were staying here at a hotel somewhere and saw it.

“We know we made a big impact on the city. Why? Because the hotels were all filled up. They weren’t filled up when Belle Isle was there.”

Already on its way to have a dramatic economic impact to Detroit, on Sunday, the competitive level of IndyCar was on full display.

“The facts are there were 189 on-track passes at Detroit, 142 of them were for position,” Denker said proudly. “At St. Pete, great race this year, 170 on-track passes versus Detroit’s 189 and 128 for position versus Detroit’s 142.

“Long Beach, great race this year, had the same for position passes as Detroit had. I think we had a pretty good race.”

Although Palou won the race, it was Team Penske’s Will Power that put on the show. He was a master on the restarts, going full throttle into the end of the long straightaway, pulling out from behind Palou and taking the lead by diving to the inside in the turn.

That move worked throughout the race until the final restart, when Palou was able to protect the inside line and make Power go to the outside.

The Team Penske driver (whose race weekend highlight was hanging out with Flavor Flav) was unable to use the high line and then proceeded to get into a street fight with Scott Dixon and others for second place in the closing laps.

“The restarts were great because we have this long straightaway,” Denker said. “We started the restart between coming out of Turn 1. Those that got a good jump, like Will Power did on Alex Palou on the second-to-last restart, could make a good pass. Those that had push-to-passes left later on could make a good pass.

“The fact we had this seven-eighths of a mile straightaway where the restarts were coming into was a great place to start the race versus an area not as long. We had the benefit of having a straightway as long as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and speeds that were just unbelievable going down through this track.

The view down the nearly 1-mile Jefferson Avenue straightaway that separates Turn 2 and Turn 3 (USA TODAY Sports Images Network).

“I thought the restarts were great because of the positions Kyle Novak (IndyCar Race Director) and his team made for that.

“The other thing was the dual pit lane. This was really interesting because it hasn’t been done before to have 13 cars pitted on one side and 14 cars pitting on the other side and have six lanes merging to one in 315 feet. How is that going to happen?

“This time, because of the yellows, we never had a situation with 27 cars coming in at the same time. It was sporadic. That issue we thought would happen to create a calamity on pit lane never happened.”

Two of the Arrow McLaren drivers got into their own shoving match on the track with Felix Rosenqvist getting the best of Alexander Rossi for third place.

But none of the Chevrolet drivers were able to catch Palou at the end as the No. 10 Honda took the checkered flag.

“When you have Chevrolet as the backdrop, and them being the key partner and sponsor of this thing, you want to keep them happy,” Denker said. “They also know competition drives this sport. We saw some great action. Will Power made a great move late, some great action there. The competition between the Arrow McLaren cars were unbelievable the last 10 laps. Will Power made a great pass of Alexander Rossi to get position to take over second place. I loved the competition.

“We saw some passes late between Turns 8 and 9 and Turns 1 and 2 that I don’t think anybody thought would happen. This turned into a very, very competitive race track.

“Once this track rubbered up, the drivers said this track was very worthy.

Indy 500 winner Joef Newgarden enters the Turn 3 hairpin during the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix (USA Today Sports Images Network).

“It’s a new place. They have to learn new things. There are some bumps in certain corners. Guess what? We’ll fix those things.

“No one got to test here because we couldn’t close the roads down a week ahead of time or a month ahead of time or two days ahead of time. I got some feedback from drivers who did simulation. I ground some track areas they wanted fixed. I put new pavement in Turn 3 to drivers right because of feedback.

“I got no feedback to repaving drivers left. If I had, I would have repaved that, also. It shows that I will make those changes because I made those changes to driver right, but I never got that feedback.

“It goes both ways. Provide me the feedback, I’ll make those changes. But now that we’ve had the race, we have a lot more opportunity to make changes based off of what actually happened.”

There were accolades and plaudits from some of IndyCar’s most accomplished drivers afterwards, including six-time NTT IndyCar Series champion and 2008 Indianapolis 500 winner Scott Dixon.

“It was wild,” Dixon said. “I had a lot of fun. The car was super difficult. The track was difficult. It had a lot of character. It was interesting but very difficult on the restarts.

“These things aren’t meant to be easy. I had a lot of fun, just frustrated with how my day went and not getting the most out of a really good car.”

From both an event and race standpoint, team owner Dale Coyne believed it was a blockbuster.

“This is a really big event,” Coyne said. “We’ve brought Long Beach to a major city like Detroit. This is the type of event that we should be doing in IndyCar.

“I would rather be in Detroit than in Milwaukee. Events like this one in Detroit are IndyCar’s future. Milwaukee is IndyCar’s past.”

While that comment may not resonate with some of IndyCar’s older fan base who long for the days of The Milwaukee Mile as the first race after the Indianapolis 500, that distinction has belonged to Detroit since it returned to the IndyCar schedule in 2012.

Now that it’s back on the streets of downtown Detroit for the first time since 1991, Denker predicts even bigger events to come for the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix.

“Our city was showcased to the world in ways that people had probably never thought,” Denker said proudly. “The riverfront, you couldn’t tell if you were in San Diego, or even Monaco, these boats that were out there harbored. We couldn’t be more proud of our team.

“We are already planning for next year.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500