As less of a ‘weak link,’ Jimmie Johnson in ‘best situation ever’ to win first Rolex 24


DAYTONA BEACH, Florida –Kamui Kobayashi is hoping his last shot at the Rolex 24 at Daytona with Jimmie Johnson will be tequila-flavored.

Kobayashi, the two-time Daytona endurance race winner, reigning 24 Hours of Le Mans winner and Formula One veteran, nearly carried Johnson to his first winner’s Rolex last year in the debut of the No. 48 Ally Cadillac at Daytona International Speedway. The pair became good friends while running three more IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship races with Johnson last year.

“He’s just such a good dude and cool and fun to be around,” Johnson told NBC Sports about Kobayashi. “He’s spent a lot of time in the U.K., and he can cuss like a sailor and has a lot of that British swagger.”

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The Japanese sports car ace also has become a big fan of the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion, too, especially since Johnson showed Kobayashi the beer fridge that’s stashed beneath his motorhome.

It became a nightly routine at IMSA races that Johnson would hear his cooler rolling out and then would see Kobayashi smiling with a Bud Light in hand. “He’s like, ‘I just need one to go to bed!’ ” Johnson said.

Kobayashi appreciated being revealed “the secret spot to hide the bottles,” but he’s hoping to up the game from the beer toast they enjoyed after the finish of their inaugural race together last year at the World Center of Racing.

“We need to go with tequila this year,” Kobayashi told NBC Sports with a laugh, indicating awareness of his Southern California teammate’s preference for Patron. “That’s what we do when we win the race at Daytona. I’m here thinking this is my last shot to win the race with the Cadillac with Jimmie. So I’ll try to do my best and make sure that he wins this race.”

Their partnership is finite because Kobayashi has moved into a team principal role at Toyota Gazoo (which competes primarily in the World Endurance Championship Hypercar division that encompasses Le Mans), and IMSA and WEC are entering a new era of convergence that will mean the series competing directly against each other next year as the LMDh car replaces DPi.

But in other ways, time is on their side – certainly more so than when last year’s outfit was assembled late in 2020. Despite the scramble by Action Express, the No. 48 still managed to finish second on a massive charge by Kobayashi in the final stint (after some earlier adjustments had hurt the car’s speed).

“Last year, I really feel like we gave it away,” general manager Gary Nelson told NBC Sports. “I could come up with excuses, but in Action Express terms, we didn’t execute as well as we could have with the 48 car last year. We got behind late in the race, and at the end, we were gaining so fast. It’s unusual for someone to say in a 24-hour race we needed it to be 25 hours, but I think we had the winning car at the end. We just were too far back.”

And with the least amount of experience in a high-downforce car, Johnson often was lagging the most while trying to get up to speed with the new group.

“I feel like I’m coming in so much more prepared,” Johnson said. “Not only myself, but the second car at Action Express Racing. The time together — team, drivers and everybody involved – it just makes a difference. I’m really excited to be back here for a second year personally because of my journey and also where we are as a race team.”

Mike Rockenfeller also returns from last year’s team, and with Simon Pagenaud departing to Meyer Shank Racing (his new IndyCar team), Jose Maria Lopez was added on the recommendation of Kobayashi, his WEC teammate.

That gives Johnson three 24 Hours of Le Mans winners as teammates as he takes his ninth crack at winning the Rolex 24. He also will have Hendrick Motorsports vice president of competition Chad Knaus, the crew chief for his seven Cup Series titles, calling the No. 48’s strategy (as he did in the last three endurance races in 2021) and a crew of Hendrick team members pitting the Cadillac for the second consecutive year.

“This driver lineup is so incredible,” Johnson said. “I felt really blessed last year, and I’m not sure we could have made it any better, and in a small way, we have. I feel like I’m in the best situation I’ve ever had to come here and win this race and in a lot of ways know and feel like I’m the weak link. And just hope to keep the car on track and hand it off to my teammates in the condition it was given to me and keep this thing going.

“I’m definitely less of a weak link than last year. I think my journey in sports cars and also the time spent in IndyCar. I’ve closed up the gap quite a bit and when you look at an endurance race and what our goals are, I’m right there where I need to be.

“I’m starting at such a better place this year for both IMSA and IndyCar. I know most of the tracks. I have a fair amount of seat time in the cars. My understanding of cars, tracks, paddock areas, routines, regulations. It really was a fresh start for me last year. I had a great time doing it, but where I sit today, I have so much better understanding and knowledge, and that all leads to more excitement and optimism to a strong year.”

Though he has learned “to trust these cars so much,” Johnson said he still struggles to find the limits of downforce. He still is mastering the subtleties of when to release the brake through the turns (and let the car slow down naturally without too much force) –mistakes that can add up to losing several tenths of a second over the course of a lap.

But the speed charts also are indicative of his improvement. In the four practices of the race weekend before last year’s Rolex 24, Johnson was nearly a full second behind his third-fastest teammate. This weekend (in mostly slick track conditions), his fastest practice lap actually ranked ahead as third fastest on the No. 48, a couple of tenths ahead of Rockenfeller.

Crediting Johnson’s persistence and work ethic, Nelson believes that “I think Jimmie Johnson is going to surprise a lot of people” in the IMSA Endurance Cup season.

Chip Ganassi is expecting the same in the NTT IndyCar Series as Johnson moves into driving the No. 48 Dallara-Honda for a full schedule, including the Indy 500. Johnson finished on the lead lap in three of the final four races in 2021 after sometimes being a few seconds off on street courses to start the season.

“I think he’s got a win in him,” Ganassi said Friday at Daytona International Speedway. “I thought he had a win in him last year. And we just had a couple of things that stunted his growth. I’m still optimistic. I think he’s got a win in him. He certainly has the right attitude. He knows how to win. It’s a confidence thing. Nobody’s questioning his talent or his commitment. He works hard at it.”

“Look at the change from him from a year ago here (at the Rolex 24) to now. He’s like right there now, and he wasn’t a year ago.”

Aside from his progress, Johnson’s quest to win his first Rolex 24 has been a rallying cry for his teammates.

“I always tend to follow the people that have done great things, and I have been following Jimmie a long time,” Lopez told NBC Sports. “To be part of the team with him is nice. I was surprised in a good way by his personality. Straightforward. Very relaxed. Humbled.

“If I can be a little help or part of achieving (the Rolex 24 victory), it would be amazing. I know how important it is for him and for all of us. I know how hard it is, this kind of races. Jimmie has tried a lot. It’s a combination. It doesn’t depend on you. You’re depending on a lot of factors; The teammates, the car, and factors from the race itself. That’s why it’s so difficult to win. I believe we have the crew to do it. The team to do it.”

The team also has a reliable anchor in Kobayashi behind the wheel and in debriefs. Though he jokes that Johnson is “my boss as it’s car 48,” Kobayashi also offered some aggressive coaching to Johnson throughout last year’s Rolex 24.

“I knew he’s coming from a different type of racing and was a little bit difficult time last year,” Kobayashi said. “But I respect him because he had so much success in NASCAR.

“Everything in terms of traffic management, driving, the different conditions to adapt. There are many things we can discuss. It’s always very important to communicate because in a 24-hour race, track conditions always change. Different temperature, different track abrasion. I think the key is always communicating with a teammate because we are fighting for one thing.

“I enjoy working with Jimmie. I want to share what I feel and try to give the best information as much as I can. I think at the end of the day, it gives us more confidence in each other. We respect each other and that’s why I’m still there.”

AUTO: JAN 21 IMSA WeatherTech SportCar Championship - Roar Before the Rolex 24 at DAYTONA
Kamui Kobayashi won the Rolex 24 at Daytona twice with Wayne Taylor Racing before moving to the No. 48 Cadillac as one of Jimmie Johnson’s teammates last year (David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images).

Johnson still is here in part because he wants the signature trophy that has eluded him in eight tries at winning the IMSA season opener at Daytona.

He bought himself an engraved Rolex after winning the Daytona 500 in 2006, but he yearns for the watch that money can’t buy.

“I think it is one of two or three trophies that I’ve ever dreamt about having or earning,” Johnson said. “I’ve been chasing this watch for a long time. It’s an event that I wanted to participate in and win since I was really young. So this is on my hit list.

“This is something that I’ve been so close to accomplishing. And it’s something I really feel like I can accomplish. I really feel I have a team and teammates to do it this year.”

IndyCar Preseason, Day 1: Simon Pagenaud on why he likes teasing Josef Newgarden

Newgarden Pagenaud feud
Joe Skibinski/Penske Entertainment

PALM SPRINGS, Calif. — A roundup of nuggets from the opening day of preseason IndyCar Content Days for media that lead into two days of preseason testing Thursday and Friday at The Thermal Club, starting with a playful “feud” between former teammates Josef Newgarden and Simon Pagenaud:

After making a point to needle Newgarden during the Rolex 24 at Daytona (when he was warned for being deemed to have caused a spin by the car driven by Newgarden and Scott McLaughlin), Pagenaud laughed about why he likes poking at his ex-teammate at Team Penske.

“I just love to press the button with Josef,” Pagenaud said. “I just love it. I’m being very open about it. I think he knows it, too. It’s funny to see him unsettled a little bit. I like when he gets aggressive. I don’t know why. It’s funny.”

They scrapped a few times as Penske teammates. Pagenaud notably was hot after a 2017 incident at Gateway during Newgarden’s first season with the team, but he later backtracked and blamed it on his French blood.

Pagenaud says all is good between now – though he also admits with a devilish grin that he’s taking advantage of the freedom from leaving Penske last year.

“Absolutely, yeah. I couldn’t do that before,” he said with a laugh about teasing Newgarden. “I would get in trouble.

“Yeah, I can be myself. I can say what I want to say. Nobody is upset about it. I love Josef. Don’t get me wrong. I love the guy.

“Do I love the driver? Not always, but I enjoy pressing the button with him because he seems like such a confident person. Yeah, I like to just go press it a little bit.”

When he was informed of the sardonic comments (Pagenaud asked reporters to make sure they relayed that he enjoyed passing Newgarden in the race) after his first stint at Daytona last weekend, Newgarden took a shot back.

“He doesn’t get many opportunities these days, so I’m sure he enjoyed that,” Newgarden said. “Take them when you can get them. There’s so much happening I don’t even remember half the stuff that happened when I was out there. Hey, he’s a big note-keeper, that guy.”

Pagenaud, who is winless since 2020, conceded that point Tuesday at IndyCar’s media session.

“I will do better this year,” he said. “But I got to build my team up, put myself in that situation. We were not there yet. I hope we can be there this year.

“But certainly not being teammates, you race differently. Now, the driver that he is, I have a huge amount of respect for him. He’s tremendous. I mean, he’s one of the best at what he does. So beating him is even a better reward. But I like my résumé better than his.”

For the record, Newgarden has one more IndyCar championship than Pagenaud but is empty in the Indy 500 win column compared to the 2019 winner at the Brickyard.

During his Rolex 24 availability, Pagenaud also took playful aim at the “Bus Bros,” the branded social and digital content that Newgarden and teammate and buddy Scott McLaughlin have been producing for nearly a year.

“Apparently they hang out together all the time,” Pagenaud cracked. “They’re ‘Bus Bros.’ Do you guys know what this is, the ‘Bus Bros’ thing? Have you watched it? I should start watching it.”

Newgarden and McLaughlin are scheduled to appear together on the second day of the preseason media event at the Palm Springs Convention Center, so stay tuned for the next round of snark.

Pagenaud is among many drivers enthused to get acclimated to The Thermal Club, which is a $275 million motorsports country club of sorts.

But for the Frenchman, Thermal represents more than just a chance to tune up for the 2023 season. Pagenaud, who made his first visit to the desert track three years ago after winning the Indy 500, is thinking about his long-term future.

“It’s actually something I’m really interested in for my future but in another life,” he said. “I love the concept. Actually before my IndyCar career, I was on a project like that myself in France. I was going to build something similar. I had the backing, I had everything going on, but my career took off. I had to give up on the project.

“But it is something I’ve always been interested in. My dad used to run my home racetrack. I had access to it, so I could see how that was going.

“I always had a passion for it because it’s a way to allow the fans to get closer to the car, allow the sport to be more known to the general public. There’s so many things that you can do with a racetrack, not only for races, but so many people that can come to bicycle races, you can have runners do a marathon. It doesn’t have to be just racing. It can be events. I’m into that. I’ve always been. Certainly when it’s time to stop driving, it will be something that I’m interested in, yes. That’s maybe 20 years from now.”

Felix Rosenqvist returns for his third consecutive season at McLaren, the longest stint with one team for the Swede since 2014 in F3.

But he finds himself somewhat in a similar position to last season when his return was uncertain for months during the Alex Palou-Chip Ganassi Racing saga. Palou is back with Ganassi but still expected to join the team in 2024, and with Rossi and O’Ward on long-term deals, Rosenqvist would be unable to stay unless the team added a fourth car.

He is taking it all in stride with the same grace in which he managed last season’s uncertainty.

“I think I handled it probably as good as I could,” Rosenqvist said of last year. “That’s probably a reason why I’m here this year. I think it’s a massive opportunity for me to be back for a third year. I feel like I have all the tools I need to perform, feeling very good with everyone at the car. As I said, there’s so many things happening last year on and off the track. I think as a team, we just really learned a lot from that that we can bring into this season.

“I think we’ll be tough this year. We have a lot of things in the bag to try early this season. A couple of things here at Thermal we want to try. Going into the season, we have pinpointed some areas where we feel we were lacking a little bit, like the short ovals, for example. I feel like we’ve done the best we can to attack all those areas and bring the best possible package we can.”

Rosenqvist is winless since his breakthrough victory over O’Ward at Road America in 2020. Ending that skid certainly would improve his prospects, but he isn’t worried.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future,” he said. “That’s a long time until next year. I think it’s a great opportunity for me. I’m in a good spot. I’m in a well-performing team. I feel well with everyone around me. I feel like I have a good support from the team. I don’t really think too much about that stuff. I just try to do what I can do, which is go fast forward and try to win races.”

After being frozen out of remote access to team data last year, Palou said his working relationship at Ganassi is “back to 100% like it was before from both sides.” The 2021 series champion said he had full privileges restored after he closed the season by winning the finale at Laguna Seca Raceway and then settled on staying with Ganassi a day later.

He is allowed to continue his F1 testing with McLaren, too, though IndyCar will be the priority in-season.

“It was a tough year,” said Palou, whose contract dispute lasted for two months. “Could have been a lot worse, for sure, than what we had but also could have been a little bit better if we didn’t have anything around in our minds. It’s a part of racing.

“I’m just happy that now we know that even with things in our minds, we were able to be successful. Hopefully, we can be back to 2021 things during this season. Yeah, obviously there’s always some moments (in 2022) where you’re like, ‘Oh, no, my God, this is not going the direction I wanted.’ But there was things that were out of my control, obviously. Some things that I could control, as well. But at the end of the day I had all the information from my side, from other sides. I knew that everything could be settled, and it did.”

Pato O’Ward unplugged from the racing world for six weeks during the offseason, ensuring he was fully recharged when the new year arrived.

“I haven’t had the opportunity to do it in the past few years,” said O’Ward, who tested an F1 car in 2021 and then went right into preparing and racing (then winning) the 2022 Rolex 24 at Daytona. “I said, ‘I want at least six weeks. Don’t talk to me, don’t text me, I don’t want to hear anything.’ It’s healing. It’s very healing.

“As much as you love what you do, you need to find a balance of just doing something else. I always tell people, there’s a huge difference between relaxing and recharging. How I recharge is doing things I don’t normally do during the year. Just being at the beach to me is my favorite thing to do after driving race cars. I made sure that I had that kind of time to just enjoy my loved ones. After I was finished with that, I was like, ‘OK, race cars now.’ ”

Marcus Ericsson is planning on a long future with Chip Ganassi Racing, and the 2022 Indy 500 winner seems well-positioned to become the team’s anchor driver if he can maintain last season’s consistency.

Jimmie Johnson has been replaced by the Marcus Armstrong-Takuma Sato combination, and Alex Palou is leaving after this year.

Six-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon, 42, is Ganassi’s unquestioned dean until his retirement, but Ericsson clearly is interested in the mantle after that.

“I’m feeling very much at home in the team,” said Ericsson, the Formula One who is entering his fourth season with CGR. “I’m super happy about that. I wish to stay for a very long time, as well. There is some uncertainty with other places maybe in the future, but Dixon seems to be just getting better and better. He might be here for another 10 years or so, who knows.

“But that’s great. Me and Scott, we work really well together. I can still learn a lot from him. I want to be here for a long time and win races and championships together.”

The Swede had a droll response when asked if no longer being the only Marcus will get confusing in Ganassi debriefs. “Yeah, it is; I’m angry,” Ericsson deadpanned. “I think we’re OK. He seems like a good kid. He has a good name.”

Following in the footsteps of Callum Ilott and Christian Lundgaard from F2 to IndyCar, Armstrong is OK with deferring his F1 dreams to run road and street courses as a rookie in 2023. The New Zealander grew up as an IndyCar fan rooting for Dixon, his boyhood idol and fellow countryman.

“I’ve been watching him on TV since I was a kid,” Armstrong, 22, said. “It’s cool because IndyCar is massive where I’m from because of him. I’ve always been so attracted to this championship. Of course, I spent my entire life chasing F1. You can never say ‘never.’ If I’m honest with you, I’m happy where I am now. It’s a dream come true.”

Armstrong hopes to move to full time in 2024 and believes being aligned with a powerhouse such as Ganassi will give him an opportunity to post strong results immediately (just as Ilott and Lundgaard had flashes as rookies last year).

“I’ve been genuinely impressed by the organization, just the strategic point of view that Chip Ganassi Racing has, it’s really quite remarkable,” he said. “I can understand why they’ve had so much success. I think fundamentally I need to get on it straightaway. I have all the information in the world, really. I just need to hit the ground running, do well immediately.”

In among the wildest stories of the offseason, rookie Sting Ray Robb revealed he landed his ride at Dale Coyne Racing because he ran into Indy Lights champion Linus Lundqvist at PitFit Training, a physical fitness and performance center used by many drivers in Indianapolis.

Lundqvist was the presumptive favorite for the DCR No. 51 Dallara-Honda, which was the last open seat heading into the 2022 season. Because of his Indy Lights title (since rebranded as “IndyNXT”) with HMD Motorsports, Lundqvist had a six-figure sponsorship to bring to an IndyCar team, and DCR is partnered with HMD.

“There was a few teams that we were talking to, and Dale’s team was not the one that was at the top of the list because we thought they already had a driver,” Robb said. “Obviously with Linus winning the championship, we assumed with the HMD association there that there would be a straight shoe-in for him.

“But I actually was at PitFit Training one day with Linus and discovered that was not the case. That created an opportunity for us that allowed me to call up my manager, Pieter Rossi, and get him on the phone, and he immediately called Dale and said, ‘Hey, we’re available.’ I think there was a mutual understanding of what availability was for either one of us. That’s when conversations began. Then we had a really good test in 2023 right at the beginning of January, and I think that was kind of the one that set the tone that allowed me to get in the seat.

“I think there’s been some opportunities that were miraculously created that we couldn’t have done on our own.”

Robb, who finished second in last year’s Indy Lights standings, hasn’t talked to Lundqvist since their PitFit meeting.

“Linus does deserve a seat” in IndyCar, Robb said. “His on-track performance was incredible. But it takes more than just a driver to get into IndyCar. You’ve got to have a village around you that supports you, and so I think that that is where my group made a difference. It wasn’t just in my performance, but it was the people around me.

“I feel bad for Linus because as a driver I can feel that way towards him because I could be in that seat if I didn’t have those same people around me. So there you go.”