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.”

‘It’s gnarly, bro’: IndyCar drivers face new challenge on streets of downtown Detroit

IndyCar Detroit downtown
James Black/Penske Entertainment

DETROIT – It was the 1968 motion picture, “Winning” when actress Joanne Woodward asked Paul Newman if he were going to Milwaukee in the days after he won the Indianapolis 500 as driver Frank Capua.

“Everybody goes to Milwaukee after Indianapolis,” Newman responded near the end of the film.

Milwaukee was a mainstay as the race on the weekend after the Indianapolis 500 for decades, but since 2012, the first race after the Indy 500 has been Detroit at Belle Isle Park.

This year, there is a twist.

Instead of IndyCar racing at the Belle Isle State Park, it’s the streets of downtown Detroit on a race course that is quite reminiscent of the old Formula One and CART race course that was used from 1982 to 1991.

Formula One competed in the United States Grand Prix from 1982 to 1988. Beginning in 1989, CART took over the famed street race through 1991. In 1992, the race was moved to Belle Isle, where it was held through last year (with a 2009-2011 hiatus after the Great Recession).

The Penske Corp. is the promoter of this race, and they did a lot of good at Belle Isle, including saving the Scott Fountain, modernizing the Belle Isle Casino, and basically cleaning up the park for Detroit citizens to enjoy.

The race, however, had outgrown the venue. Roger Penske had big ideas to create an even bigger event and moving it back to downtown Detroit benefitted race sponsor Chevrolet. The footprint of the race course goes around General Motors world headquarters in the GM Renaissance Center – the centerpiece building of Detroit’s modernized skyline.

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Motor City is about to roar with the sound of Chevrolet and Honda engines this weekend as the NTT IndyCar Series is the featured race on the nine-turn, 1.7-mile temporary street course.

It’s perhaps the most unique street course on the IndyCar schedule because of the bumps on the streets and the only split pit lane in the series.

The pit lanes has stalls on opposing sides and four lanes across an unusual rectangular pit area (but still only one entry and exit).

Combine that, with the bumps and the NTT IndyCar Series drivers look forward to a wild ride in Motor City.

“It’s gnarly, bro,” Arrow McLaren driver Pato O’Ward said before posting the fastest time in Friday’s first practice. “It will be very interesting because the closest thing that I can see it being like is Toronto-like surfaces with more of a Long Beach-esque layout.

“There’s less room for error than Long Beach. There’s no curbs. You’ve got walls. I think very unique to this place.

PRACTICE RESULTS: Speeds from the first session

“Then it’s a bit of Nashville built into it. The braking zones look really very bumpy. Certain pavements don’t look bumpy but with how the asphalt and concrete is laid out, there’s undulation with it. So, you can imagine the cars are going to be smashing on every single undulation because we’re going to go through those sections fairly fast, and obviously the cars are pretty low. I don’t know.

“It looks fun, man. It’s definitely going to be a challenge. It’s going to be learning through every single session, not just for drivers and teams but for race control. For everyone.

“Everybody has to go into it knowing not every call is going to be smooth. It’s a tall task to ask from such a demanding racetrack. I think it’ll ask a lot from the race cars as well.”

The track is bumpy, but O’Ward indicated he would be surprised if it is bumper than Nashville. By comparison to Toronto, driving at slow speed is quite smooth, but fast speed is very bumpy.

“This is a mix of Nashville high-speed characteristics and Toronto slow speed in significant areas,” O’Ward said. “I think it’ll be a mix of a lot of street courses we go to, and the layout looks like more space than Nashville, which is really tight from Turn 4 to 8. It looks to be a bit more spacious as a whole track, but it’ll get tight in multiple areas.”

The concept of having four-wide pit stops is something that excites the 24-year-old driver from Monterey, Mexico.

“I think it’s innovation, bro,” O’Ward said. “If it works out, we’ll look like heroes.

“If it doesn’t, we tried.”

Because of the four lanes on pit road, there is a blend line the drivers will have to adhere to. Otherwise, it would be chaos leaving the pits compared to a normal two-lane pit road.

“If it wasn’t there, there’d be guys fighting for real estate where there’s one car that fits, and there’d be cars crashing in pit lane,” O’Ward said. “I get why they did that. It’s the same for everybody. I don’t think there’s a lot of room to play with. That’s the problem.

“But it looks freaking gnarly for sure. Oh my God, that’s going to be crazy.”

Alex Palou of Chip Ganassi Racing believes the best passing areas will be on the long straights because of the bumps in the turns. That is where much of the action will be in terms of gaining or losing a position in the race.

“It will also be really easy to defend in my opinion,” Palou said. “Being a 180-degree corner, you just have to go on the inside and that’s it. There’s going to be passes for sure but its’ going to be risky.

“Turn 1, if someone dives in, you end up in the wall. They’re not going to be able to pass you on the exit, so maybe with the straight being so long you can actually pass before you end up on the braking zone.”

Palou’s teammate, Marcus Ericsson, was at the Honda simulator in Brownsburg, Indiana, before coming to Detroit and said he was shocked by the amount of bumps on the simulator.

Race promoter Bud Denker, the President of Penske Corporation, and Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix President Michael Montri, sent the track crews onto the streets with grinders to smooth out the bumps on the race course several weeks ago.

“They’ve done a decent amount of work, and even doing the track walk, it looked a lot better than what we expected,” Ericsson said. “I don’t think it’ll be too bad. I hope not. That’ll be something to take into account.

“I think the track layout doesn’t look like the most fun. Maybe not the most challenging. But I love these types of tracks with rules everywhere. It’s a big challenge, and you have to build up to it. That’s the types of tracks that I love to drive. It’s a very much Marcus Ericsson type of track. I like it.”

Scott Dixon, who was second fastest in the opening session, has competed on many new street circuits throughout his legendary racing career. The six-time NTT IndyCar Series champion for Chip Ganassi Racing likes the track layout, even with the unusual pit lane.

I don’t think that’s going to be something that catches on where every track becomes a double barrel,” Dixon said. “It’s new and interesting.

“As far as pit exit, I think Toronto exit is worse with how the wall sticks out. I think in both lanes, you’ve got enough lead time to make it and most guys will make a good decision.”

It wasn’t until shortly after 3 p.m. ET on Friday that the IndyCar drivers began the extended 90-minute practice session to try out the race course for the first time in real life.

As expected, there were several sketchy moments, but no major crashes during the first session despite 19 local yellow flags for incidents and two red flags.

Rookie Agustin Canapino had to cut his practice short after some damage to his No. 78 Dallara-Chevrolet, but he was among many who emerged mostly unscathed from scrapes with the wall.

“It was honestly less carnage than I expected,” said Andretti Autosport’s Kyle Kirkwood, who was third fastest in the practice after coming off his first career IndyCar victory in the most recent street race at Long Beach in April. “I think a lot of people went off in the runoffs, but no one actually hit the wall (too hard), which actually surprised me. Hats off to them for keeping it clean, including myself.

“It was quite a bit less grip than I think everyone expected. Maybe a little bit more bumpy down into Turn 3 than everyone expected. But overall they did a good job between the two manufacturers. I’m sure everyone had pretty much the same we were able to base everything off of. We felt pretty close to maximum right away.”

Most of the preparation for this event was done either on the General Motors Simulator in Huntersville, North Carolina, or the Honda Performance Development simulator in Brownsburg, Indiana.

“Now, we have simulators that can scan the track, so we have done plenty of laps already,” Power told NBC Sports. “They have ground and resurfaced a lot of the track, so it should be smoother.

“But nothing beats real-world experience. It’s going to be a learning experience in the first session.”

As a Team Penske driver, Power and his teammates were consulted about the progress and layout of the Detroit street course. They were shown what was possible with the streets that were available.

“We gave some input back after we were on the similar what might be ground and things like that,” Power said.

Racing on the streets of Belle Isle was a fairly pleasant experience for the fans and corporate sponsor that compete in the race.

But the vibe at the new location gives this a “big event” feel.

“The atmosphere is a lot better,” Power said. “The location, the accessibility for the fans, the crowd that will be here, it’s much easier. I think it will be a much better event.

“It feels like a Long Beach, only in a much bigger city. That is what street course racing is all about.”

Because the track promoter is also the team owner, Power and teammates Scott McLaughlin and Indy 500 winner Josef Newgarden will have a very busy weekend on the track, and with sponsor and personal appearances.

“That’s what pays the bills and allows us to do this,” Power said.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500