Jimmie Johnson, Colton Herta finish second in the Race of Champions Nations Cup

Johnson Herta Race Champions
Jimmie Johnson

All that California sunshine apparently prepared Jimmie Johnson and Colton Herta well for driving in snow as the NTT IndyCar Series drivers took Team USA to a second-place finish Saturday in the Race of Champions (ROC) Nations Cup.

Johnson and Herta came up just short to Team Norway’s father-son duo of Petter and Oliver Solberg on the snow- and ice-covered course in Pite Havsbad, Sweden, 60 miles south of the Arctic Circle.

“Who would have thought two California guys would be here on snow and ice and finish second in the Race of Champions Nations Cup,” an incredulous Johnson said in a social media video. “Awesome day for us both. I think we kind of surprised ourselves going rounds. Then I really think we had a shot at the final.

INDIVIDUAL RESULTS: Johnson, Herta reach quarterfinals

“I had a car break and a mechanical, which took me out of an opportunity in the first round. Came back and won in the Porsche. Colton was right there on pace and just came up a little short to the Solberg family.

“Just a super fun day. We exceeded expectations and looking forward to having some fun tonight.”

The Solbergs became the first family team to win the ROC as Petter, a three-time rally champion, won the Nations Cup for the second time.

It was the first ROC appearance in 15 years for Johnson, who had been trying to win the event for the second time.

The seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion won the Nov. 29-Dec. 1 2002 event, capturing the Nations Cup for Team USA with Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon and MotoGP rider Colin Edwards in Gran Canaria, Spain (on a dirt track).

Herta was a last-minute replacement for an injured Travis Pastrana, whom Johnson said called the team shortly before the event to predict victory.

“He was watching with a group of friends at 5 a.m. in the States,” Johnson said. “He told us we’d go all the way, and we nearly did it. All the other drivers here have been really friendly and helpful too, offering us advice.

“But until you can actually sense the feel and grip and how a four-wheel-drive car helps pull you round the turn, it doesn’t stick. So every lap has been making us better. Now after today I’m not so sure we’ll be given any more tips.”

Johnson will be driving again Sunday for the “Champion of Champions” title in the individual ROC category.

Johnson and Herta had advanced to the Race of Champions semifinals by beating the German team of four-time Formula One champion Sebastian Vettel and Mick Schumacher.

They then beat Team Finland (with Herta besting two-time F1 champion Mika Hakkinen) to reach the final. Herta also faced four-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves in the first round.

The impressive result came despite limited practice time in their cars after a snowstorm made the course mostly undrivable Friday. In a Twitter video, Johnson said he had gotten a handful of laps in two of the four vehicles used in the competition.

The inclement weather also resulted in canceling the ROC’s traditional group stage, sending teams directly into a straight knockout system with four heats between both drivers against the other team. For 2-2 matches, the best total time advanced.

Before the Race of Champions, both had raced last weekend in the Rolex 24 at Daytona, where Herta claimed his second class victory. Johnson came up short in his ninth attempt at winning the overall.

In the Race of Champions “Snow + Ice” World Final event, Johnson and Herta competed against the field in a variety of vehicles (including some from rallycross) with a focus on electric power — a Porsche 718 Cayman GT4 Clubsport, an RX Supercar Lites, an RX2e, an FC1-X and a Polaris PRO XP.

Johnson had joked during a prerace news conference that he and Herta were the favorites, and Herta said the loose atmosphere had prevailed into the competition Saturday.

“Our original goal was not to get knocked out in the first round, so when we won that we were jumping up and down and celebrating like we’d won the whole thing,” Herta said. “Certainly nobody could have thought we’d make it to the final. But we had a plan, we stuck to it and here we are.

“It was awesome to race against these guys, and particularly the Solbergs in the final. The conditions weren’t too bad today, depending on which car you were driving – but maybe we’re not experienced enough to know when conditions are good and bad. Our approach was just send it and see what happens.”

Jenson Button joins NASCAR Garage 56 at Le Mans with Jimmie Johnson, Rockenfeller

Jenson Button NASCAR Le Mans
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The NASCAR Garage 56 entry in the 24 Hours of Le Mans will be driven by champions of three major-league series — Jenson Button, Jimmie Johnson and Mike Rockenfeller.

The lineup of the Hendrick Motorsports-prepared Next Gen Camaro was announced Saturday before the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

NASCAR’s Garage 56 project was announced in March 2022 as a joint effort by NASCAR, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear. It marks the return of a NASCAR team to Le Mans for the first time in nearly 50 years with Hendrick fielding a Camaro ZL1 as the “Garage 56” entry in the 100th edition of the sports car classic.

It’s long been expected the car would include Johnson, the seven-time Cup Series champion who is returning to NASCAR’s premier series as a driver-owner in 2023. Rockenfeller, the 2013 DTM champion and 2010 Le Mans overall winner, has attended every NASCAR Garage 56 test since last year while racking up simulator testing hours.

The surprise was Button, the 2009 Formula One champion who has become a popular commentator. Rick Hendrick initially said wanted four-time Cup champion and current Hendrick Motorsports COO Jeff Gordon to drive the car, and Gordon had raced a sports car at Indianapolis last year to test his race shape.

GARAGE 56 ANSWERS, ANALYSISMore on the NASCAR-Hendrick entry for the 24 Hours of Le Mans

“Since the beginning of the Garage 56 project, it has been our goal to partner with the top racers in the world to represent us in Le Mans,” NASCAR chairman and CEO Jim France said in a release. “The lineup of Jimmie, ‘Rocky’ and Jenson is everything we could have dreamed of – three elite drivers who have won at the highest levels of motorsports worldwide. As we celebrate the 75th anniversary of NASCAR, we are honored to have these world-class champions help bring the sights and sounds of a NASCAR race car to fans in Le Mans, and across the world.”

Button had one of the most prolific careers in F1 history finishing with 15 wins and 50 podiums on top of his 2009 World Championship and is widely considered one of the top British drivers of all time.

“As a lifelong racing fan, I have always dreamed of racing certain cars, with and against certain drivers and competing in certain events,” Button said in a release. “In June, a number of those dreams will come true in one event when I get to bring NASCAR to the world stage alongside my pals Jimmie and ‘Rocky’ for the 100th anniversary of the most prestigious race in the world. I’m really looking forward to sharing this journey with NASCAR, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear, and current and future NASCAR fans from around the world.”

Johnson will make his 24 Hours of Le Mans debut a year after starting his first Indy 500. He has 83 victories in the Cup Series, where he will return for the Daytona 500 next month with his Legacy Motor Club team.

He also has been involved with testing the Garage 56 Camaro.

“I’m super thrilled – it’s been at the top of my bucket list to compete in the 24 Hours of Le Mans someday,” Johnson said. “To have this opportunity come – and to partner with everybody and this driver lineup – is truly an incredible opportunity and one that I am thankful to be a part of.”

Rockenfeller teamed with Johnson on the No. 48 Ally Cadillac in the Rolex 24 at Daytona in 2021-22. The German driver has been the lead test driver for Garage 56 and has driven during every on-track test.

“It has been a great journey so far with the whole team and project,” Rockenfeller said. “To be involved as a driver from day one until now was already a great honor, and to now have Jimmie and Jenson alongside me as teammates in Le Mans is unbelievable.”

The car will continue testing with all three drivers next week at the Daytona International Speedway road course. Rolex 24 and four-time IMSA champion Jordan Taylor, who drives for Corvette Racing, will be the team’s backup driver and coach. Taylor also won the GTE Pro class in 2015 at Le Mans, where he has four podium finishes.

The project also is being supported by IMSA GTP team Action Express, whose general manager is former NASCAR executive and Daytona 500-winning crew chief Gary Nelson. Action Express built the first test car for the Garage 56 but since has handed off the project to Hendrick, where it’s being over seen by vice president of competition Chad Knaus (the crew chief for Johnson’s seven championships).

“Action Express got it going and built the mule car, and then Hendrick joined the program, took it from where we had it, and they’re doing a major percentage of the work,” Nelson told NBC Sports. “We just did a test a couple months ago on a wet track. We’ve done a couple of other tests as they were ramping their program up. Now their car is good, tested and running. We’re still involved and here to help. The Hendrick guys have taken the reins, and Rick Hendrick and Chad Knaus are a thrill to work with and doing a much better job. It’s more NASCAR than prototype racing.”