Jimmie Johnson very interested in Le Mans: ‘Hendrick would love for me to be in the car’

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FORT WORTH, Texas – Jimmie Johnson has spoken with Rick Hendrick about the proposed “Garage 56” entry at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and the seven-time Cup Series champion “definitely” is interested.

Hendrick and NASCAR unveiled plans last Thursday to enter a specially modified Next Gen Chevrolet Camaro in next year’s race at Le Mans. Its approval is expected to be a mere formality, and Hendrick said during a news conference that Johnson was on the list of candidates for the three-driver lineup in the car, which would be built by Hendrick Motorsports and its IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship partner team, Action Express.

“I haven’t talked to Jimmie yet,” Hendrick said at the announcement in Sebring, Florida. “I’m sure he would do it if he didn’t have a conflict.”

Johnson, who was on a family vacation in Mexico last week before finishing a career-best sixth in IndyCar at Texas Motor Speedway, said he got a brief call just after the announcement from Hendrick, who wanted to be sure Johnson saw the news. They made plans to chat at length later about the project, which will be overseen by Hendrick vice president of competition Chad Knaus (the crew chief for Johnson’s seven titles who now handles strategy on his IMSA car).

“I definitely am interested,” Johnson said after NTT IndyCar Series qualifying at Texas. “I haven’t had any serious talks. I knew Action was looking at it. I know there’s interest for me to be in the car. I know Mr. Hendrick would love for me to be in the car, and Chad’s been at the track. So there’s all this synergy that’s existing there, and honestly, that synergy is what kind of led to this opportunity.

“I just need to make sure I’m available, and I want to go there and race. I’ve been working in the direction of racing in LMDh (IMSA’s new top prototype next year) and LMP2. I’m pursuing pathways to be racing there in one of those two divisions, but this could be a unique opportunity to go experience Le Mans for the first time. But then I still don’t know what my IndyCar schedule is (for 2023), and if IndyCar has the weekend off. So there’s still a lot to be sorted out.”

Johnson is in his second season of driving endurance races for the Hendrick-Action Express collaboration’s No. 48 Ally Cadillac.

Could the Garage 56 entry also pair Johnson with Ally, which sponsored his final two seasons in NASCAR?

“I feel like Mr. Hendrick probably would have the best chance to bring Ally over,” Johnson said. “I certainly have a great relationship with them, and they want to go everywhere that I race. I’m not sure they have an interest in racing in France, and if it’s really good for them businesswise. Clearly, there’s a lot of coverage here in the U.S. where it might make sense. A lot of those are best left in Rick’s hands. He’s the master at really negotiating all those deals.”

Hendrick also will spearhead assembling the driver lineup, which could feature a trio of Cup champions from Hendrick. In addition to Johnson, Hendrick mentioned an active Cup driver could be a possibility for Le Mans. Hendrick drivers Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson are Rolex 24 at Daytona veterans, and Elliott said last weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway that Hendrick had talked to him about the possibility.

“I’m not super up to speed on it,” Elliott said. “I think it would be a lot of fun to go do that event one day. I’m not sure it’s really possible the way our (Cup) schedule is (that has yet to be announced for 2023). I don’t know 100 percent how that is going to line up but certainly would have interest in it. I just don’t think logistically that’s going to work for any of us, but we’ll see. We will just have to wait and see how the schedule falls.”

Hendrick Motorsports vice chairman Jeff Gordon also was named a driver candidate by Rick Hendrick, who joked he would need to put the retired four-time Cup champion on a diet to get the NASCAR Hall of Famer in race shape.

“Rick’s the only one who can say that,” Johnson said with a laugh.

SuperMotocross: Ken Roczen urgently needed change

Roczen change
Feld Motor Sports/MX Sports Pro Racing/Align Media
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Change can be frightening, but it is often exhilarating and Ken Roczen, a rider in his ninth season on a 450 bike, it was urgently needed.

Roczen ended the 2022 Supercross season with his worst performance in five years. After finishing outside of the top five in seven of his last eight rounds in the stadium series, well down the points’ standings in ninth, he decided to put that season on hold.

How it ended was in stark contrast to how it began. Roczen’s 2022 season got off to the best possible start. He won the Supercross opener at Angel Stadium in Anaheim, California by more than seven seconds over the 2021 champion Cooper Webb.

That would be his last podium and he scored only one more top-five in the Glendale, Arizona Triple Crown.

MORE: Ken Roczen sweeps top five in Anaheim 2 Triple Crown

Before 2022, Roczen was a regular challenger for the championship despite being plagued by major accidents that required surgery in 2017 and 2018. On his return, he was diagnosed with the Epstein-Barr virus, which presents with symptoms of heavy fatigue, muscle weakness and loss of appetite and last year he tested positive for COVID-19.

Against those odds, he finished second in the outdoor season in 2019 and third in 2020. In the Supercross series, he finished third in 2020 and second in 2021.

But the abbreviated season of 2022 signaled a need for change for Roczen.

“I needed the change urgently,” Roczen said in last week’s post-race press conference at Angel Stadium. “I did a pretty big change in general.”

Those comments came three races into the 2023 with him sitting among the top three finishers for the first time in 10 Supercross rounds. It was the 57th podium of his career, only six behind 10th-place Ryan Villopoto. It was also the first for Suzuki since 2019 when Chad Reed gave them one in Detroit 63 rounds ago.

Taking time off at the end of the Supercross season had the needed effect. He rejoined SuperMotocross in the outdoor season and immediately stood on the podium at Fox Raceway in Pala, California. Two rounds later, he won at Thunder Valley in Lakewood, Colorado. The relief was short lived and he would not stand on the podium again until this year.

Roczen Motocross Round 3
Ken Roczen won Round 3 of the outdoor season in 2022 at Thunder Valley after finished second in Moto 1 and first in Moto 2. Feld Motor Sports/MX Sports Pro Racing/Align Media

Winds of Change

Roczen’s offseason was dramatic. Citing differences over his announcement to compete in the World Supercross Championship, he split with Honda HRC and declared himself a free agent. It wasn’t a difficult decision; Roczen was signed only for the Supercross season.

That change had the desired effect. Roczen won the WSX championship in their two-race, pilot season. More importantly, he proved to himself that he could compete for wins.

Late in the offseason, Roczen announced he would also change manufacturers with a move to HEP Progressive Ecstar Suzuki. He won the 2016 Pro Motocross title for Suzuki with nine wins in 12 Nationals and finished no worse than second. He easily outran the competition with an advantage of 86 points over second-place Eli Tomac.

“I just think change overall made it happen – and these overseas races – it’s really just a snowball,” Roczen said. “You start somewhere and you feel like something works out and I got better and had more fun doing it. Working with the team as well and working on the motorcycle to get better and actually see it paying off. It’s just, it’s just a big boost in general.”

The return to Suzuki at this stage of his career, after nearly a decade of competing on 450 motorcycles, recharged Roczen. He is one of three riders, (along with Cooper Webb and his former Honda teammate Chase Sexton), with a sweep of the top five in the first three rounds of the 2023 Supercross season.

But last week’s podium really drove home how strong he’s been.

“I think we’re all trying to take it all in,” Roczen said. “I wouldn’t say it came out of nowhere really, but before the season starts you think about – or I thought of how my whole last season went – and it’s been a long time since I’ve been on the podium.”

Roczen’s most recent podium prior to Anaheim 2 came at Budds Creek Motocross Park in Mechanicsville, Maryland last August in Round 10 of the outdoor season. His last podium in Supercross was the 2022 season opener that raised expectations so high.

Supercross Round 1 results
Ken Roczen raised expectations with his season opening win at Anaheim but did not stand on the box again in the Supercross series. Feld Motor Sports/MX Sports Pro Racing/Align Media

The change Roczen needed was not just a different team and bike. More importantly, he needed the freedom to set his own schedule and control his training schedule.

“It’s long days, but I’m really into it at the moment,” Roczen said. “Overall, I felt [that] throughout this off season and now my health has been really well, really good, so that helps. It’s needed to get to the top. I’m pretty confident that we’re, we’re doing the right thing – that I’m doing the right thing.

“I’m doing all my training on my own and I’m planning out my entire week. And I feel like I have a really good system going right now with recovery and putting in some hard days. Right now, I don’t really have anybody telling me what to do. I’m the best judge of that.

“It’s really hard to talk about how much work we’ve put in, but we’ve been doing some big changes and riding a lot throughout the week, some really, really late days. And they’re paying off right now; we’re heading in the right direction. We’re all pulling on the same string, and that helps me out big time.”