A drone tour and shop visit gave Jenson Button a new appreciation for NASCAR

Jenson Button NASCAR
James Gilbert/Getty Images
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. –Exposure to a NASCAR powerhouse changed a Formula One champion’s perceptions of stock-car racing, and Jenson Button believes the 24 Hours of Le Mans could accomplish the same globally.

The 15-time F1 winner, who won the 2009 title, said he was “blown away” when he made his first visit to Hendrick Motorsports, which is fielding the Next Gen Camaro that will race the 100th edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans in the Garage 56 project that also includes NASCAR, Chevrolet and Goodyear.

“I’ve raced for some of the best Formula 1 teams in the world, and it still surprised me how good the facility was,” said Button, who drove for Williams, Renault and McLaren in a career from 2000-17. “The intrinsic detail that goes into everything they do within the team.”

He actually got a sneak peak before his first visit to the Concord, N.C., shop after attending a Garage 56 test at Sebring International Raceway through the invitation of Mike Rockenfeller (who informally was recruiting Button as a teammate candidate for the prestigious June 10-11 race).

JEFF GORDON’S NEXT RACE: He won’t race Le Mans, but he’s eyeing another famous track in 2023

“Jenson sat in the car and looked and saw what we were going, and you could just tell his jaw dropped,” Hendrick VP of competition Chad Knaus, who is overseeing Garage 56, said after the driver lineup was unveiled last month at Daytona International Speedway. “He was like, ‘This is a proper effort right now.’ So I sent him the hype video we’ve got where the drone flies through Hendrick Motorsports.

“He sent me a text back and said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ I said, ‘Yeah man, this is where we work.’ So when he came on campus, he was really impressed with what we’ve got.”

Button got his first laps in the car during a Jan. 31-Feb. 1 test at the Daytona International Speedway road course.

According to Hendrick, the car logged 455 laps and 1,620 miles with Rockenfeller, Button and Jimmie Johnson, its third driver (IMSA champion Jordan Taylor also was behind the wheel as the reserve driver and “coach”).

While the session mainly was an opportunity for Button to get a handle on driving a much heavier vehicle that is far less responsive in braking and turning than an F1 car, it also was a chance to get familiar with the NASCAR lexicon.

Translating “oversteer” to “loose” and “understeer” to “tight” are simple semantics, but it’s also indicative of the cultural divide between the biggest racing series in the United States vs. Europe.

NASCAR fans might view F1 through a prism of prissy, no-contact elitism, and F1 fans might consider NASCAR an unsophisticated bastion of decades-old engine architecture.

“I think they do think a stock car is low tech,” Button said of European fans’ perspectives. “They’re built strong so they can hit each other on an oval. But when they see this car with the body panels off, they’re going to look and go, ‘Oh wow, this isn’t what we expected.’ And everything’s so finely tuned with these cars, less than a millimeter perfect, and when they see the pace of the car, it’ll surprise people.”

Button, who will be making his second Le Mans start, had other opportunities to race in the world’s biggest endurance race, but he said two sports car buddies told him, “this is way more exciting. It’s so cool to see you racing a stock car at Le Mans.

Project 56 Test at Daytona
Jenson Button debriefs with Jimmie Johnson, Mike Rockenfeller and Jordan Taylor during the Garage 56 testing Jan. 31 at Daytona International Speedway (James Gilbert/Getty Images).

“I think when people see the car on track and how it reacts and what have you, we’re going to get a lot more fans,” Button said. “NASCAR will have a lot more fans. I live in the States now, so I’ve looked at races in NASCAR. It’s not something I’m educated in in terms of ovals of experience there. So the road course is always something I’d like to aim for in racing. So this is a perfect step into NASCAR.”

Button, a resident of Los Angeles, was intrigued by F1 champion Kimi Raikkonen’s Cup debut last year with Trackhouse Racing, which has a goal of fielding international drivers in the Project 91 Chevrolet.

Though he had yet to talk to Trackhouse owner Justin Marks as of late January, Button is interested in adding another American series to his resume after running a trophy truck through the desert in the Mint 400.

Having attended Cup races at Homestead-Miami Speedway and Auto Club Speedway (and The Clash at the Coliseum last week with his Garage 56 teammates), he would like to try NASCAR’s premier series but not as a one-off.

“If I was able to do a few races, yes,” Button said. “I wouldn’t want to jump in for just one race because I don’t feel you get the best out of yourself. I’d want to do a few road courses to make sure I’m getting the maximum out of me and can perform at a level that I’m happy with, (because) there’s no testing. So your first race is your test, really. So if I was able to do four or five races, that’s something I definitely would want to do.

“I’ve not talked to anyone yet about the possibility. But I know that a lot of the big teams have four cars, and that’s all they’re allowed under their racing banner. There’s always other possibilities.”

In the meantime, Button will be using Le Mans for getting handle on the change of direction and weight transfer of a 3,600-pound car through the corners.

As the co-owner of a coachbuilding company that works with developing road cars, he loves the importance of mechanical grip in NASCAR vs. an aero-dependent single-seater car.

“It’s all about mechanical grip, and that’s what I love,” Button said. “Aerodynamics comes and goes, depends on the yaw (and) the wind. whereas you know what you’re getting with mechanical grip. And to be fair, this is a high-tech car. I always thought stock cars were tubular metal welded together, add a big engine, you go racing. Hendrick Motorsports is definitely not like that.

“So there’s a lot of high-techness that’s gone into this car, which is exciting. I’m happy with the tech it has, but the mechanical grip side of it is really exciting. I really do think it’s going to blow people away when they see the car on track. It’s going to make people laugh as well. They’re going to go, “What? There’s a stock car racing on track here at Le Mans with Hypercars and GTEs?” But I think it’s going to be reasonably competitive.”

Eli Tomac wins Seattle Supercross, ties Cooper Webb in championship points


In the past two weeks, Eli Tomac lost his momentum and with it the Monster Energy Supercross red plate to Cooper Webb, but a gutsy performance in Seattle gave him a sixth win of the season as he and the series heads into an off week tied. Tomac is currently tied in the points with Webb.

With this win, Tomac also ties James Stewart for second on the all-time wins list at 50 with six rounds remaining in 2023.

“I needed that bounce back,” Tomac told NBC Sports’ Will Christien. “It was almost like I was in a little bit of a slump in the past couple of weeks; just a little bit off. I’m feeling much better now. That track raced really cool. There were a lot of different lines out there.

“It was obviously very dicey early on. I got passed and then had to make those passes back.”

Tomac suffered with a stiff neck in Indianapolis two weeks ago when he lost the red plate to Webb for the first time in 2023. In that race, he scored his worst finish of the season in eighth. He lost more points in Detroit after finishing a distant third behind Chase Sexton and Webb. This is the fifth time this season that Tomac and Webb finished 1-2 in a race. Tomac has won them all, but Webb has been more consistent.

RESULTS: How they finished for the 450 Main in Seattle

Webb was disappointed to lose the ground to Tomac, but he will enter the Glendale, Arizona race with a red plate and a share of the points’ lead.

“It was overall a great night to get up front and get a second was great,” Webb said after the race. “Those few spots where I would get close to Eli and then make a mistake.

“The track was gnarly. It was no joke. It was cat and mouse as to who could ride the cleanest race and pick the line. I got off to a decent start, but Chase and Eli were ahead of me and I had some catchup to play and got into a good position.”

Early in the race, Sexton was indeed ahead of Webb and the remainder of the field. Another costly mistake sent Sexton to the ground. He battled back to finish fifth but is now 22 points out of the lead and in jeopardy of dropping out of championship contention unless Tomac and Webb have problems.

Rounding out the podium was Justin Barcia, who scored the third-place finish on his birthday

“Awesome ride,” Barcia said. “It was a lot of fun. I’m sure we kept the fans on their feet tonight. The track was gnarly. […] We’re searching; we’re so close to having that speed. We want it so badly. We’ll keep pushing hard and going for that win.”

Sexton’s mistake kept the three top points’ earners of 2023 from sharing the podium for the sixth time in 11 rounds, but the trio finished 1-2-3 in Heat 2 with Webb first, Sexton second and Tomac third.

The 250 West contenders were back in action after giving the last four rounds over to the East riders and Jett Lawrence picked up where he left off in Oakland: In Victory Lane. Lawrence scored his fourth win in five 250 West rounds. Last week his brother Hunter Lawrence tied Jett with 10 wins, but everyone knew it would not take long for Jett to regain the advantage.

Between them, the Lawrence brothers have won all but one race each in their respective divisions.

Lawrence rode a patient race in the Main. He settled in behind Stylez Robertson and concentrated on navigating the ruts mistake-free. He could not afford to be patient any longer when Cameron McAdoo caught up to the leaders. Lawrence found a second gear and gapped the battle for second.

An incident in their main made the battle between Lawrence and McAdoo more dramatic. While racing for second, the pair of riders ran out of room in the rhythm section. Both crashed but had a large enough lead over fourth to maintain their positions.

“It was a very eventful day,” Lawrence told NBC Sports’s Daniel Blair, answering a question about the earlier contact. “[…] It’s good to be back racing. It’s been a while. I feel like I’ve had another offseason. Glad to get out in one piece tonight.”

Lawrence now has a 23-point advantage over the field with four rounds remaining.

Click here for full 250 Main Results

RJ Hampshire finished second in his race and is second in the points after a seesaw affair that produced the final pass for position just before the white flag was displayed.

“I felt like I had a pretty good pace going for a little bit,” Hampshire said. “I closed the gap and then had a couple of big mistakes that almost put me on my head. I backed it off a little bit.

“Cam actually gapped me a little more than I would have wanted. I knew I could get a push there at the end. I thought that was the last lap, which is why my pass was a little more aggressive than it should have been, but I’m stoked to be able to close the gap a little bit.”

McAdoo took the final spot on the podium. This is the fourth time in 2023 these three riders have shared the box and if not for a sixth-place finish in Anaheim 2, he would be mounting a much more formidable challenge for the points’ lead.

“The track was really demanding tonight,” McAdoo said. “It did change a lot and the key thing was to get off the rhythms every time. We were swapping back and forth.”

Enzo Lopes in fourth and Max Vohland rounded out the top five.

Robertson had the early lead but when he lost the top spot to Jett he cross rutted on the next lap, crashed hard and failed to finish.

2023 Race Recaps

Detroit: Chase Sexton inherits win after Aaron Plessinger falls
Indianapolis: Ken Roczen gets first win in more than a year
Daytona: Eli Tomac extends Daytona record with seventh win
Arlington: Cooper Webb wins for second time, closes to two of Tomac
Oakland: Tomac ties Ricky Carmichael with 48 wins
Tampa: Webb gets first 2023 win
Houston: Tomac bounces back from A2 crash to win third race of 2023
Anaheim 2: Triple Crown produces new winners Chase Sexton, Levi Kitchen
San Diego: Tomac, Jett Lawrence double down
Anaheim 1: Tomac wins opener for the first time

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