Jimmy Johnson was a nervous wreck as he stood on the starting lineup for the Rolex 24 at Daytona.
The seven-time NASCAR champion is starting a new chapter in his career-at age 45-in unfamiliar race cars. His Action Express team required him to compete in America’s most prestigious sports car race, and Johnson had only one goal for his first outing in a Cadillac.
“I didn’t want to break the toy in the first few hours,” Johnson said after driving about 70 minutes at the Daytona International Circuit on Saturday.
He handed the number 48 to his teammate Simon Pagenaud and then turned to Kamui Kobayashi, twice winner of the Rolex 24, for a lively debrief.
Wrong – it’s not specified.Jimmy Johnson, the seven-time NASCAR champion, competing in his eighth Rolex 24, but the first in a decade. Jasen Vinlove – Sports in the United States Today
Johnson, just over two months removed from becoming the most dominant NASCAR driver in the last two decades, has “jumped into the deep end with weights on his ankles” as he adjusts to the new racing formats. This Rolex 24 is the eighth in his career, but the first in a decade. It is a warm-up for his move to IndyCar, where he will be a rookie in a field full of drivers half his age.
His career changed with a very busy test season alongside some of the best drivers in the world, and the demands of the track provided a spark for Johnson. He has not won in the last three seasons of his NASCAR career.
“I know the world I’m entering and I know what I left behind and the comfort I had there. I’m very aware of the discomfort that this new arena will bring me and it gives me a sense of purpose in life,” Johnson said. “I’m so excited to be unaccustomed and learn something new, so excited to drive these cars and really grow as a driver and have a lot of new experiences in my life.
“I feel more alive than I have been lately.”
Rolex started with a field of 50 cars, a strong uptick from last season when there were fewer than 38 entrants. Daytona officials said the number of participants in the field would be limited, but did not disclose a capacity figure. Campers were only allowed to camp in recreational vehicles, tents were not allowed, and masks were required in the field.
Alegra Motorsports announced the day before the start of the race that driver Michael de Quesada had tested positive for COVID-19 and had left the speedway to retire. He was replaced in the GT Daytona class by Mike Skin.
For the rest, the event went as planned. Halfway through, a crowd of fans visited the manufacturers’ stands. The Ferris wheel was in use and many of the world’s best track racers were looking forward to the long distance event that takes place twice a week.
Johnson was behind the wheel of a Cadillac for the first time and stands a good chance of taking the overall win with his participation in Action Express, co-presented by Hendrick Motorsports and sponsored by Ally. His team will be up against a full-time Action Express appearance that provided defending NASCAR champion Chase Elliott with his sports car debut.
Hendrick sent a handful of his staff to Daytona, including former Johnson team manager Chad Knauss and Jeff Gordon, who was on the winning team of the 2017 Wayne Taylor Racing Rolex Award. Johnson climbed the pit grandstand after his race to speak with Elliott and Gordon.
Wayne Taylor Racing returned to Daytona as the winner of the last two Rolex 24s, as well as three of the last four introductions won by Gordon. But the team switched from Cadillac to Acura in the off-season and is still getting used to the change. The transition was made easier by drivers Ricky Taylor, Helio Castroneves and Alexander Rossi, all of whom have driven Acuras for the Penske team over the past three years.
But the Cadillacs – there are four in seven cars in the DPI class – have led the way so far. Action Express, with Elliott on the starting grid, started from pole position after winning the qualifying race last weekend, and Chip Ganassi Racing showed no signs of rust after a year’s absence from the series.
In the overall standings, Ganassi’s competitor was just over two hours behind starter Renger van der Zande, who along with Kobayashi won two WTR stages. Both are aiming to become the first drivers to win three Rolex watches in a row.
Ganassi, which has eight Rolex wins to its name, also brought in reigning IndyCar champion Scott Dixon and Kevin Magnussen, who switched to sports cars after seven seasons in Formula One.
As Dixon waited his turn in the car, he marveled at the work Johnson had done over the past two months. Dixon and Johnson will be teammates at Ganassi in IndyCar.
“I think a lot of people, especially on our team, just see his work ethic and he’s fine-tuning things,” Dixon said. “He’s just trying to get back on his feet as quickly as possible. That’s probably the biggest challenge for anyone who has ever tried to drive from the opposite ends of motorsports.
Johnson admitted to being an old dog trying to learn new tricks.
“It was a lot of fun to challenge myself behind the wheel in a whole new way,” Johnson said. “These powerful cars are just a lot of fun and it’s a huge challenge to surpass everything I’ve learned about driving heavy sedans.”
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