The nerves hit Jimmie Johnson as he stood on the beginning grid earlier than the Rolex 24 at Daytona.
The seven-time NASCAR Cup champion is starting a brand new chapter of his profession — at 45 years previous — in unfamiliar race automobiles. He was tabbed to start out essentially the most prestigious sports activities automotive race in America for his Motion Specific group, and Johnson had only one purpose for his first stint within the Cadillac.
“Definitely did not need to break the toy within the first couple of hours,” Johnson stated after driving about 70 minutes Saturday round Daytona Worldwide Speedway.
Johnson, a little bit greater than two months eliminated as essentially the most dominant NASCAR driver of the previous twenty years, has “jumped into the deep finish of the pool with weights on my ankles” as he transitions into new formulation of racing. This Rolex 24 is the eighth of his profession however first in a decade, and it is a warm-up for his transfer to IndyCar, the place he’ll be a rookie in a subject stacked with drivers half his age.
His profession change has made for a busy offseason of testing alongside a number of the high drivers on the earth, and the calls for have lit a spark in Johnson. He was winless within the closing three seasons of his NASCAR Cup profession.
“I do know the world that I am entering into, and I do know what I walked away from and the consolation that I had there, and I am very conscious of how uncomfortable I’m going to be entering into this new enviornment, and it makes me really feel alive,” Johnson stated. “I’m so excited to be uncomfortable and so excited to be taught one thing new, so excited to drive these automobiles and actually form of develop as a driver and have a bunch of latest experiences in life.
“It makes me really feel extra alive than I’ve in fairly a while.”
The Rolex started with a wholesome subject of 50 automobiles, a robust rebound after an event-low 38 entries final season. Daytona officers stated infield attendance can be restricted for the occasion however didn’t launch a capability quantity. Campers have been permitted solely in motor properties, with tents banned and masks required on property.
Alegra Motorsports introduced proper earlier than the race started that driver Michael de Quesada examined constructive for COVID-19 and had left the speedway to self-isolate. He was changed within the Mercedes competing within the GT Daytona class Mike Skeen.
In any other case, the occasion went on as scheduled. The halfway bustled with followers visiting producer shows, the Ferris wheel was up and working and most of the finest street course racers on the earth have been looking forward to the twice-round-the-clock endurance occasion.
Johnson held his personal in his first stint driving the Cadillac, and the Motion Specific entry, fielded partially with Hendrick Motorsports and sponsored Ally, has a strong probability on the general win. His group must deal with the full-time Motion Specific entry, which introduced in reigning NASCAR champion Chase Elliott for his sports activities automotive debut.
Hendrick despatched a handful of its staff to Daytona, together with former Johnson crew chief Chad Knaus and Jeff Gordon, who was a part of the Rolex-winning group in 2017 for Wayne Taylor Racing. Johnson climbed atop the pit stand after his drive to speak with each Elliott and Gordon.
Elliott appeared despondent after his first run in his first sports activities automotive race. He stated he was “horrible,” “method off the tempo” and “did not do a very good job in any respect.”
“I have to step up for these guys the following go-around,” he stated, including he hit the curb early in his run. “I used to be a little bit nervous I broken the beneath. Undoubtedly cannot be doing stuff like that.”
His No. 31 Motion Specific entry had slipped to final in his class after the motive force change between Elliott and Mike Conway. However the Cadillacs appeared to have an edge, at the very least in keeping with Acura manufacturing facility driver Dane Cameron. The Acura program has two DPi entries, each new to IMSA’s high sequence.
That features Wayne Taylor Racing, which returned to Daytona as winner of the previous two Rolex 24s, in addition to three of the previous 4 relationship to Gordon’s win. However the group switched from Cadillac to Acura throughout the offseason and continues to be adjusting to the transfer. The transition has been eased drivers Ricky Taylor, Helio Castroneves and Alexander Rossi, who all piloted the Acura the previous three years for Group Penske.
However the Cadillacs — there are 4 within the seven-car DPi class — have thus far been leaders of the pack. The Motion Specific entry with Elliott within the lineup began from the pole after successful final weekend’s qualifying race, and Chip Ganassi Racing has not proven any indicators of rust after a yr out of the sequence.
The Ganassi entry was the general race chief a little bit over two hours into the race behind starter Renger van der Zande, who together with Kobayashi gained two straight with WTR. Each are looking for to grow to be the primary driver to win three consecutive Rolex watches.
As Dixon awaited his flip within the automotive, he marveled on the job Johnson has completed over the previous two months. Dixon and Johnson will probably be Ganassi teammates in IndyCar.
“I feel lots of people, what they see, particularly on our group, is simply his work ethic and he grinds out all the things,” Dixon stated. “He is simply attempting to stand up to hurry as fast as doable. This in all probability must be the most important process for anyone that has ever tried going from polar reverse ends of motorsport.”
Johnson acknowledged he is an previous canine attempting to be taught new tips.
“It has been enjoyable actually difficult myself behind the wheel in a wholly new method,” Johnson stated. “These high-downforce automobiles, it is simply lots of enjoyable, primary, and only a large problem to rewire all of the issues I’ve realized from driving the heavy sedans.”