By Holly Cain
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – An Indy 500 winner, a seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion and a Rolex 24 At Daytona and 24 Hour of Le Mans champion took their seats in the Daytona International Speedway media center Wednesday morning, ready to address a robust lineup of international media in a virtual news conference during a break in IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship testing.
Simon Pagenaud, Jimmie Johnson and Mike Rockenfeller were full of smiles (behind masks, of course) and optimism as they answered questions about next month’s 59th Rolex 24, where they will team with yet another international star, two-time defending Rolex 24 winner Kamui Kobayashi, in the No. 48 Action Express Racing/Ally Cadillac DPi-V.R.
Johnson, who retired from full-time NASCAR Cup Series competition in November, will be making his eighth Rolex 24 start and first since 2011. He conceded Wednesday that part of his decision to step away from full-time racing was to take advantage of opportunities to compete in other disciplines. A chance just like this.
“It’s been a while,’’ Johnson said of getting behind the wheel of a sleek IMSA prototype. “The car has evolved I think two generations since my last race in the Rolex 24. And I think we’re 8-10 seconds faster with this DPi configuration than what I did in the GRAND-AM car. So (a) very fun car to drive, lots of downforce, lots of speed. The Action Express guys have the car running really nice.
“We had a great day (testing) yesterday and super quick, so it’s just a really neat opportunity for me to still have an association with Ally. Mr. (Rick) Hendrick will be involved to a certain degree. To drive for Action, to have this opportunity to compete with Kamui, with Simon and with Mike, it’s just such a unique opportunity and one I’m really proud to be a part of,’’ added Johnson, whose best Rolex 24 finish is runner-up on two occasions (2005 and 2008).
This will be Pagenaud’s seventh Rolex 24 start. The 2019 Indy 500 champion moves from the Team Penske Acura program the last three years to the Action Express Cadillac. Rockenfeller won the 2010 Rolex 24 driving for Action Express. Kobayashi – who was not at the test and unavailable for the news conference – drove to victory the past two years at the Rolex 24 in the Wayne Taylor Racing Cadillac.
Sharing a race car with other champions in this legendary event is something the drivers agreed was essentially auto racing nirvana. The four come from varied backgrounds, but they share a common goal – to earn a new Rolex watch and stand atop the Daytona podium on Jan. 31 having bettered the world’s best.
“I’ve always looked up to Jimmie,’’ said Pagenaud, who is close friends with Johnson’s younger brother Jessie. “When I came to the U.S., he became the legend that he is and for me, I didn’t know much about oval racing – and Jimmie and I actually talked about this – he throughout the years made some special moves on ovals and inspired myself from his performance. He is the king.
“You look at what the king does and you try to emulate that yourself,” added Pagenaud, who was wearing the Action Express firesuit from when he drove for the team at Daytona in 2016. “It’s been very, very enjoyable to get to know him as a human being as well. We have very similar personalities and I think it’s going to be great chemistry on the team. And Rocky (Rockenfeller), we have friends in common so we spend time together often.
“I really think we will have a fantastic time. We have a similar desire and I think (we are) at very similar times in our career on the team. Everybody seems to be very much on the same page.’’
While this week’s test marked the first time Johnson and Rockenfeller met, the German sports car champion noted that the two share a positive experience. Johnson sent well wishes after Rockenfeller’s frightening 2011 accident at Le Mans.
“Obviously, Jimmie, I didn’t know in person, but he was one of the few drivers back in 2011 that took the time to write me an email in his busy schedule when I had this accident, even without knowing me, and that meant a lot to me back in the day, I have to say,’’ Rockenfeller said. “I never expected we would race together in a car, so that’s great.
“At the end of the day, I think the cool thing about our lineup is definitely there is no ego because everyone wants to do their best,’’ Rockenfeller added. “We all love racing and driving cars, but we love even more winning and that’s why we are here.”
Johnson said he was the first piece of the driver puzzle as the team was assembled. He was impressed by the deliberate way in which Action Express worked to fill out the lineup with other champions.
“I watched them take their time and be very methodical about how we’d all fit together,’’ Johnson said. “And of course, you have to meet all these criteria to be on the short list, but long story short, they were very intentional about us four together, and I think that’s why we feel the possibility is here and that we do truly have an opportunity to compete for the win.’’
The No. 48 Cadillac and the rest of the Rolex 24 At Daytona entries will return for the traditional Roar Before the Rolex 24 test session Jan. 22-24 that includes a new feature – the Motul Pole Award 100 qualifying race. Results from that race will set the starting grid for the Rolex 24 the following week.