By Zack Albert
5 Minute Read
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The newly announced all-star lineup of drivers for the Garage 56 project was back at Daytona International Speedway on Tuesday, but this time without the fanfare, spotlight and festival atmosphere of the Rolex 24 as a backdrop. Instead, the trio of Jimmie Johnson, Jenson Button and Mike Rockenfeller were down to business at a virtually empty track, trading their team polo shirts for fire suits in their first test as a group.
The three drivers took turns shaking down the Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 test car, getting a feel for the modified Next Gen prototype on the eve of a crucial endurance test Wednesday at the 3.56-mile road course. The two-day session marks the next step in preparations for the project’s expected participation as a showcase entry in the 24 Hours of Le Mans on June 10-11.
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“It’s the first time to be in a NASCAR car at Daytona, which is where the car really belongs in a way,” said Rockenfeller, who opened the morning session and has been the Garage 56 project’s primary test driver. “So it was nice to do the first laps. I mean, it’s very different to any other track, as we all know, the combination of the banking and then the infield. So yeah, we’re still trying to work on the setup a little bit, but this test mainly is about getting miles, getting the group together the first time, work on maybe some driver change practice and stuff like that.
“So I think tire testing is one big part as well, one big portion. We started this morning, we will continue, so there’s a lot to come on this test. And yeah, I think it’s another milestone in a way, but then we definitely still need a bit of testing after this.”
The Garage 56 tester — which shared the track Tuesday with the 2024 Chevrolet Corvette Z06 GT3.R that is scheduled to make its IMSA debut next season – will get a generous share of on-track prep during Wednesday’s durability test. The car is scheduled to run for a 12-hour block of track time (9 a.m. to 9 p.m. ET), stopping only to change drivers or brakes. More endurance testing is scheduled in February at Sebring International Raceway.
The question of whether a NASCAR vehicle could run a 24-hour race was recently broached by Dale Earnhardt Jr. during the 2019 running of the Rolex 24. Earnhardt, in his role as an analyst for NBC Sports, posed that question to engine builder Doug Yates during that year’s broadcast. “But yeah, of course we could do it,” Yates said, noting the balance that teams would have to strike between performance and reliability.
The collaborative team of Hendrick Motorsports, NASCAR, Chevrolet and Goodyear will evaluate that balance during Wednesday’s longer haul.
“From my standpoint, I don’t have really any concerns for the car from a durability point of view,” said Johnson, who had also participated in two previous Garage 56 tests. “I think it’s going to be great for Hendrick and a lot of the folks that are here that have not worked through live pit stops and trying to keep the car running like you do an endurance race. I think that for me, I’m more excited about that, so the whole group understands that aspect because there’s a lot of new faces and a lot of first-timers to an endurance race.”
Tuesday presented the first time for the three drivers to get to work and bond in the Daytona garage, working with four-time IMSA champion and Le Mans regular Jordan Taylor. The always clever Taylor, who has been the point of some lighthearted joking for his new role as driver coach and reserve driver, showed up for Tuesday’s test runs with a T-shirt marked “COACH” in big, block letters.
Button, the 2009 Formula One world champion, turned his first laps in the car, taking over from Rockenfeller and loading in just before lunch. The stints marked his first driving experience at Daytona, plus his first hands-on time behind the wheel of a stock car.
“For me, I’ve only done 20 laps, so it’s very difficult for me to talk about where the car is,” Button told NASCAR.com after completing his last afternoon session. “But for me, it’s getting used to the position in the car. Obviously, there is body roll, it feels like it oversteers, but it’s not oversteering; it’s actually just the car itself taking a set. So the car runs like in the Cup Series, it runs very low at the rear, so on the banking, it’s like sitting on the ground. So it’s a lot to learn, but it’s a race car. And I can work with a race car.”
Button’s first impressions also provided a measure of validation for Johnson, who is returning to the NASCAR Cup Series as a part-time driver this season after spending two years on the IndyCar circuit.
“I obviously went the other direction the last two years driving formula cars, and I’ve been waiting for that confirmation just how different the worlds are,” Johnson said of Button’s feedback, to laughs from his co-drivers. “And I got it today.”
Several other elements took shape in the test car’s next stage of development. Most noticeable was the on-track debut of working headlights in place of the faux-headlight stickers. The twin banks of brightness will help light up the evening hours of Wednesday’s Garage 56 test and eventually are expected to illuminate the car’s path through the French countryside during a 24-hour run.
The opening test day also offered a chance for an over-the-wall crew to practice pit stops in a makeshift stall in Daytona’s Cup Series garage. Though the pace of the pit stops is expected to be slower than on a NASCAR weekend to account for driver swaps, the test drivers still screeched to a stop against a Camaro pit sign for a well-choreographed rapid response of four tires and fuel.
The test car’s unofficial lap times compared to those at the top of the GTD class from last weekend’s IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship opener. Though the Garage 56 team won’t be competing for the overall victory as an invite-only entrant in its own category, the project’s performance goals remain set at a high bar.
“We’re all racers,” Johnson said. “And I think we all want to … we’re all looking at these test sessions as an opportunity to make the car as strong as it can be and competitive as it can be. … We don’t have another car that we’re racing, but we all, I think know where we feel like this car, the pace it can do. We just want to help it get there.”