SEBRING, Fla. – A sunny sky, low humidity and a historic sports-car track greeted the NASCAR Garage 56 Project at Sebring International Raceway on Tuesday as the team turned its final test laps before the No. 24 Next Gen Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 is loaded up for its trip to compete in the historic 24 Hours of Le Mans on June 10-11.
Drivers Jimmie Johnson, Mike Rockenfeller, Jenson Button and Jordan Taylor ran laps in both the primary and backup Camaros all day Monday and the early part of Tuesday, working out any lingering technical bugs in the car and also practicing pit stops and driver changes underneath the “Gurney Terrace” overlooking Sebring pit lane.
New stickers have now been affixed to the cars – including the boxed letters “IC” just in front of the front wheels, marking the single-car “Innovative Car” class that the Garage 56 Chevrolet will compete in at Le Mans.
RELATED: Day 1 recap from Sebring
Hendrick Motorsports team owner Rick Hendrick flew into the Sebring airport adjacent to the rural track late Tuesday morning to see the car on track and take a photo with the approximately 50 team members guiding the test. The Garage 56 entry is a combined effort with Hendrick Motorsports, IMSA, Chevrolet and Goodyear – representatives from all invested in the project there to wish the car “au revoir.”
“I feel really good about it,” said the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson, who, like Hendrick, will be making his first trip ever to the Le Mans endurance race. “We’ve put in many hours, a lot of work, a lot of collaboration and I feel like we’re in a really good spot. This has been a great test this week, really just working on the small details literally down to things like what color are the buttons on the steering wheel and is the black light inside the car bright enough in the right areas that we can see the dayglow buttons to push at the right time.
“We’re really in a good place.”
Johnson, now a team owner/driver with Legacy Motor Club in the NASCAR Cup Series, will drive in the iconic Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Sunday, May 28 and then leave immediately for Paris where he will undergo a nearly day-long mandatory orientation the next day.
“There’s a requirement that every new driver must come in and drive their simulators and work through all their procedures,” Johnson said. “They use a different safety car procedure; they have slow zones. There are some nuances I need to learn and that’s what the sim session is for.”
His teammate Rockenfeller was equally satisfied with the Sebring test sessions. The drivers – all dressed in plain black driver’s suits – were smiling in between discussions with the engineers.
“As a driver or engineer, you always like to have more time and do more stuff and prepare better,” said Rockenfeller, a sports-car champion and former Le Mans winner (2010), adding with a smile, “Luckily there is a fixed date, or we would continue to test for another three years. That’s normal in racing.
“I think we are feeling quite good to be honest. I am quite confident we are prepared. We have to go to Le Mans and it’s a different place, different track and see what challenges we will face there in terms of set-up with the car or issues we may face that we didn’t here. Then you have to react. We have a great team here.”
There were lots of smiles in the team’s trackside temporary tented headquarters. NASCAR Chief Executive Officer Jim France and IMSA President John Doonan joined Hendrick to take a final look at the Garage 56 Project before the cars are sent overseas. Former NASCAR Cup Series crew chief Greg Ives is crew chief on the No. 24 and Hendrick Motorsports executive Chad Knaus is overseeing the project for the team.
“The thing I’m most proud of is all the partners that have come in, and the sound of that race car,” France said watching laps from pit lane and declaring with a smile. “A year ago, at the Sebring race we sat down here and now to go over and watch them race is an exciting moment.”
“A lot of European fans are familiar with our IMSA cars and when a NASCAR car shows up there it’s going to be unique for a lot of European fans to actually see one up close and personal. And of course, we’ve got a fantastic driver lineup.”
“We were able to get NASCAR drivers,” he said smiling, noting that Johnson, Rockenfeller, Button and Taylor have all made NASCAR Cup Series starts in the last two seasons.
Shortly after the morning session ended, the full gathering of drivers, owner, crew and racing executives stood alongside the cars for a final photograph before they all dispatch to France to see their hard work in action.
“Now we’ve got to go do it,” Hendrick said. “There’s a tremendous amount of pride in this from our organization, Goodyear, Chevrolet, NASCAR, IMSA. You don’t have to talk to Jim France very long to know what this means to him. And I was honored he asked us to do this.”