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Garage 56 lineup for Le Mans: A sports car star and two past NASCAR Cup champions?

NASCAR Garage 56 lineup

DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA - JANUARY 29: Jose Maria Lopez, Jimmie Johnson and Mike Rockenfeller, drivers of the #48 Ally Cadillac Racing Cadillac DPi, walk-on pit lane during prerace before the start of the Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway on January 29, 2022 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)

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MONTEREY, California – With an active Cup Series driver ruled out for the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the NASCAR Garage 56 Camaro lineup is expected to include one sports car ace.

Speaking with reporters ahead of the NTT IndyCar Series finale last weekend at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, Chevrolet vice president of Performance and Motorsports Jim Campbell said “we’re going to have one (driver) that’s a road racing and sports car expert that will complement a couple of other drivers” in the Garage 56 entry that is being prepared by Hendrick Motorsports in a joint effort with Chevrolet, Goodyear and NASCAR.

NASCAR released its national series schedules Wednesday, and the June 9-11 weekend at Sonoma Raceway for Xfinity and Cup will conflict with the 2023 24 Hours of Le Mans at Circuit de la Sarthe.

Campbell said there was no expectation for NASCAR to change its schedule to allow for an active Cup driver in the Next Gen entry at Le Mans. But he was expecting to have a Le Mans veteran from outside NASCAR to help lead from behind the wheel.

“A hard-core sports car driver that brings that experience who’s run Le Mans before that can share that with other drivers that have not,” Campbell said.

The sports car veteran is expected to be Mike Rockenfeller, who won the Rolex 24 and 24 Hours of Le Mans overall titles in 2010. The German driver recently tested the specially modified Camaro at Michelin Road Atlanta. He also made his Cup Series debut last month, finishing 30th at Watkins Glen International in the No. 77 Chevy for Spire Motorsports.

Rockenfeller, who has been teamed with Jimmie Johnson on the IMSA endurance race lineup in the No. 48 Ally Cadillac since last year, likely will be paired with the two most successful drivers in Hendrick’s storied history.

Team owner Rick Hendrick has hinted since the March unveiling of the project that he would like seven-time Cup champion Johnson and four-time champion Jeff Gordon in the car.

In revealing his racing plans for next season, Johnson reiterated last weekend that Le Mans is a priority. Gordon recently raced a Porsche on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, knocking the rust off while getting the Hendrick Motorsports’ vice chairman reacclimated to sports cars.

Being in race shape for Le Mans will be critical because the Garage 56 lineup likely will be limited to a trio of drivers, though Campbell has lobbied for more.

“I was interested to see if the FIA and ACO would allow us to bring more than the normal number of drivers,” he said. “I was interested in five or six so we could bring a lot of drivers that are well-known in NASCAR starpower and then let them do a stint or two, but it looks like we’re going to be held to the normal number, which would be three. I’m still going to advocate for it but right now looks like three.”

Gordon was part of the winning entry in the 2017 Rolex 24 at Daytona. Johnson has been logging laps regularly in IndyCar and IMSA the past two years.

The Garage 56 entry is being spearheaded by Hendrick vice president of competition Chad Knaus, who led Johnson to seven titles as a crew chief and has called strategy for Action Express’ No. 48 Cadillac.

Next year will mark the return of NASCAR to the 24 Hours of Le Mans for the first time in nearly 50 years. The modified version of the Chevrolet Next Gen Camaro ZL1 will serve as the prestigious race’s “Garage 56” entry, a single-slot class that has been reserved for innovative automobiles since its 2012 introduction.