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A drone tour and shop visit gave Jenson Button a new appreciation for NASCAR

Jenson Button NASCAR

DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA - JANUARY 31: Jenson Button of Great Britain poses for a photo during the NASCAR Project 56 Test at Daytona International Speedway on January 31, 2023 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. –Exposure to a NASCAR powerhouse changed a Formula One champion’s perceptions of stock-car racing, and Jenson Button believes the 24 Hours of Le Mans could accomplish the same globally.

The 15-time F1 winner, who won the 2009 title, said he was “blown away” when he made his first visit to Hendrick Motorsports, which is fielding the Next Gen Camaro that will race the 100th edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans in the Garage 56 project that also includes NASCAR, Chevrolet and Goodyear.

“I’ve raced for some of the best Formula 1 teams in the world, and it still surprised me how good the facility was,” said Button, who drove for Williams, Renault and McLaren in a career from 2000-17. “The intrinsic detail that goes into everything they do within the team.”

He actually got a sneak peak before his first visit to the Concord, N.C., shop after attending a Garage 56 test at Sebring International Raceway through the invitation of Mike Rockenfeller (who informally was recruiting Button as a teammate candidate for the prestigious June 10-11 race).

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“Jenson sat in the car and looked and saw what we were going, and you could just tell his jaw dropped,” Hendrick VP of competition Chad Knaus, who is overseeing Garage 56, said after the driver lineup was unveiled last month at Daytona International Speedway. “He was like, ‘This is a proper effort right now.’ So I sent him the hype video we’ve got where the drone flies through Hendrick Motorsports.

“He sent me a text back and said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ I said, ‘Yeah man, this is where we work.’ So when he came on campus, he was really impressed with what we’ve got.”

Button got his first laps in the car during a Jan. 31-Feb. 1 test at the Daytona International Speedway road course.

According to Hendrick, the car logged 455 laps and 1,620 miles with Rockenfeller, Button and Jimmie Johnson, its third driver (IMSA champion Jordan Taylor also was behind the wheel as the reserve driver and “coach”).

While the session mainly was an opportunity for Button to get a handle on driving a much heavier vehicle that is far less responsive in braking and turning than an F1 car, it also was a chance to get familiar with the NASCAR lexicon.

Translating “oversteer” to “loose” and “understeer” to “tight” are simple semantics, but it’s also indicative of the cultural divide between the biggest racing series in the United States vs. Europe.

NASCAR fans might view F1 through a prism of prissy, no-contact elitism, and F1 fans might consider NASCAR an unsophisticated bastion of decades-old engine architecture.

“I think they do think a stock car is low tech,” Button said of European fans’ perspectives. “They’re built strong so they can hit each other on an oval. But when they see this car with the body panels off, they’re going to look and go, ‘Oh wow, this isn’t what we expected.’ And everything’s so finely tuned with these cars, less than a millimeter perfect, and when they see the pace of the car, it’ll surprise people.”

Button, who will be making his second Le Mans start, had other opportunities to race in the world’s biggest endurance race, but he said two sports car buddies told him, “this is way more exciting. It’s so cool to see you racing a stock car at Le Mans.

Project 56 Test at Daytona

DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA - JANUARY 31: Jenson Button (R) talks with Jimmie Johnson, Mike Rockenfeller and Jordan Taylor during the NASCAR Project 56 Test at Daytona International Speedway on January 31, 2023 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)

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“I think when people see the car on track and how it reacts and what have you, we’re going to get a lot more fans,” Button said. “NASCAR will have a lot more fans. I live in the States now, so I’ve looked at races in NASCAR. It’s not something I’m educated in in terms of ovals of experience there. So the road course is always something I’d like to aim for in racing. So this is a perfect step into NASCAR.”

Button, a resident of Los Angeles, was intrigued by F1 champion Kimi Raikkonen’s Cup debut last year with Trackhouse Racing, which has a goal of fielding international drivers in the Project 91 Chevrolet.

Though he had yet to talk to Trackhouse owner Justin Marks as of late January, Button is interested in adding another American series to his resume after running a trophy truck through the desert in the Mint 400.

Having attended Cup races at Homestead-Miami Speedway and Auto Club Speedway (and The Clash at the Coliseum last week with his Garage 56 teammates), he would like to try NASCAR’s premier series but not as a one-off.

“If I was able to do a few races, yes,” Button said. “I wouldn’t want to jump in for just one race because I don’t feel you get the best out of yourself. I’d want to do a few road courses to make sure I’m getting the maximum out of me and can perform at a level that I’m happy with, (because) there’s no testing. So your first race is your test, really. So if I was able to do four or five races, that’s something I definitely would want to do.

“I’ve not talked to anyone yet about the possibility. But I know that a lot of the big teams have four cars, and that’s all they’re allowed under their racing banner. There’s always other possibilities.”

In the meantime, Button will be using Le Mans for getting handle on the change of direction and weight transfer of a 3,600-pound car through the corners.

As the co-owner of a coachbuilding company that works with developing road cars, he loves the importance of mechanical grip in NASCAR vs. an aero-dependent single-seater car.

“It’s all about mechanical grip, and that’s what I love,” Button said. “Aerodynamics comes and goes, depends on the yaw (and) the wind. whereas you know what you’re getting with mechanical grip. And to be fair, this is a high-tech car. I always thought stock cars were tubular metal welded together, add a big engine, you go racing. Hendrick Motorsports is definitely not like that.

“So there’s a lot of high-techness that’s gone into this car, which is exciting. I’m happy with the tech it has, but the mechanical grip side of it is really exciting. I really do think it’s going to blow people away when they see the car on track. It’s going to make people laugh as well. They’re going to go, “What? There’s a stock car racing on track here at Le Mans with Hypercars and GTEs?” But I think it’s going to be reasonably competitive.”