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Jenson Button says family environment, road courses hooked him on trying NASCAR

Jenson Button NASCAR family

DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA - JANUARY 31: Jenson Button (L) talks with Jimmie Johnson in the garage area during the NASCAR Garage 56 Test at Daytona International Speedway on January 31, 2023 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)

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Jenson Button figured his NASCAR debut might come with a “lower category” (applying the well-polished and delightful European vernacular of an articulate Brit who has spent a lifetime racing overseas).

Surely, the 2009 Formula One champion’s entry into stock cars -- racing vehicles that are twice as heavy and far less responsive than his bailiwick – would need to be in the Camping World Truck or possibly Xfinity series.

But when he was talking to a Mobil 1 executive late last summer, suddenly the Cup Series became a realistic possibility.

“I said to him, ‘I’d love to get into NASCAR,’ and I was thinking more truck series, Xfinity series,” Button said during a Zoom news conference Friday morning with reporters around the world. “And he’s like, ‘Really? Let me make a few calls.’ And then we had lots of texts. And he’s like we might be able to make this happen. And I was like awesome. And then it was Abu Dhabi, last F1 race of the season when we properly talked and said we can do this. And he said we want to do more than one race, because it’s better for us and also better for you.

“We discussed and didn’t have a team to talk to yet, and that happened this year. We talked to Stewart-Haas and Rick Ware Racing and tried to work out how it would work and whether it would work. Whether we could get the car in time and build the car for the races. It’s all been very quick how it’s all turned around, and I’m a Cup Series driver! So it’s been a fun couple of months, but it’s been very tight to get the car ready for Austin.”

The March 26 race at Circuit of the Americas was announced Thursday as the debut for Button, who also will be racing the Chicago Street Race and at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.

The No. 15 Ford Mustang will be fielded by Rick Ware Racing in collaboration with Stewart-Haas Racing, which has a longstanding relationship with sponsor Mobil 1.

The schedule also makes sense for myriad reasons. Button will be one of 40 newcomers in the field for Chicago (which is scheduled to play host to the first street race in NASCAR Cup Series history). He also has F1 experience at COTA and the IMS road course (which was picked because his car wouldn’t be ready in time a week earlier for Watkins Glen International, where 2007 F1 champion Kimi Raikkonen made his debut last year).

Though he got hooked on watching stock cars as an 8-year-old enthralled with “Days of Thunder,” it’s the NASCAR shift toward road courses (several have been added in the past few years) that made Button believe he could race there.

“I thought it was insane,” Button said of watching the Tom Cruise vehicle from 1990. “Worlds away from European motorsport. That got me in the door of liking NASCAR. It’s so different from what I’m used to, that’s probably what stopped me asking the question of would I be able to race in NASCAR because it’s so different to anything I’ve driven before. Back then, it was more ovals, no street courses. That didn’t excite me so much because it’s another skillset all together. Now there are more road courses. It’s definitely more enticing. I think I’d be more competitive. I watch races and see new guys with experience in road course racing, and they don’t find it easy. It’s very difficult. But I think that’s part of the challenge and why I’m excited about it.”

In the past five years, NASCAR has raced on new road course with COTA, IMS, Road America, Daytona International Speedway and Charlotte Motor Speedway. Many of the courses are familiar to casual fans and drivers from other series who are less accustomed to ovals.

“I’ve looked at NASCAR as super cool to watch, but I can’t really relate to it because it’s so different,” Button said. “I think because we have more road courses now, and you see the cars on road courses now, and they look like a handful. The racing is amazing, but it’s proper cool to watch. I think 10 to 15 years ago, you had a few guys good on the road courses. A lot of them hadn’t raced road courses, so it would be like me jumping into the Daytona 500 on an oval. I think that’s changed over time. Now you look at grid in the Cup Series, they’re all super talented on ovals and road courses. That’s added to the excitement for people watching. You see Kimi, (Le Mans winner) Joey Hand and see it is really competitive. That makes you think, ‘Oh, that’s cool.’ You get even more excitement and interest in the sport, because there is such a high level of talent there.”

Button also has a new level of experience from joining the Garage 56 lineup with Jimmie Johnson and Mike Rockenfeller. The Hendrick Motorsports-fielded Chevrolet Camaro has tested at Daytona, Sebring International Raceway and COTA, providing Button with a new level of confidence that he can handle a Next Gen car in race conditions (even though the Cup car is much heavier and slower with less downforce).

Johnson also has been a guiding light for Button, who counts the seven-time Cup champion as a longtime friend.

“Jimmie has been very useful,” Button said. “Not just this but Garage 56. He’s driven stock cars his whole life. We all know how difficult it is to shift from open wheel high-downforce car to a stock car and vice versa. Jimmie has shown that the last couple of years. It’s tough. I think he did a bloody good job (in IndyCar the past two years). It just shows how difficult and different it is. He’s been really helpful.

I also spent a lot of time yesterday with the team getting to grips with the feeling of the car. It’s such an important thing. I can’t be sat up straight with the steering wheel here on my lap. I need to be sat back a bit more like a single-seater. And we found a position that works for me. If I have that, I’ll have a lot more feeling through the car and get to grips with it quicker.

“But the biggest point of contact the last four or five months has been Jimmie because we’ve worked together quite a bit on Garage 56, which is obviously very different. The Cup car is 8 seconds quicker a lap. But we’ve done three tests and been together all three. I think Jimmie has been the best, and I said to him, ‘What do you think (about the Cup ride)? Should I do it?”, and he said you definitely have to do it. You’ll have a blast. All right. I’m done. I’m in, so if Jimmie thinks it’s going to be fun, it’s going to be fun.”

Encouraged by the tales of Johnson’s daughters having fun at the track, Button plans to bring his wife and two children to COTA and said it’s “the family atmosphere that really got me” about NASCAR.

“I don’t want to be negative about Formula One because it is an amazing sport,” said Button, who lives in the Los Angeles area. “I’m an F1 world champ, so I’ve spent most of my life there. But you’re so focused. Your family doesn’t come to the races because your teams don’t really want them to be there because they know your focus is so important. It’s very tough because it’s your life. It’s everything. Everything you do is for Formula One. I did it for 17 years in this world where you forget about everything else. It’s all that matters is making you a better racing driver and Formula One driver.

“So when you step outside that, for me it’s exciting to do other things. With NASCAR, it’s a much more relaxed atmosphere. The racing is very serious. And these are some of the best drivers in the world, but the atmosphere outside the car and at the track, it’s a lot more relaxed and family-based category. That’s why we like it because it’s trying something different. We’ve done something the same for so many years, so to go and try something different is exciting.”