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As less of a ‘weak link,’ Jimmie Johnson in ‘best situation ever’ to win first Rolex 24

Jimmie Johnson and the rest of the No. 48 Ally Cadillac team review their second-place finish from the 2021 Rolex 24 at Daytona in the DPi class and share their expectations for a 2022 battle against Wayne Taylor Racing.

DAYTONA BEACH, Florida –Kamui Kobayashi is hoping his last shot at the Rolex 24 at Daytona with Jimmie Johnson will be tequila-flavored.

Kobayashi, the two-time Daytona endurance race winner, reigning 24 Hours of Le Mans winner and Formula One veteran, nearly carried Johnson to his first winner’s Rolex last year in the debut of the No. 48 Ally Cadillac at Daytona International Speedway. The pair became good friends while running three more IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship races with Johnson last year.

“He’s just such a good dude and cool and fun to be around,” Johnson told NBC Sports about Kobayashi. “He’s spent a lot of time in the U.K., and he can cuss like a sailor and has a lot of that British swagger.”

INFORMATION FOR THE 60TH ROLEX 24: Schedules, start times, entry lists

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The Japanese sports car ace also has become a big fan of the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion, too, especially since Johnson showed Kobayashi the beer fridge that’s stashed beneath his motorhome.

It became a nightly routine at IMSA races that Johnson would hear his cooler rolling out and then would see Kobayashi smiling with a Bud Light in hand. “He’s like, ‘I just need one to go to bed!’ ” Johnson said.

Kobayashi appreciated being revealed “the secret spot to hide the bottles,” but he’s hoping to up the game from the beer toast they enjoyed after the finish of their inaugural race together last year at the World Center of Racing.

“We need to go with tequila this year,” Kobayashi told NBC Sports with a laugh, indicating awareness of his Southern California teammate’s preference for Patron. “That’s what we do when we win the race at Daytona. I’m here thinking this is my last shot to win the race with the Cadillac with Jimmie. So I’ll try to do my best and make sure that he wins this race.”

Their partnership is finite because Kobayashi has moved into a team principal role at Toyota Gazoo (which competes primarily in the World Endurance Championship Hypercar division that encompasses Le Mans), and IMSA and WEC are entering a new era of convergence that will mean the series competing directly against each other next year as the LMDh car replaces DPi.

But in other ways, time is on their side – certainly more so than when last year’s outfit was assembled late in 2020. Despite the scramble by Action Express, the No. 48 still managed to finish second on a massive charge by Kobayashi in the final stint (after some earlier adjustments had hurt the car’s speed).

“Last year, I really feel like we gave it away,” general manager Gary Nelson told NBC Sports. “I could come up with excuses, but in Action Express terms, we didn’t execute as well as we could have with the 48 car last year. We got behind late in the race, and at the end, we were gaining so fast. It’s unusual for someone to say in a 24-hour race we needed it to be 25 hours, but I think we had the winning car at the end. We just were too far back.”

And with the least amount of experience in a high-downforce car, Johnson often was lagging the most while trying to get up to speed with the new group.

“I feel like I’m coming in so much more prepared,” Johnson said. “Not only myself, but the second car at Action Express Racing. The time together -- team, drivers and everybody involved – it just makes a difference. I’m really excited to be back here for a second year personally because of my journey and also where we are as a race team.”

Mike Rockenfeller also returns from last year’s team, and with Simon Pagenaud departing to Meyer Shank Racing (his new IndyCar team), Jose Maria Lopez was added on the recommendation of Kobayashi, his WEC teammate.

That gives Johnson three 24 Hours of Le Mans winners as teammates as he takes his ninth crack at winning the Rolex 24. He also will have Hendrick Motorsports vice president of competition Chad Knaus, the crew chief for his seven Cup Series titles, calling the No. 48’s strategy (as he did in the last three endurance races in 2021) and a crew of Hendrick team members pitting the Cadillac for the second consecutive year.

“This driver lineup is so incredible,” Johnson said. “I felt really blessed last year, and I’m not sure we could have made it any better, and in a small way, we have. I feel like I’m in the best situation I’ve ever had to come here and win this race and in a lot of ways know and feel like I’m the weak link. And just hope to keep the car on track and hand it off to my teammates in the condition it was given to me and keep this thing going.

“I’m definitely less of a weak link than last year. I think my journey in sports cars and also the time spent in IndyCar. I’ve closed up the gap quite a bit and when you look at an endurance race and what our goals are, I’m right there where I need to be.

“I’m starting at such a better place this year for both IMSA and IndyCar. I know most of the tracks. I have a fair amount of seat time in the cars. My understanding of cars, tracks, paddock areas, routines, regulations. It really was a fresh start for me last year. I had a great time doing it, but where I sit today, I have so much better understanding and knowledge, and that all leads to more excitement and optimism to a strong year.”

Though he has learned “to trust these cars so much,” Johnson said he still struggles to find the limits of downforce. He still is mastering the subtleties of when to release the brake through the turns (and let the car slow down naturally without too much force) –mistakes that can add up to losing several tenths of a second over the course of a lap.

But the speed charts also are indicative of his improvement. In the four practices of the race weekend before last year’s Rolex 24, Johnson was nearly a full second behind his third-fastest teammate. This weekend (in mostly slick track conditions), his fastest practice lap actually ranked ahead as third fastest on the No. 48, a couple of tenths ahead of Rockenfeller.

Crediting Johnson’s persistence and work ethic, Nelson believes that “I think Jimmie Johnson is going to surprise a lot of people” in the IMSA Endurance Cup season.

Chip Ganassi is expecting the same in the NTT IndyCar Series as Johnson moves into driving the No. 48 Dallara-Honda for a full schedule, including the Indy 500. Johnson finished on the lead lap in three of the final four races in 2021 after sometimes being a few seconds off on street courses to start the season.

“I think he’s got a win in him,” Ganassi said Friday at Daytona International Speedway. “I thought he had a win in him last year. And we just had a couple of things that stunted his growth. I’m still optimistic. I think he’s got a win in him. He certainly has the right attitude. He knows how to win. It’s a confidence thing. Nobody’s questioning his talent or his commitment. He works hard at it.”

“Look at the change from him from a year ago here (at the Rolex 24) to now. He’s like right there now, and he wasn’t a year ago.”

Aside from his progress, Johnson’s quest to win his first Rolex 24 has been a rallying cry for his teammates.

“I always tend to follow the people that have done great things, and I have been following Jimmie a long time,” Lopez told NBC Sports. “To be part of the team with him is nice. I was surprised in a good way by his personality. Straightforward. Very relaxed. Humbled.

“If I can be a little help or part of achieving (the Rolex 24 victory), it would be amazing. I know how important it is for him and for all of us. I know how hard it is, this kind of races. Jimmie has tried a lot. It’s a combination. It doesn’t depend on you. You’re depending on a lot of factors; The teammates, the car, and factors from the race itself. That’s why it’s so difficult to win. I believe we have the crew to do it. The team to do it.”

The team also has a reliable anchor in Kobayashi behind the wheel and in debriefs. Though he jokes that Johnson is “my boss as it’s car 48,” Kobayashi also offered some aggressive coaching to Johnson throughout last year’s Rolex 24.

“I knew he’s coming from a different type of racing and was a little bit difficult time last year,” Kobayashi said. “But I respect him because he had so much success in NASCAR.

“Everything in terms of traffic management, driving, the different conditions to adapt. There are many things we can discuss. It’s always very important to communicate because in a 24-hour race, track conditions always change. Different temperature, different track abrasion. I think the key is always communicating with a teammate because we are fighting for one thing.

“I enjoy working with Jimmie. I want to share what I feel and try to give the best information as much as I can. I think at the end of the day, it gives us more confidence in each other. We respect each other and that’s why I’m still there.”

AUTO: JAN 21 IMSA WeatherTech SportCar Championship - Roar Before the Rolex 24 at DAYTONA

DAYTONA, FL - JANUARY 21: Kamui Kobayashi, driver of the #48 Ally Cadillac Racing Cadillac DPi during the Roar Before the Rolex 24 at Daytona on January 21, 2022 at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fl. (Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Johnson still is here in part because he wants the signature trophy that has eluded him in eight tries at winning the IMSA season opener at Daytona.

He bought himself an engraved Rolex after winning the Daytona 500 in 2006, but he yearns for the watch that money can’t buy.

“I think it is one of two or three trophies that I’ve ever dreamt about having or earning,” Johnson said. “I’ve been chasing this watch for a long time. It’s an event that I wanted to participate in and win since I was really young. So this is on my hit list.

“This is something that I’ve been so close to accomplishing. And it’s something I really feel like I can accomplish. I really feel I have a team and teammates to do it this year.”