UPDATE: Jimmie Johnson spins early at Sebring and then leads, but team breaks rule
A tough month at Sebring International Raceway continued Saturday for Jimmie Johnson.
After being involved in an early incident at the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring, the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion soon was able to persevere and take the lead in the iconic sports car event.
But then with just under three hours remaining in the race, the No. 48 was informed that it had broken the IMSA rules for maximum drive time because Simon Pagenaud was behind the wheel for 50 seconds over 4 hours during a six-hour stretch.
An IMSA official said the penalty is the car would finish last in the DPi class.
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“It’s been eventful,” Johnson told NBCSN pit reporter Marty Snider after his final stint in the car. “Sadly, qualifying yesterday we had an issue and then start of the race we did. Unfortunately, right now we’re really just racing for a trophy. We went 50 seconds over on Simon’s time in the car.
“Was able to get back in and get some more laps, but honestly, we’re just out there trying to do the best we can for Ally and Cadillac. We have the right two guys to get in the car. Hopefully, we get to the front.
“I had my issue in qualifying. Early in the race, spooked myself again. Last thing I wanted to do was tear the car up again. Just had to ease my way back into it. I have such respect for these drivers out here and for this race and this racetrack. You watch it on TV and think, ‘I could do that.’ And then you come here and race and realize how demanding this place is, these cars are, and how good the talent and the depth in this paddock is.”
Just before the 15-minute mark of the 12-hour race, Johnson lost control of his No. 48 Ally Cadillac in Turn 17 while attempting to pass the No. 23 Aston Martin on the outside. Johnson spun back across traffic and made contact with the No. 5 DPi of Loic Duval, damaging the right front of the No. 48.
“I was trying to work around some GT cars and just got too wide,” Johnson told Snider. “I thought there was going to be enough grip on the outside, and there certainly wasn’t. The car is still driving great and running fast laps, just playing catch up.”
It was the second spin in two days at Sebring for Johnson, whose Action Express team (led by former Cup crew chief Chad Knaus, who is calling the car’s strategy) worked on repairs until midnight after Johnson spun twice and wrecked in qualifying.
Because the accident occurred near the entrance of the pits, Johnson was able to make a quick stop to have his front wing replaced without losing a lap. When the race restarted, he was in seventh among the DPi cars.
His team was able to refuel on the unscheduled stop, and Johnson was able to stay on track as the rest of the DPi cars began to pit, and he inherited the lead at the 45-minute mark.
Johnson’s Cadillac sustained only body damage in the minor crash, which didn’t affect his steering.
Pipo Derani, his pole-sitting teammate, wasn’t so lucky in the No. 31. While trying to pass the No. 01 Chip Ganassi Racing Cadillac of Renger van der Zande (who had taken the lead shortly after the green flag), Derani was squeezed into the wall while both cars were navigating through two GT cars.
Derani, a three-time winner of the Twelve Hours of Sebring, pitted to fix steering problems, and the car lost three laps.
.@Rengervdz and @PipoDerani get together coming to Sunset Bend, as they were in lapped traffic alongside @Ijracer1's Heart of Racing Aston! The No. 31 Whelen Cadillac is in the pits with right front suspension damage, having hit the inside concrete wall hard.#IMSA #Sebring12 pic.twitter.com/v5sQuO29hb— Vincent Bruins 🧡 (@VincentJBruins) March 20, 2021
In an interview with Kevin Lee on NBCSN, van der Zande put the blame squarely on Derani for the collision.
“I think Pipo should be in horse jumping,” van der Zande said. “He would be a world champion in horse jumping. Because he thinks he can go over people instead of just passing them in a nice way. The last five to six races, we saw him doing all kinds of moves like this. I like the guy, he’s great to talk to, but on the track, he’s too wild.
“He was almost wiping out four cars at one time in that last cornrer. Pipo just needs to chill out. He’s taken himself out for so many times now. I just feel bad for their team. Because they have a fast car. They had the car to win today.”
Action Express executive Tim Keene said the team requested a penalty on van der Zande and was surprised it went uncalled by IMSA officials
“We do have a really good car and just need some yellows to get some wavearounds and get back on the lead lap,” Keene told NBCSN pit reporter Brian Till. “We obviously don’t agree with the no-call on that. It being early in the race on cold tires, we had position on (van der Zande), and we felt he just turned us into the wall. We always seem to end up being the bug in those situations, and it’s kind of getting old.”
Derani also was involved in a memorable incident with Ricky Taylor for the lead of the Petit Le Mans last year.
After watching video of the incident, Derani said van der Zande surprised him.
“Unfortunately, I never saw there was a second GT,” Derani told Snider on NBCSN. “I was on the inside line, and I was prepared to go side by side with him. Because all I saw was the GT right in front of me.
“But Renger had the full view. He could see the GT, and he knew I was right there, because I was side by side with him. He still decided to go between me and the GT, which was very unfortunate. I didn’t really realize what happened until I actually saw the image when I got out of the car. At that time, I was still questioning why would he turn me into the wall like that.
“Then I realized if he hadn’t realized there was another GT there that just turned into him. It’s a little bit difficult because I think he had the full view. He saw there was a GT, but yet he still decided to go between the two of us. So, it’s a hard one to take in, unfortunately, I was really close to him when I pulled side by side, I never saw the GTs. It’s just one of those days.
“Sometimes people say some stuff heat of the moment, but we’re never going to retaliate or do anything like that. I just think people need to look at the video first before saying stuff. It’s just very unfortunate. I felt I had the inside line and all of a sudden I saw Renger turning into me. At that time, I braked, but it was way too late. Just a shame. We never race dirty. We would never retaliate.”
Johnson pitted after leading a few laps and handed over the No. 48 to Pagenaud at the 55-minute mark.
In addition to this weekend’s two incidents, Johnson also came down with a nasty case of food poisoning while testing at Sebring with the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship team a few weeks ago.
The No. 48 finished second in the season-opening Rolex 24 at Daytona, the first of four races it’ll run in the Michelin Endurance Cup. Johnson is using the extra laps in the high-downforce, high-horsepower car to prepare for his rookie season in the NTT IndyCar Series.
Johnson will make his debut at Barber Motorsports Park in Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 48 Dallara-Honda next month.
“I’m as ready as I can be (for IndyCar),” Johnson said. “I wish I could have some more testing but pull them tight and go and see what I can do.”
His Cadillac was serviced this weekend by Knaus and a crew of team members from Hendrick Motorsports, whose owner Rick Hendrick also was in attendance at Sebring for the first time.
In attendance at his first Twelve Hours @sebringraceway (and sitting directly behind @chadknaus), #nascar team owner Rick Hendrick is watching @JimmieJohnson and the @allyracing car. @heymartysnider reports Hendrick says it’s the first time he’s been at this race in person. pic.twitter.com/umqFfdvyyN— Nate Ryan (@nateryan) March 20, 2021