‘Steep learning curve’ of challenges awaiting Chase Elliott, Jimmie Johnson in the Rolex 24
DAYTONA BEACH, Florida – Among myriad ways the Rolex 24 at Daytona will be a dizzying but euphoric rush of sensory overload for Chase Elliott and Jimmie Johnson, what might top the checklist?
How about race traffic – an answer that might seem odd to longtime NASCAR fans.
Elliott, a winner at Talladega Superspeedway and frequent contender on the circuit’s biggest and fastest tracks, and Johnson, a two-time Daytona 500 winner, are well versed in running a breakneck pace while slicing through massive packs of cars at Daytona International Speedway.
But the Rolex 24 will be like racing NASCAR to the nth degree.
HOW AND WHEN TO WATCH THE ROLEX 24: Schedule, TV info, start times, entry lists, more
In joining two Action Express Racing Cadillacs already teeming with elite road racers, the two Cup Series champions will navigate wildly divergent speeds, five classes of exotic cars and a roster of roughly 200 largely unfamiliar drivers who hail from around the world with unfamiliar accents and unique styles.
And it will happen over the course of 24 grueling hours on the World Center of Racing’s other layout, the 12-turn, 3.56-mile road course that incorporates the infield and much of the 2.5-mile oval that Elliott and Johnson know so well.
Action Express team manager Gary Nelson, a former NASCAR champion himself, has translated those stock-car experiences into an analogy to coach his star crossovers on getting acclimated to the heavy congestion, which he believes will be their biggest challenge at the Rolex 24.
“I’m telling both Chase and Jimmie that imagine you’re on the track racing with all your Cup Series drivers and all of the Xfinity drivers and all of the Truck series drivers and all of the K&N Series drivers – all at the same time,” Nelson told NBC Sports with a chuckle. “There’s going to be a huge difference in speed and closure rate and talent among the different drivers.
“If I lose a couple of seconds waiting to get on a straightaway to pass this particular driver because I’m not sure if he’s going to leave me room, that decision helps you win the race here. If you rush it, like you would if you’re running a 500-mile race, you could find yourself with damage that costs you the race. Patience has got to be key to get through this.”
Neither is underestimating the challenge of doing Daytona, particularly Elliott.
The Hendrick Motorsports driver is the reigning king of the road in NASCAR, with four consecutive victories on the circuits that require left and right turns.
But even though he won at the Daytona road course last August, he has no extra confidence entering his Rolex 24 debut in a high-performance car unlike anything he ever has raced.
“No, not really, this is a very different deal,” Elliott told NBC Sports. “All these guys are very good and drive these types of cars all the time. They have all the small little things that make you great inside a car, all those little nuances to manipulate things and find that last 2%.
“I’ve never even driven one of these things, so it’s going to be a steep learning curve for me. I’ve accepted that. I’m looking forward to the challenge for sure and just trying not to mess it up too bad for my teammates.”
Though Johnson is making his eighth attempt at the Rolex 24, it’s his first in a decade, and the top-level prototypes radically have evolved through generations of technological development (and a sports car series merger), helping shave nearly 10 seconds off lap times with optimized braking and a smoother ride that rewards high aggression.
“It’s a very fun car to drive, lots of downforce, lots of speed,” said Johnson, who will be teamed with Kamui Kobayashi, Mike Rockenfeller and Simon Pagenaud in his familiar No. 48 that will be a one-off entry. “This race has a special place in my heart, and I love to be a part of it.”
The seven-time champion and Elliott seemed to adapt well Friday on the first day of Roar testing.
Making 27 laps in the No. 31 Cadillac DPI-V.R that he’ll share with Felipe Nasr, Pipo Derani and Mike Conway, Elliott described his constantly improving lap times as “a whirlwind. The faster you go through some of these sections, the better it drives. I’m trying to get that through my head a little bit.”
Said Johnson, who made 12 laps: “It’s an awesome race car. We have an amazing driver lineup.”
Nelson said he initially was nervous about how Elliott and Johnson would adapt to the foreign elements of carbon brakes, paddle shifting and traction control when they hopped into the GM racing simulator with a baseline setup from Nasr and Derani, the team’s full-time drivers.
“I thought we might be there a while to have to really teach those things to Chase and Jimmie, and in five laps, they were right there,” Nelson said. “They were able to just pick it right up. It’s unbelievable. These guys are professionals.”
As Elliott and Johnson prepare to race the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season opener Jan. 30-31, here are some hurdles they’ll face in keeping up with the world’s best sports car drivers:
The Cadillacs are a world apart from the Camaros that Elliott and Johnson raced in Cup last year. The lighter DPi car (by about 1,200 pounds) will be much more nimble through the turns while loaded up with extra downforce.
They also will have supreme stopping ability, allowing Elliott and Johnson to carry higher speeds through the corners in tight sectors and also brake much deeper than in the Cup race on the same course.
Nelson said it’s one of the many differences in the cast-iron brakes used in Cup cars vs. the lighter carbon-fiber brakes of a sports car. And though the carbon brakes offer much greater precision braking, they also require a careful technique of applying pedal pressure to slow the car without shedding too much downforce
“Carbon brakes have a whole different warmup and peak performance time,” Nelson said. “It ramps up a lot different on a cast-iron brake, but then it holds differently and drops off differently when it gets real hot. Your car is stopping so much faster with the carbon brakes, but it’s also losing downforce much faster. When you double or lose half your speed, your downforce changes by a factor of 4.
“So the braking can be really great at 200 mph, but you’ve got half that traction from downforce when you get down to 100 mph, so you have to modulate the brake pedal to compensate for the ramp-up and bite or effectiveness of the brakes, and at the same time, you have to modulate for the loss of downforce, which is huge if you’re a stock-car driver trying to learn that.”
Because the braking concepts are similar, Johnson is leveraging his Rolex 24 foray to also help in his adaptation to a part-time IndyCar schedule this year.
“The brakes are really the weakest link on a NASCAR vehicle,” he said. “You create lap time exiting the turn in a NASCAR vehicle. This downforce world of sports cars and IndyCar is the other way around.
“The technique of applying the brakes and then how you trail off them and throw the car at the center of the turn is where the magic is. It’s easier said than done.”
NBC Sports analyst Townsend Bell, who will be driving a Lexus in the GTD division for the third consecutive year, said the end of the braking zones in Turns 3 and 5 will be critical.
“For Chase, a big adjustment is the initial application of brakes, because in a stock car, you have a lot of weight transfer to the front end, and you have to ease that transition more,” Bell said. “In a prototype, it’s a much more instant feeling, like using the fast dimmer on a light switch. It’s a much slower dimmer on a stock car. It’s a lot to get adjusted to, but if you know how to win like Chase does in the Cup Series, you’ll figure that out quickly.”
There’s almost too much to learn with the advanced electronic controls of the DPi car, which has a steering wheel outfitted with adjustable settings for handling (including power steering).
“The feel of the car can change tremendously by moving these knobs around,” Nelson said. “But the thing that put Jimmie and Chase at ease was we have a telemetry screen that tells us where every one of those knobs is positioned at all times. So they can’t get off base very far before we see it on the telemetry screen in the pits, and we can tell them.
“So once they learn we’re able to look over their shoulder as if we’re riding in the back seat, all of a sudden, they get comfortable with the ability of us to keep them from messing up.”
Unlike the manual (and error-prone) procedures of relying on dashboard lights and a tachometer needle in NASCAR, there also is a button that makes speeding in the pits impossible no matter how much the driver stomps the accelerator.
But that might be the only setting that interests Elliott, who said he isn’t planning to fiddle with his space-age steering wheel options.
“I think I’m going to be such a big variable in the car and getting around this racetrack in something new, I honestly think the worst thing I can do to myself would be to start messing with settings,” Elliott said. “I think I’m probably going to mess myself up and probably slow down more than I’m going to help myself.
“So whichever guy gets out of the car in front of me, I’m probably not going to touch anything when I get in and just try to focus on driving and figure it out from that side.”
Having gotten to tinker with similar steering wheel adjustments in IndyCar testing, Johnson said with a laugh that he is trying “to push on Chase to twist some dials, because there are many driver aids built in there.
“I know it’s a bit overwhelming trying to get your senses and mind up to speed in the car,” he said. “There are some longer straightaways (at Daytona), which are nice because you can complete your thoughts and look down at the wheel.”
THE RACE AND TEAM
Getting swiftly in and out for driver swaps also will be among the in-race challenges for Elliott, who never has shared a car before but is confident of adapting well (the team began practicing changes Friday).
“There’s no excuse for it to take any longer than a pit stop should,” Elliott said. “I think they can typically change before they fill it up with fuel, so there’s no excuse for us being any slower than that.”
It’s one of many ways he is expecting to be leaning on his highly accomplished teammates. After a 20-minute introductory chat with his co-drivers – two natives of Brazil and another from England – Elliott said they were “super friendly and understand I’m all ears and want to learn. It seems they’re willing to do that and kind of walk me through this as I learn to get up to speed. I’m going to give everything that I have to not try to mess up because I think they can easily go win this race without me.”
Elliott also is mindful that his car will be competing for the championship post-Daytona (unlike Johnson’s ride). “I respect that, and so I just want to do my part and play whatever role they ask me to play,” he said. “I don’t want anything special. I’m just happy to be here for the opportunity.”
The champs are here. Seven-time NASCAR Cup champ @JimmieJohnson makes his #Rolex24 return while reigning 2020 champ @chaseelliott is set for his #Rolex24 debut. Both in @AX_Racing Cadillac https://t.co/TPxPewWIJ6. #IMSA pic.twitter.com/gvF0j4L8o9— Michelin Racing USA (@MichelinRaceUSA) January 22, 2021
Nasr, a Formula One veteran who jokes about being Elliott’s “lucky charm” having attended his victories at Daytona and the Roval (“I’m hoping he can do the same in our car”), said the team will provide Elliott with as much information as possible but also isn’t worried about his performance.
“It’s going to be a lot different than his NASCAR car,” Nasr told NBC Sports. “The way it feels, the brakes, the power, the handling. But I see no problem at all for him to get up to the grips of the car and being up at speed. He’s got enough time and enough practice, and everyone is looking forward to having him on board.”
The same holds true for Johnson, who already has good friendships with Rockenfeller and Pagenaud. The 2019 Indy 500 winner is “happy and honored I can give Jimmie advice on road racing” after Johnson had provided him many tips on oval racing (Pagenaud’s wife is from Johnson’s hometown of El Cajon, California, where she became good friends with Johnson’s brother, Jesse).
Kobayashi, a two-time defending Rolex 24 winner, said the most important factor is the team “sharing good information. I knew Jimmie had the talent, that why he’s a legend in NASCAR, so I’m not at all worried about the performance. It’s just very important to share information to win this race.”
One of Johnson’s biggest concerns is the race’s length and 3:40 p.m. start, a few hours later than the midday green flags for his past endurance races. “I’ll never forget the feeling of fatigue when you get near the end of the race and now to have the race to start and finish so late in the day, that adds a few more hours of being awake and on your feet,” he said.
A veteran of the Boston Marathon and Ironman 70.3 triathlons, Johnson already has the physical and mental fitness for the Rolex 24.
“Nutrition, hydration and all that comes into play, but the thing I really love the most about it is just understanding how far you can push yourself,” he said. “And in a 24-hour car race, you’re going to be challenged and taxed in ways you just can’t prepare for and expect.
“In doing the Boston Marathon and the 70.3, I’ve been in the hurt locker and looked at quitting. It’s been right in my face, and I chose not to, and I feel like there’s just something really big in that mentally that carries over to the day job and over to car racing.”
But sometimes the trick will be not pushing the limits during the heat of battle against the slower LMP3 and GT cars (whose lap times can be more than 10 seconds slower).
Johnson said learning how to manage traffic “is really the art of being successful in any 24-hour race.
“Thankfully I’ve had experience, and I know the areas where I’ve had success, and also know some areas where I’ve made mistakes,” he said. “But it’s really tough because the lower division cars, their performance on the brakes and through the corners is pretty impressive. We don’t have much of an advantage there.
“Chase and I have less experience with it, but it’s something we all have to deal with, and I’ll just continue to tell myself it’s a very long race, and you’ve got to keep it on the road.”
It isn’t necessarily an incident that can affect a driver so much as the finely tuned anticipation every lap to judge traffic while maintain competitive lap times.
“Yes, these boys can drive, but you get in these moments when you’re thrown that curveball of someone doing something you’re not expecting,” NBC Sports analyst Calvin Fish said. “Not locking up the brakes or releasing too early, that’s the key. Particularly for Chase in a championship-contending car that needs points on the board coming out of the race.”
Bell, who watched Kyle Busch adapt to traffic last year as a GTD teammate, said the Rolex 24 will be “a big jump in road course performance for Chase.
“It’s those surprise moments in multiclass traffic. If you’re by yourself turning laps, you’re getting into a rhythm of putting together the braking zone, apex, exit and getting that consistent and refined. Suddenly, you have traffic in front of you, a moment happens, and that percussive rhythm gets thrown off.”
Will Elliott mentally prepare for those sorts of moments or just try to react when they happen?
“That’s a great question,” he said with a laugh. “I have no idea. You hear about it and watch it on TV, but making lap time out on the track by yourself is one thing that’s a hard thing to do as is.
“To try to make time with people in your way and navigating traffic all at once brings a great challenge and is a big aspect of this event, so I’ll just have to figure it out as we go.”