Jimmie Johnson said he’s been “really impressed” with the capabilities of the Cadillac DPi-V.R as the NASCAR legend prepares for his first sports car racing start in a decade in next month’s Rolex 24 at Daytona.
The seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion joined IndyCar ace Simon Pagenaud and former 24 Hours of Le Mans winner Mike Rockenfeller for a two-day test at Daytona International Speedway in the Action Express Racing-run entry they’ll share with newly crowned FIA World Endurance Champion Kamui Kobayashi.
The outing marked Johnson’s first time back in a sports car since the 2011 Rolex 24, when he co-drove a Riley-Chevrolet DP entered by GAINSCO/Bob Stallings Racing.
It was one of seven previous starts in the Florida endurance classic for Johnson, stretching back to 2004.
“It’s been a while,” he told reporters Wednesday. “The car has evolved two generations since my last race in the Rolex 24.
“We’re around eight to ten seconds [per lap] faster with this DPi configuration with what I did in the Grand-Am car.
“It’s a very fun car to drive with lots of downforce and speed.
“The Action Express guys have the car driving very nice. We had a great day yesterday and [were] super quick.
“I was really impressed. Comparing it to the IndyCar, it’s a little less power but braking and corner speed is close. That was surprising to me.
“I don’t think the Grand-Am car I drove back in 2011 was even close to the potential this car has on brakes and carrying speed into the corner.”
The deal to bring four of the sport’s biggest stars together was initiated by Johnson, who said he was originally tabbed to be an additional driver in Action Express’ full-season No. 31 Whelen Engineering Cadillac.
That quickly morphed into a standalone second entry for the race, bearing the No. 48, and with support from Johnson’s NASCAR sponsor Ally bank as well as Hendrick Motorsports.
“Being the first driver in the mix, Mr. Hendrick, Ally and Jim France put this thing together,” Johnson explained.
“Clearly with their success and the available drivers, you can look down a sheet of paper and pick fast guys and come up with a list and pick your four.
“But I watched them take their time and be very methodical about how we would all fit together.
“And of course you have to meet all these other criteria to be on the short list. They were very intentional about us four together.
“We feel the possibility is here and we do truly have an opportunity to compete for the win.”
Pagenaud, who drove for Action Express prior to his three-year stint with Acura Team Penske as one of its Michelin Endurance Cup drivers, echoed Johnson’s sentiments on the so-called ‘all star’ lineup that has been assembled.
“It’s an interesting lineup with the meetup of NASCAR champion/legend with Jimmie, Mike a DTM and Le Mans champion, and Kamui being Le Mans champion too and with F1 [experience],” Pagenaud said.
“With my experience in sports cars and IndyCar, it’s the world of racing altogether, which is very exciting.”
Pagenaud said getting behind the wheel of the Dallara-built Cadillac DPi is a “big highlight” in his career.
“In general, the chassis is a bit more roomy,” he said in comparison to the ORECA-built Acura ARX-05. “It’s quite a bit more comfortable in terms of seating position, as you would expect out of a Cadillac.
“The engine is very different architecture.
“We’re talking about an eight-cylinder engine on the Cadillac. It’s not turbocharged compared to the Acura, so the behavior of the engine is very different.
“It’s very responsive on the Cadillac without the turbos but the BoP makes it so the cars are very similar in performance.
“It’s been great coming to grips with the Cadillac and enjoying my time.”
Johnson Eying Sports Car Future
While currently a one-off, Johnson expressed interest contesting other IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship races in the future alongside his NTT IndyCar Series commitments.
“I’ve had a bit of a journey here trying to let it be known that racing in these events are of an interest to me,” he said.
“You go back to the previous seven Rolex 24s I’ve competed in… and Watkins Glen and the summer race [at Daytona], I’ve always felt that sports car racing is something I’ve wanted to do after my Cup career.
“I’ve been able to find a couple of years in an IndyCar and at the same time I think I need to let it be known that sports car racing is definitely an interest for me.
“Being in this race is crucial for that to set up for things down the road.
“A good run and performance should help open up doors or at least keep me in people’s minds when the collaboration (LMDh) comes together in the years to come.”