The NASCAR Garage 56 project is aiming to intensify the endurance testing of its modified Next Gen Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 Cup car that is set to race in the 24 Hours of Le Mans this year.
The Hendrick Motorsports-led project is at Daytona International Speedway this week for a two-day session that will include a 12-hour continuous test on Wednesday.
2009 Formula 1 world champion Jenson Button will turn his first laps in the car, alongside his Le Mans co-drivers Jimmie Johnson and Mike Rockenfeller. They will also be joined by Corvette Racing ace Jordan Taylor, who is on reserve driver duties.
Hendrick Motorsports vice president of competition Chad Knaus explained that the 12-hour endurance test will include some night running with newly installed headlights.
NASCAR Garage 56 is then aiming to visit Sebring in late February for a longer run that could equal the full race duration of Le Mans.
Speaking about the Daytona test, Knaus told reporters: “That’ll encroach into the evening hours, so we’re excited to see how that works.
“This will be the first time we put lights on a NASCAR car in… I can’t remember how many years. We’ve worked them through, we’ve had them on at the shop and we’ve had some preliminary testing. We’re excited about it.
“We’ve got a bunch of setup things [to test]. From an overall design standpoint, we feel like we’re pretty close to the car. We’ve got to draw a line in the sand at some point, and we’ve kind of gotten to that.
“And then we’re going to go to Sebring and our goal is to run 18 to 24 hours straight.
“If you can do that at Sebring, you’re getting pretty close. We’ll be sharing the track with some other types of cars down there, so it will be good for us to pass and be passed.”
According to Knaus, the NASCAR Garage 56 test car has completed around 2,000 miles since the first rollout at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta last August.
Running in inclement weather conditions has been a regular part of the process.
“You couldn’t have scripted it,” Knaus exclaimed. “Every test we’ve been to, we’ve had one day of rain. Which to me, from my NASCAR world, would suck!
“But quite honestly, for road course racing and what we’re trying to do, it’s been great.
“Our partners at Goodyear have had a great opportunity to learn what the car likes and doesn’t like from a wet weather standpoint.
“We’re working on wipers, what works and not. What goes wrong when it rains and how the brakes work. Testing has been great.”
Knaus described the car’s projected lap time around the 8.5-mile Circuit de la Sarthe as “a bit of a moving target” but stated that the team wants it to sit “a pinch below” the GTEs at the back of the overall field. As a Garage 56 car, it is due to race unclassified.
Hendrick Motorsports, NASCAR and Chevrolet have not yet revealed the technical details of the car, including whether it will have a hybrid powertrain.
Hendrick president and general manager Jeff Andrews explained that a significant focus has been placed on developing the engine to secure adequate reliability.
“The mileage is something we don’t have a lot of exposure to,” he said.
“We run our Cup engines for two races, so from a mileage standpoint, we end up with 1,200 to 1,400 miles on them after two race events.
“Working in partners to develop this engine with ECR, they have a lot of experience in the Cadillac V8 world.
“It’s been a great group project and so far we’ve been very pleased on the engine reliability side.”
When asked if the car will be hybrid-powered, Knaus replied: “Really can’t get into that right now.
“That was put out initially, but we’re not ready to get into the unveiling of that just yet.”
“Emotional Rollercoaster” to Develop Le Mans NASCAR
Knaus went on to describe the development work as an “emotional rollercoaster” and alluded to the pressure that such a program brings considering it has garnered support from NASCAR, IMSA, Chevrolet and Goodyear.
The last NASCAR Le Mans entries occurred in 1976 but neither of the two cars entered made it to the finish.
“We want to go and represent Hendrick Motorsports in the proper way that we can, which is by going fast,” said Knaus, who has won seven Cup Series titles as Johnson’s crew chief.
“But as you sit back and realize what it is that we’re trying to take on right now, we want to represent because we want to be professional, show what we can do as a NASCAR community, what Hendrick Motorsports is about, and we want to try for 24 hours.
“That, in itself, is an extreme challenge because there are people for decades who have struggled to go for 24 hours. It’s not just the car; it’s the people, the other cars on track.
“That’s the approach we’re taking: how we can represent Hendrick Motorsports and NASCAR as best we can.”