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NASCAR experience in 2021 Rolex 24 grid includes former champions, road course ringers

7 Mins read
Credit: Michael Levitt/LAT Images

When the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship‘s Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona begins next weekend, it will kick off a series of races at Daytona International Speedway—known as Speedweeks—that culminates in NASCAR‘s season-opening Daytona 500 and road course weekends in February. Speaking of NASCAR, various drivers in the endurance race’s field boast experience in stock cars that range from former Cup Series champions to those whose only starts came on road courses as specialists.

Starting on the pole will be the #31 Cadillac DPi of Action Express Racing, which won Sunday’s Motul Pole Award 100 qualifying race. Felipe Nasr and Pipo Derai piloted the car in the race while their team-mates are Mike Conway and Chase Elliott, the latter of whom is new to the Rolex 24 but has enjoyed plenty of success in stock cars and turning in both directions. Elliott might be considered the weakest link of the team for his relative lack of experience in sports cars, but the reigning Cup Series champion has dominated his discipline’s road course races; five of his eleven career Cup victories have come on such tracks, including the last four and a clean sweep in 2020. One of such wins came at the Daytona RC in NASCAR’s inaugural race weekend on the layout.

Action Express Racing, owned by NASCAR CEO Jim France and a collaborator in the Cup Series’ Next Gen car development, is also fielding a second DPi car with a star-studded roster. The #48 finished sixth in the race with Jimmie Johnson and Kamui Kobayashi, while Mike Rockenfeller and Simon Pagenaud will join them for the 24. Elliott’s former NASCAR team-mate, Johnson needs no introduction for NASCAR fans as a seven-time Cup champion who is set to move into IndyCar for 2021, and his Cadillac’s number and sponsor Ally Financial have joined him for his eighth Rolex 24. He ran the endurance race every year from 2004 to 2011 and finished second overall in 2005 and 2008. Road courses were never Johnson’s forte like ovals as his lone win was at Sonoma in 2010, but his only NASCAR race on the Daytona RC ended with a fourth-place run.

As the #48 is intended to just be a one-off entry, it will also sport NASCAR personnel as its supporting cast as AXR enlisted the services of Hendrick Motorsports crewmen. Hendrick, who fields the #9 for Elliott and formerly the #48 for Johnson, was approached by AXR for the endeavour as a learning experience ahead of the Next Gen car’s début in 2022. Like a sports car, the seventh-generation Cup car will have just one lug nut and consequently a heavier air gun. Speaking to Sportscar365, AXR manager Gary Nelson explained that getting the crewmen up to speed now would be “a transition that these pit crew guys will not have to go through in NASCAR next year.”

Sandwiched between the AXR cars is the #60 of Meyer Shank Racing as Dane Cameron and Olivier Pla piloted the Acura DPi to a fourth-overall finish; while neither driver has raced in NASCAR, their team-mates are longtime faces in stock cars. Juan Pablo Montoya is one of the most versatile racers in motorsport, and his résumé also includes racing in the Cup Series on a full-time basis from 2007 to 2013. Considering his background, it comes with little surprise that each of the three-time Rolex 24 winner’s NASCAR victories came on road courses: he won at Sonoma (2007) and Watkins Glen (2010) as a Cup driver, and also scored a win in the now-Xfinity Series at Mexico City in 2007. Like Montoya, A.J. Allmendinger has enjoyed success in open-wheel, sports, and stock cars; the 2012 Rolex 24 winner was a Cup regular from 2007 to 2018, recording his only win at The Glen in 2014. For 2021, he will race full-time in the Xfinity Series after a part-time 2020 schedule that saw him snag top fives in all four road races and a win at the Charlotte Roval; all but one of his five Xfinity victories are RC events. Allmendinger will also make his Cup return on the Daytona RC.

Credit: Jake Galstad/LAT Images

The LMP2 and LMP3 classes have just one car with NASCAR drivers in their ranks apiece. In the former is RWR Eurasia‘s #51 Ligier LMP2, which Cody Ware and Salih Yoluç drove to an eight-place class finish in the Pole Award 100 and will be shared with Austin Dillon and Sven Müller (Mathieu Jaminet was initially scheduled to race but tested positive for COVID-19, leading to Müller taking over his spot). Ware, son of RWR owner Rick Ware, will race for the family team in the Cup Series full-time in 2021 after spending the last seven years competing sporadically in NASCAR. The 2014 Lamborghini Super Trofeo North America Rookie of the Year and 2019–20 Asian Le Mans LMP2 Am champion, Ware scored his first NASCAR top ten when he finished seventh at the Charlotte Roval in October. While Ware is well-versed in sports car racing, Dillon is new to the Rolex 24 and has yet to score a Cup road course top ten (though the 2013 Xfinity champion has two of them in that series); he also missed last August’s Daytona RC Cup race after testing positive for COVID-19. However, he is familiar with Daytona’s Victory Lane as the 2018 Daytona 500 winner.

LMP3’s NASCAR representation comes in the form of Colin Braun, who will share the #60 CORE Autosport Ligier JS P320 with Jon Bennett, George Kurtz, and Matt McMurry. The 2014 and 2015 WeatherTech SportsCar champion and reigning Rolex 24 LMP2 class winner, Braun raced full-time in the Camping World Truck Series from 2008 to 2009 for Roush Fenway Racing. During his second year, he won a race at Michigan and finished fifth in points, though his NASCAR career failed to gain traction after a 2010 Xfinity campaign that ended with five top tens in twenty-four races with Roush. While Braun has not raced in NASCAR since 2011 when he ran two Truck races, he jumped back in a stock car in the ARCA Menards Series at the Daytona road course last August as a substitute driver for the injured Sam Mayer; upon taking over Mayer’s #21 GMS Racing car during the race’s halfway break, Braun finished third.

In the GTD class, six of seven drivers have raced in NASCAR but almost exclusively as road course ringers, providing teams with their expertise on such layouts in one-off starts. The exception is Andy Lally, who is in the #44 Acura NSX GT3 for Magnus Racing along with Jon Bennett, George Kurtz, and Matt McMurry. While Lally’s pedigree is predominantly in sports cars as a former Rolex Sports Car Series champion and five-time Rolex 24 class winner, he ran much of the 2011 Cup Series schedule for TRG Motorsports (with whom he also raced in sports cars) and won Rookie of the Year honours in what was otherwise an uncompetitive battle for the award. After a three-year dormancy in stock car racing, he returned to the Xfinity Series as a road ringer and has six top tens in ten starts since 2014. In 2020, he joined Our Motorsports for the Road America and Daytona RC races, finishing fifth in both, and he will return to the team for the 2021 race at the latter.

The #88 Porsche 911 GT3 R of Team Hardpoint EBM is graced with two drivers with Xfinity seat time in Earl Bamber and Katherine Legge. A longtime Porsche factory driver until 2020 who won the 24 Hours of Le Mans overall twice, the FIA World Endurance Championship LMP1 in 2017, and the WeatherTech GTLM in 2019, Bamber made his NASCAR début the inaugural Daytona RC Xfinity race for Dillon’s grandfather’s team Richard Childress Racing. However, his day ended late when he hit the grass on the backstretch chicane, briefly causing him to go airbourne and resulting in a thirty-third-place finish. Legge, who has raced in numerous forms of motorsport and finished second in the 2018 Rolex 24 GTD class, ran four Xfinity dates in 2018 for JD Motorsports; besides road course races at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, Road America, and the Charlotte Roval, she also ran an oval event at Richmond. Her best finish in the series is fourteenth at Road America. The two will be joined by Rob Ferriol and Christina Nielsen, the latter of whom was Legge’s team-mate in the 2020 race as part of an all-female team.

Credit: Jake Galstad/LAT Images

For the 2020 Rolex 24, Vasser Sullivan‘s #14 Lexus RC F GT3 featured reigning Cup Series champion Kyle Busch and Jack Hawksworth, the latter having run the previous year’s Mid-Ohio Xfinity race for Busch’s employer Joe Gibbs Racing. Hawksworth, an IndyCar veteran who has raced in IMSA since 2014, finished fifteenth in what is his lone NASCAR start to date. Since joining Vasser Sullivan in 2019, he has won five races, including three in 2020. While Busch is not returning to the endurance race for 2021, Hawksworth’s team-mates for the Rolex are Oliver Gavin, Kyle Kirkwood, and Aaron Telitz.

Wright Motorsports‘ Porsche 911 GT3 R will be driven by Patrick Long, Klaus Bachler, Ryan Hardwick, and Jan Heylen. Long, a Porsche factory driver who has won his Le Mans class twice and the 2009 Rolex 24 GT division, finished second-to-last in his lone Cup start at Watkins Glen in 2012 (for Inception Motorsports) and fourteenth in his only Xfinity race at Road America in 2010 (for D’Hondt Humphrey Motorsports). On the other hand, he has seen strong performances in what is now the ARCA Menards Series West, starting on the pole in his debut at Sonoma in 2009 and winning at the now-Utah Motorsports Campus from the pole later in the year. He scored his second series win in the following season’s road race at Portland International Raceway and was on the verge of another win at Utah when he suffered a flat tyre. While more renowned for his road course prowess, which also includes experience in the Supercars Championship and WEC, he has also recorded solid oval runs with top tens in all four of his oval starts in the now-ARCA Menards Series East.

Piloting the Alegra Motorsports Mercedes-AMG GT3 with Maximilian Buhk, Daniel Morad, and Michael de Quesada is Billy Johnson, a former Ford factory driver and driving coach who has worked with the manufacturer’s NASCAR members in honing their road course skills. From 2010 to 2013, he ran NASCAR road races himself for Roush, a team synonymous with Ford’s stock car program, in the Xfinity Series with a best finish of eighth at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in 2012. His last start in the series came on the oval New Hampshire Motor Speedway, finishing fifteenth. Johnson ran his lone Cup race at Sonoma in 2017 as an interim driver for the ailing Aric Almirola, finishing twenty-second in the #43 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford.

In the #75 SunEnergy1 Racing Mercedes-AMG GT3 is Kenny Habul alongside Mikael Grenier, Raffaele Marciello, and Luca Stolz. Habul returns to the Rolex 24 for the fourth year and his first start in the event since 2018, while his NASCAR Xfinity experience has exclusively been as a ringer for his own team, Joe Gibbs Racing, and JR Motorsports. In fifteen Xfinity starts, his best finish is fourteenth at Road America in 2014 and 2015. The Australian also briefly dabbled in oval racing when he finished twenty-sixth in the 2013 Truck race at Martinsville.

NASCAR representation in the 2021 Rolex 24

#NASCAR driverTeam-matesTeamClassRolex 24 class startOverall start
14Jack HawksworthOliver Gavin, Kyle Kirkwood, Aaron TelitzVasser SullivanGTD4th34th
16Patrick LongKlaus Bachler, Ryan Hardwick, Jan HeylenWright MotorsportsGTD8th38th
28Billy JohnsonMaximilian Buhk, Daniel Morad, Michael de QuesadaAlegra MotorsportsGTD14th44th
31Chase ElliottMike Conway, Pipo Derani, Felipe NasrAction Express RacingDPi1st1st
44Andy LallyMario Farnbacher, John Potter, Spencer PumpellyMagnus RacingGTD11th41st
48Jimmie JohnsonKamui Kobayashi, Simon Pagenaud, Mike RockenfellerAction Express RacingDPi6th6th
51Austin Dillon, Cody WareSven Müller, Salih YoluçRWR EurasiaLMP28th15th
54Colin BraunJon Bennett, George Kurtz, Matt McMurryCORE AutosportLMP33rd20th
60A.J. Allmendinger, Juan Pablo MontoyaDane Cameron, Olivier PlaMeyer Shank RacingDPi4th4th
75Kenny HabulMikael Grenier, Raffaele Marciello, Luca StolzSunEnergy1 RacingGTD10th40th
88Earl Bamber, Katherine LeggeRob Ferriol, Christina NielsenTeam Hardpoint EBMGTD13th43rd
Bold: Competing full-time in NASCAR in 2021
Italics: Road course ringer
Underline: NASCAR national series race winner
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