Seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson, long-time sports car star Mike Rockenfeller and former Formula One champion Jenson Button will comprise the highly-anticipated driver lineup for the NASCAR Garage 56 project at this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans.
The announcement was made Saturday morning at Daytona International Speedway in the hours before the 61st Annual Rolex 24 at Daytona IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season-opener.
The Garage 56 project is a joint effort by NASCAR, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear for the grand endurance race’s 100th anniversary celebration at its June 10-11 running.
“Since the beginning of the Garage 56 project, it has been our goal to partner with the top racers in the world to represent us in Le Mans,’’ NASCAR Chairman and CEO Jim France said. “The lineup of Jimmie, “Rocky” and Jensen is everything we could have dreamed of – three elite drivers who have won at the highest levels of motorsports worldwide.
“As we celebrate the 75th anniversary of NASCAR, we are honored to have these world-class champions help bring the sights and sounds of a NASCAR race car to fans in Le Mans and across the world.’’
Johnson, 47, is a seven-time champion and 83-time race winner in the NASCAR Cup Series and now co-owner (and part-time driver) of LEGACY MOTOR CLUB in the NASCAR Cup Series. He will be making his Le Mans debut, although he has competed in 16 sports car races over the last two decades in the IMSA ranks with podiums at the Rolex 24 in 2021 and a runner-up showing at Motul Petit Le Mans just last November.
“When Rick [Hendrick] called, I couldn’t resist the opportunity,’’ Johnson said. “It’s been a big dream of mine to go to Le Mans and experience what it’s all about and to have the experience I’ve had here. I know how special this event [Rolex 24] is and I’m sad I’m not out there today. To know I’m going to Le Mans with this great group of drivers, this great team, the collaboration between GM and NASCAR, everybody involved, it’s really a special, special opportunity.’’
Rockenfeller, 39, is not only the true sports car veteran of the group but the German driver is a former 24 Hours of Le Mans winner both overall (2010) and in the GT Class (2005). He’s also a past Rolex 24 at Daytona winner (2010) and has been the lead test driver for this Garage 56 project.
“It’s just an incredible group of partners in this project and to be involved from day one is a great honor and a lot of fun,’’ Rockenfeller said. “I can’t wait to share the car with these two teammates.’’
Button, 43, won the 2009 Formula One world championship and has 15 F1 career grand prix victories. After attending a practice session to watch Johnson and Rockenfeller in the car in Sebring, Fla. – purely as a spectator – he said the idea was floated for him to be a third driver only in December, 2022. He had raced previously against Rockenfeller and is a longtime friend of Johnson’s. He competed at Le Mans in 2018 and is not only eager but optimistic about this next opportunity.
“I finished my F1 career and I look for new challenges and this is definitely an exciting challenge and to work alongside these two, you can see there’s some good banter already,’’ Button said, as the trio joked with one another on stage at the announcement.
“I think it shows that teamwork we will need to go to Le Mans and to perform as we would like. Very excited to work with this all-star team.
Jordan Taylor, a four-time champion in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and current Chevrolet Corvette factory driver will serve as a back-up driver and will join Rockenfeller in the program’s test program that will continue next week at Daytona International Speedway.
Chad Knaus, Hendrick Motorsports’ Vice President of Competition and Johnson’s former championship crew chief, said there is actually a rather aggressive test schedule upcoming before Garage 56 goes overseas for competition. After the car’s test at Daytona next week, it will run multiple endurance tests, including one at Sebring (Fla.) International Raceway in late February. The idea, Knaus assured, is to be competitive.
Judging by the smiles and positive reception to the news at Daytona on Saturday morning, there is a lot of interest in Garage 56. A lot of expectation and a lot of hope.
“I would suggest if there ever was such a thing as an all-star team in motorsports, this project is the absolute poster of that,’’ IMSA President John Doonan said.
“It first started with Jim France’s vision then it started almost a year ago in a conversation with Rick Hendrick. And the organization, it’s just unbelievable to have Chad Knaus and Greg Ives involved in this. And you couple that with what Chad and Jimmie accomplished over 15 seasons, seven championships 83 wins twice here on this stage in 06 and 2013, unbelievable.
“And then you go on to Mike Rockenfeller, a Le Mans winner with unbelievable endurance sports car experience and a world champion from Formula One, it’s exactly what the vision was to put NASCAR on a global stage and bring drivers from so many different disciplines.’’