By John Oreovicz
IMSA Wire Service
|Led by the likes of Kyle Larson and his sprint car exploits, it’s become popular for NASCAR Cup Series drivers to occasionally take part in forms of racing outside of their full-time rides on the stock car circuit.
Toyota is especially supportive of helping its contracted drivers widen their racing horizons in alternative forms of competition. Christopher Bell, for example, frequently returns to his pre-NASCAR roots; he won three consecutive Chili Bowl Nationals for midget cars from 2017-19.
Toyota Racing Development created a different kind of moonlighting opportunity for three of its up-and-coming NASCAR stars to start their 2024 season. Bubba Wallace, John Hunter Nemechek and Corey Heim are sharing the No. 23 Toyota GR Supra GT4 EVO prepared by Smooge Racing in the Grand Sport (GS) class of the BMW M Endurance Challenge at Daytona, the opening race of the 2024 IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge.
Wallace qualified the striking black and gold Toyota 20th in the 28-car GS field, with Sean McAlister claiming the Motul Pole Award in the No. 39 CarBahn Motorsports BMW M4 GT4 with a lap of 1 minute, 52.842 seconds (113.574 mph). Defending Touring Car (TCR) class co-champion Harry Gottsacker earned the Motul Pole Award in TCR in the No. 33 Bryan Herta Autosport Hyundai Elantra N TCR with a 1:56.757 (109.766 mph) lap.
Wallace, driver of the No. 23 23XI Racing Toyota in the Cup Series, took responsibility for sparking the effort that landed the NASCAR young guns in the Pilot Challenge opener.
“I started this whole thing,” he joked. “I texted Toyota leadership and said I needed some massive help for my road course career in the Cup Series – whatever it takes to get more seat time, whatever we have to do. I knew it would be a fun time down here, learning these cars, just figuring it all out and adapting quick.”
When asked why he accepted the challenge of stepping out of his comfort zone, Nemechek distilled his initial response to one word: “Fun.”
“It goes back to us kind of asking Toyota to get us in something that would get us more road course experience,” he elaborated. “We want to be able to drive everything and compete and learn to the best of our ability, and being able to hop in different vehicles at different times just makes you adaptable in every situation, which makes us better as drivers.”
Heim, whose full-time ride in 2024 is in TRICON Garage’s No. 11 Tundra in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series, had additional news to report on Thursday. He revealed that he has been contracted to assist a pair of Toyota-affiliated Cup Series teams in 2024. He’ll serve as Legacy Motor Club’s simulator and reserve driver, and as a reserve driver for 23XI Racing.
“Any extra running I can get on a road course will be beneficial for me,” Heim said. “My goal is to one day run in the Cup Series, and there’s a big road course presence in that. Whether it’s in a stock car or a GT4 (Michelin Pilot Challenge car), I feel like the extra seat time is pretty big for me.”
After two days of Roar Before the Rolex 24 testing on the Daytona International Speedway road course and practice and qualifying for Friday’s four-hour race, the three stock car specialists agreed that the most difficult part of the Michelin Pilot Challenge experience was the driver changes that are part and parcel of sharing a car in sports car competition.
“At 30, I felt young until we did driver changes,” Wallace said with a grimace. “Man, I’m hurting.”
“I don’t know if we have a higher heartbeat rate driving laps in the Supra right now or doing driver changes,” added Nemechek, who will soon embark on his first Cup Series season in Legacy Motor Club’s No. 42 Toyota. “We might be sweating more and doing more work with the driver changes.”
The BMW M Endurance Challenge starts at 1:45 ET Friday, with live coverage streaming on Peacock.
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