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Through the 24 Hours: NASCAR’s Garage 56 at Le Mans

LE MANS, FRANCE – JUNE 10: Drivers Jimmie Johnson, Mike Rockenfeller and Jenson Button of the #24 NASCAR Next Gen Chevrolet ZL1 prepare to drive during the 100th anniversary of the 24 Hours of Le Mans at the Circuit de la Sarthe June 10, 2023 in Le Mans, France. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

NASCAR’s Garage 56 entry took to the 24 Hours of Le Mans to walk the walk of the acclaimed roaring talk it talked before the race.

Facing rain and poor conditions, Mike Rockenfeller drove the first 14 laps at the 8.4-mile Circuit de la Sarthe. He did it in a time of one hour, 13 minutes and 13 seconds.

“It was a tricky stint with the first chicane down in Mulsanne completely wet. I just tried to make no mistakes and stay trouble-free. It’s a long race so you don’t want to waste it in the first lap. The car feels good, balance-wise. We have some issues because we thought it was going to rain more, so we adjusted the balance. But we will react to that later in the race and adjust tire pressure. I think the track will grip up again and I think we can go a bit faster from now on,” Rockenfeller said.

LE MANS, FRANCE – JUNE 10: The #24 NASCAR Next Gen Chevrolet ZL1 driven by Jimmie Johnson, Jenson Button and Mike Rockenfeller drives during the 100th anniversary of the 24 Hours of Le Mans at the Circuit de la Sarthe June 10, 2023 in Le Mans, France. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Jimmie Johnson took over with four fresh tires and fuel. As Rockenfeller predicted, Johnson did have a faster stint than him. The seven-time Cup Series champion completed 12 laps in 58 minutes and 54 seconds.

“It was incredible. I had slow zones that took place with two or three big crashes on track. It was a totally different experience to work through those areas and take back off. All in all, just an amazing experience. One of the slow zones was a very crowded area with the fans – they were waving at me so I was waving back. It was really really fun. I want every lap I can get,” Johnson said.

LE MANS, FRANCE – JUNE 10: Jimmie Johnson of the #24 NASCAR Next Gen Chevrolet ZL1 looks on with his family during the 100th anniversary of the 24 Hours of Le Mans at the Circuit de la Sarthe June 10, 2023 in Le Mans, France. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Then, Jenson Button took the helm for a double stint. He experienced heavy rain, a long safety car period and three pit stops.

The crew put on intermediate tires as it began to rain, then put on slicks when it stopped and also made an aero adjustment.

Johnson eventually returned to the car for a dark and rainy 2-hour, 52-minute and seven-second stint.

At one point, he faced a downpour while on slick tires. The car survived and the crew put wet tires on.

LE MANS, FRANCE – JUNE 10: Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #24 NASCAR Next Gen Chevrolet ZL1 pits during the 100th anniversary of the 24 Hours of Le Mans at the Circuit de la Sarthe June 10, 2023 in Le Mans, France. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

“We probably ran 2-3 too many laps on the wets and it really fell apart once the track started to dry.  We put the slicks back on and we were the fastest GT-style car on the track and were running the guys down,” Johnson said. “I tried [to prepare for these conditions] in the sim, but they can’t simulate rain like it really is. The nighttime [sim] driving was pretty useful and worked out well, but the sim is easy because you can’t get hurt. You just hit reset and you’re back on the track. Real life, real fear, real consequences make a big difference.”

Rockenfeller and Button each took on a stint in the No. 24 Chevrolet.

Near the end of Rockenfeller’s stint, the team noticed the right-rear tire pressure was going down. That was because of the real-time tire pressure gauge Goodyear installed on the Garage 56 entry for the race.

“We were monitoring the tire pressure sensors and our engineers happened to see that the right rear tire was starting to lose some pressure. It was great timing, they did a great job catching it. The team was able to react and get it in here and get some new tires put on the car. It was awesome,” Chad Knaus said.

Through 15 hours, the Hendrick Motorsports crew performed 17 four-tire pit stops and a stop for an aero adjustment. Before the race, they finished fifth overall in the pit stop challenge.

“We had the opportunity to do some testing before, so this isn’t their first rodeo doing this. We did a roughly 30-hour test in Sebring, so we have some experience on our side. We’ve been working on making sure these guys are hydrated, eat well and actually get a little bit of sleep overnight so they would be sharp in the morning,” said Evan Kureczka, the Hendrick Motorsports pit crew coach.

Two hours later, Rockenfeller took over for Johnson, as the car ran 30th overall of 62 entries – and only trailing one GT car.

Button replaced Rockenfeller at around the 2,000-mile mark on lap 237. The team also made a brake change at that time.

On lap 254, trouble struck. Button drove the car to the garage with a drive line issue.

Luckily, the team fixed the issue after an hour-long repair.

Before the issue, they were on track to beat all of the GTE cars. For context, the top GTE car finished 26th with 313 laps complete.

Rockenfeller returned the car to the track and drove for another hour. Then, Johnson took over and finished the race.

The Garage 56 entry finished 39th overall and completed 285 laps.

LE MANS, FRANCE – JUNE 10: Chad Knaus talks with Jenson Button, Jimmie Johnson and Mike Rockenfeller of the #24 NASCAR Next Gen Chevrolet ZL1 ahead of the 100th anniversary of the 24 Hours of Le Mans at the Circuit de la Sarthe June 10, 2023 in Le Mans, France. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

“That was unbelievable,” Jim France said. “That was thousands of hours of hard work by hundreds of people that went into making this thing happen. And then the way the team and the pit crews and everybody performed all week, it was just fantastic.”

“I hope my dad and my brother are somewhere up there looking down and smiling, but the goal when we set out was to try and finish the race running at the end and not be last. And we accomplished that,” he added.

France’s father, NASCAR founder Bill France Sr., brought two stock cars to Le Mans for the 1976 edition of the race. Before 2023, that was the last time NASCAR raced at Le Mans.

“It makes me proud for our sport. The last thing I’d want to do is for us to come over here and fall on our nose. That’s what I was worried about. From the very beginning with Chad Knaus and Greg Ives, I said we’ve got to do this right. We don’t spare any expense. Our NASCAR teams can do any kind of race they want to do. I mean, they got the talent, they’ve got the engineers, and they got a lot of smart people and they can do whatever,” Rick Hendrick said.

“My heart is full. For all the reasons we know – coming here with NASCAR, Hendrick, Chevrolet, Goodyear, many of the people here working were on different teams that I won races and championships with. There were so many familiar faces, to have this experience was just off the charts. My bucket is full. I’m really happy,” Johnson said. “The fan reception – whether it was at the parade, or on the cool-down lap just now. Even the corner marshals were going nuts. Everything was just incredible.”

“It’s amazing to finish the race, that was priority number one,” Rockenfeller said. “I think it’s something I will look back to later on with my kids and always will be high on my memory in terms of high-level races I did. It has been such a great team, not only my teammates but everybody on the team. The full journey, I mean, what can I say? I made a lot of friends. And I think we did a good job.”

“What amazing people. To take their Cup car and turn it into an endurance car for Le Mans, it’s staggering. They’re the best in the business, I’m proud to be working with these guys. It’s difficult because there’s so much emotion, we’re all tired. And this is it. You know what I mean? This is it. This is the last time this car is racing. So it’s kind of sad, but then you just got to think about living in the moment,” Button said.

Button and Johnson will come stateside for the July 2 NASCAR Cup Series race at the Chicago street course.




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