Garage 56 testing kicks into gear at Daytona

James Gilbert/Getty Images via NASCAR

Garage 56 testing kicks into gear at Daytona

Le Mans/WEC

Garage 56 testing kicks into gear at Daytona


Mike Rockenfeller, Jenson Button and Jimmie Johnson put a new Chevrolet Camaro ZL-1 through its paces for the first time at Daytona International Speedway on Tuesday, kicking off its preparation for the 100th anniversary 24 Hours of Le Mans in June.

Rockenfeller and Johnson have already logged more than 2,000 miles of testing with a test mule, which was on public display at last weekend’s Rolex 24 At Daytona. Meanwhile, Hendrick Motorsports was finishing up its test car, which is being run Tuesday and Wednesday at Daytona and later at Sebring International Raceway as the joint partnership among Hendrick Motorsports, NASCAR, Chevrolet and Goodyear kicks into high gear.

“This test mainly is about getting miles, getting the group together for the first time,” said Rockenfeller, an overall winner of both the Daytona and Le Mans endurance classics. “It’s cool to be in a NASCAR [stock car] for the first time in Daytona – where it really belongs. It was nice to do the first laps. It’s very different from any other track, with the combination of the banking and the infield. We are still trying to work on the setup a little bit; work on driver changes; also, tire testing takes up a big portion as well.”

The plan was to run Rockenfeller, Button, Johnson and driver coach Jordan Taylor in the car into the evening on Tuesday ahead of a planned 12-hour test on Wednesday in preparation for Sebring, where the current aim is for back-to-back 12-hour sessions with a short interval in between.

“There’s a lot of come in this test, and it’s another milestone in a way,” Rockenfeller said. “But we’ll definitely still need a bit of testing after this.”

The unique project is part of Le Mans’ Garage 56 to spotlight unique cars or technology. In this case, it’s taking NASCAR racing to a world-wide audience.

Image by James Gilbert/Getty Images via NASCAR

Even though they’re not competing for a trophy – or even a Rolex watch – pride is still on the line.

“We’re all racers, and we’re looking at all of these test sessions to make the car as strong and competitive as it can be,” said Johnson, a seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion. “Even though we won’t have any other cars that we will be racing, we all know the pace this car can run, and we want to help it get there. It’s neat to see the professionalism and work ethic that everyone is bringing to the table. All the things that you do normally to win a race, we’re doing with the Garage 56 program.”

Johnson said that the car’s first three tests have been plagued by rainy weather, which has hindered the tire development. At Daytona, with clear skies and temperature in the 80s in the forecast, that shouldn’t be a problem.

“We have certain goals,” Rockenfeller said. “We clearly want to finish, and we don’t want to be last. We’ve got a good group of drivers, so there’s always fun in between as we try to push each other. Hopefully, we can fight some cars on track. But at the end, it’s to showcase the car to the fans, to Europe, at the biggest endurance race in the world.”

After Button turned his first laps at Daytona, Johnson was the first person to lean into the car to get a few words with the 2009 Formula 1 world champion.

Image by James Gilbert/Getty Images via NASCAR

“I obviously went the other direction the last two years to driving formula cars, and I’ve been waiting for that confirmation on how different the two worlds are,” Johnson said. “I got it today.”

Johnson returns from his detour into IndyCar to run a limited NASCAR Cup Series schedule this year, but in June, he gets to check off one of the remaining items on his bucket list.

“This is really the last one standing, and it’s really been at the top of my list for decades,” Johnson admitted. “I’m super-thrilled to do it, and super-thrilled to do it with this team, with the partners involved, and a great group of drivers. Not only are we going to win our category, we hope to win the fun and the parties in France as well!”