LE MANS, France – Wherever Jimmie Johnson walked trackside at the Circuit de la Sarthe in Le Mans, France on Sunday, fans wandered over for a photograph with the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion. Good luck handshakes, cheers and autograph seekers stopped him in the crowded paddock.
Truth be told, Johnson was equally as enamored with the setting and people, constantly snapping photographs and taking videos of the historic track and scene where he will compete June 10-11 as part of the Garage 56 NASCAR effort in the 100th anniversary of the legendary 24 Hours of Le Mans race.
The smile on Johnson’s face was genuine and enduring – both as he anticipated his first-ever laps at the 8.467-mile road course on Sunday morning and again after he climbed out of the cockpit of the Hendrick Motorsports No. 24 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 after his maiden outing around one of racing’s most renowned circuits.
“The atmosphere is insane,’’ Johnson said of his first full-day at track. “I was chatting with someone yesterday, a fan, that said Americans have always been loved at Le Mans. He said our reputation is very accommodating, hospitable, very kind to the fans”.
Even 4,000 miles away in Europe, fans certainly know Johnson, who actually won his most recent NASCAR Cup Series race on this day six years ago at Dover – his 83rd victory in a NASCAR career that included an unprecedented five consecutive series championships among his seven titles.
“I signed a 2006 championship hat someone had,’’ Johnson said. “Even diecast cars, all this different NASCAR stuff.’’
In Sunday’s test session, the Garage 56 team drivers combined to turn 58 laps in the Chevrolet, which is being designated for the race’s special one-car “Innovative Car” class – a collaboration of NASCAR, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet, Goodyear and IMSA; the effort led by Johnson’s former crew chief Chad Knaus, now a Hendrick team executive.
Johnson and his championship teammates on the Garage56 team – former Formula One champion Jenson Button and former Le Mans winner Mike Rockenfeller are keeping dibs on who is fastest in each session. Button took the honors in the opening session. Rockenfeller was quickest in the afternoon. Four-time IMSA champion Jordan Taylor, who made his NASCAR Xfinity Series debut at Portland, Oregon on Saturday, is flying in to serve as the reserve driver.
“I wouldn’t say everything’s going as planned because, you know always when you plan, there’s things that have some hiccups here or there,’’ said Greg Ives, the Garage 56 crew chief, who also formerly served in that role for Hendrick Motorsports in the NASCAR Cup Series.
“Today is relatively going well and we had some pace in the car. The drivers are relatively happy and it seems like the balance of the car is very similar to how we ended at most of these tracks. So we were able to mimic, not only the simulation but get the lap time kind of where we thought we should be and could be in top speed and all that stuff.
“So, we’ve still got some lap time to go,’’ Ives continued. “But you know, right now it’s the first three hours of Le Mans and we just got off the track that had semis and cars and bicycles on it, so I feel like we’re in a decent spot. Trying to get as many laps for the drivers as they can to make sure they’re comfortable and work through the bugs of the car.’’
Ives said the team had not absolutely settled on the driver order just yet. In Sunday’s practices it was Rockenfeller then Johnson and then Button. He said the team planned to run double stints for most of the race, after single stints early on to get every driver some track time.
The Hypercar Class No. 51 AF Corse Ferrari posted the top overall speed on Sunday. There is a “day off” from track activity on Monday, when Johnson will travel with his teammate Button to Paris. The team – primarily made up of Hendrick Motorsports NASCAR team members – will participate in the pit stop competition on Tuesday. Formal practice and qualifying for the race begins on Wednesday.
“I think first of all it was so nice to finally be on track in Le Mans in this car after all the work we did,’’ Rockenfeller said following Sunday’s final session. “The whole team can be proud of today. I know it’s only a test day but I’m happy we were driving without any problems. We were fast and that’s where we want to be. The car looks amazing on track and sounds great.
“We were just doing our work, learning the track, track evolution and making the car faster, trying stuff out. It’s still a long week ahead of us, but I think today we just take that and make the right conclusions. I feel pretty happy with everything.’’
A sellout crowd of more than 300,000 spectators is expected for the weekend’s “Centenary” race weekend. The famous grandstands and grounds surrounding the massive road course in central France were packed with people even for Sunday’s unofficial test sessions.
“It was really good for a lot of reasons,’’ Johnson said of his first day on track. “One, just my desire to come and compete here and be in the event. That reality hit me and then after a few laps I realized the pace the car had as well, all the hard work everyone at Hendrick has put into this showed up.
“We feel good about the speed. The concerns were that we’d be really fast on the straights and slow on the high-speed turns and relative to the GT cars we’re much closer in the high-speed turns than we ever thought and actually a little slow on the long straights. But we can optimize that. It’s just gone so well on so many levels.’’
“Granted there’s still 18 hours of practice and a race and so much can go wrong. But for day one, it’s just gotten off to a great start.’’