Sports

Johnson, Rockenfeller, Button get Le Mans seats

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Jimmie Johnson, Mike Rockenfeller and Jenson Button will drive the special Garage 56 car that will race at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in June.

Johnson, a seven-time NASCAR champion, has lobbied hard for a spot in the three-driver lineup for his former team. He’d been waiting for IndyCar and NASCAR schedules to be released to ensure his availability, and was finally confirmed Saturday ahead of the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

“I’m super thrilled — it’s been at the top of my bucket list to compete in the 24 Hours of Le Mans someday,” Johnson said. “To have this opportunity come, and to partner with everybody and this driver lineup, is truly an incredible opportunity and one that I am thankful to be a part of.”

Rockenfeller is a former Le Mans winner and has spent the past two years racing the Rolex at Daytona International Speedway in a Hendrick sports car alongside Johnson. He has also done the bulk of the testing on the project and driven the car at every on-track test and in the simulator.

Rockenfeller won the 2010 24 Hours of Le Mans, the 2005 24 Hours of Le Mans GT Class, the 2010 Rolex 24 at Daytona and the 2013 German DTM championship. He has driven the car at every on-track test and spent countless hours behind the wheel in the simulator.

“It has been a great journey so far with the whole team and project,” Rockenfeller said. “To be involved as a driver from day one until now was already a great honor, and to now have Jimmie and Jenson alongside me as teammates in Le Mans is unbelievable.”

Button, the 2009 Formula One world champion, was the surprise pick, as most expected it would be four-time NASCAR champion and Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon. Johnson had been actively recruiting Button, both drivers said Saturday, but the 51-year-old Gordon was trying to get back into racing shape and even participated in an IMSA-sanctioned race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in September.

“As a lifelong racing fan, I have always dreamed of racing certain cars, with and against certain drivers and competing in certain events,” Button said. “In June, a number of those dreams will come true in one event when I get to bring NASCAR to the world stage alongside my pals Jimmie and Rocky for the 100th anniversary of the most prestigious race in the world.”

Gordon did not attend Saturday’s announcement at Daytona International Speedway because he was ill, but Hendrick Motorsports vice president and general manager Jeff Andrews said Gordon was just fine with the Garage 56 lineup.

“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 Jenson 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.”

NASCAR will take its new Next Gen car to Le Mans for the 100th anniversary of the race as part of special category that showcases technology. Hendrick and General Motors have been tasked with the project, but NASCAR has opened the data to all the manufacturers after others complained Garage 56 gave one organization and one manufacturer unfair access to a car everyone is still learning.

The Next Gen Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 is anticipated to be approved for entry by l’Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO) in the coming weeks to compete at Le Mans.

All three drivers will participate in next week’s two-day test at Daytona International Speedway. Jordan Taylor, who currently competes in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship for Corvette Racing, will serve as the backup driver and driver coach. Taylor won the 2015 24 Hours of Le Mans GTE Pro Class and has finished on the podium four times. He is a four-time IMSA champion.

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