NASCAR and Hendrick toast Le Mans with unexpected speed

Hendrick NASCAR Le Mans

Hendrick NASCAR Le Mans

LE MANS, France — They’ve started lining up glasses of champagne inside the Hendrick Motorsports NASCAR garage with 30 minutes remaining in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

The No. 24 Chevrolet Camaro wasn’t going to win the world’s most prestigious endurance race—the ‘Garage 56’ specialty entry wasn’t eligible for any class wins—but simply completing a full 24 hours was enough to declare NASCAR. massive effort to return to Le Mans for the first time since 1976 a resounding success.

“How does it feel to pass the checkered flag at Le Mans?” team owner Rick Hendrick radioed seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson as he completed the 285th lap for the Camaro around the Circuit de la Sarthe.

“Great,” Johnson replied.

Anticipation had been building all week for the car nicknamed “The Monster”, partly because it was so different from others in the 62-car realm, its V8 engine had a distinct growl that drowned out the competition, and because that few had expectations for NASCAR entry.

Jim France, owner of both NASCAR and IMSA, had brokered the deal to bring NASCAR’s second-year Next Gen production car into the race as part of Le Mans’ “Innovative Car” category which highlights value the technology. He then enlisted Rick Hendrick, Chevrolet and Goodyear – the winningest team, manufacturer and tire in NASCAR’s 75-year history – to collaborate on the project.

It was a passion project for France, who first attended Le Mans in 1962 with his father, the late NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. His father brought NASCAR twice to Le Mans but did not managed to finish the race.

To make the family dream come true, France wanted to make sure he had the partners to put on a top-notch effort that wouldn’t embarrass the racing series that got its start on the sands in Daytona Beach, Florida. and discovered that the North Carolina Moonlight runners were its first stars.

“I wasn’t going to let that happen,” Rick Hendrick told The Associated Press. “The last thing we were going to do was come here and run into each other.”

France was delighted.

“Thousands of hours of hard work by hundreds of people went into making this thing happen. And then the way the team and the pit crews and everyone played all week, it was just fantastic,” France said. “I hope my dad and my brother are somewhere up there looking down and smiling, but the goal when we left was to try to finish the race running at the end and not be the last. And we have accomplished that.

Hendrick appointed Chad Knaus, winner of seven Cup championships with Johnson, to lead the project and told him to spare no expense. The line-up of Johnson, 2009 Formula 1 champion Jenson Button and two-time Le Mans winner Mike Rockenfeller arrived in France after more than a year of testing from Garage 56 in the hope of finishing the race.

But Knaus had pushed the Next Gen to its limits and the final product was heavily modified from what is currently used in the Cup Series. Although the systems and components of the Le Mans model are similar to those of the Next Gen car, the Le Mans version had working headlights and taillights.

The main differences in the Le Mans entry were that it weighed about 500 pounds (226 kg) less than the Cup car, had a larger fuel cell of about 12 gallons (45 liters) due to the length of the 8,467 mile (13,626 km) track, carbon brake discs and a Goodyear tire designed specifically for racing.

It was also much faster than expected.

And after the Hendrick Motorsports pit crew won its class in the pit crew competition – finishing fifth overall – Rockenfeller qualified the car more than three seconds faster than the entire GTE AM class. of 21 cars. This called for an adjustment of targets, particularly when race organizers decided that the Garage 56 entry would not start last and moved to 39th, ahead of all GTE cars due to the gap of speed.

Suddenly the Hendrick team started fantasizing about beating some GTE cars.

And when he found himself with a real chance of winning the whole class, well, expectations changed. Hendrick said he watched the race until 3 a.m., and when he checked his phone when he woke up on Sunday morning, he thought “holy cow, we can win the GT class!”

“That class, leading those guys, there were scrunched up Porsches and Corvettes,” Hendrick said. “So we ticked all the boxes.”

Two late-night mechanical issues—first the car had to make an unscheduled stop to change the brakes with about five hours remaining—put the Camaro out of contention to beat the GTE class. A later stop to change the gearbox dropped the NASCAR effort to a 39th place overall, but 10th in the GTE class.

Johnson couldn’t help but be disappointed.

“We’re not in the same category, but we’re the same type of car, and by our own estimation we thought we’d be among the GT cars and you use that for motivation,” Johnson said.

“We laughed at ourselves when they changed the transmission because the objective was only to finish, then after the first laps on the track, we were like ‘Maybe there is more for us’ and As the week went on, we started the race with the desire to win the GT race.

“We are disgusted.”

But the bond that had developed over the project and the pride in what NASCAR had accomplished was what captured Johnson’s emotions.

“I wish we could come back and start over,” he said. “This moment, like everyone else, I hate that it’s over. Like, I hate it. We had a great time. I definitely hope to come back and do this race again. But at this exact moment, this group of people, it won’t happen again. It’s just not possible.

NASCAR and Hendrick toasting Le Mans with unexpected speed originally appeared on NBCSports.com

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