There will be a strong NASCAR presence for the 59th running of the Rolex 24 at Daytona.
Reigning Cup Series champion Chase Elliott leads the list of drivers with ties to NASCAR, which also includes Austin Dillon, Cody Ware, AJ Allmendinger and seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson, who retired from full-time racing at the end of 2020 season.
Elliott will co-drive the No. 31 Whelen Engineering Cadillac DPi V.R for Action Express with Pipo Derani, Felipe Nasr and Mike Conway. The team will start from the pole after winning Sunday’s Motul Pole Award 100 qualifying race. The Hendrick Motorsports pilot is excited about the prospects of being a member of a very veteran team.
"I think it’s going to be challenging," Elliott said. "I think it’s going to take some time to learn. When practice sessions are split up among four drivers you are not in the car that much. I’m going to lean on those guys as much as I can because it’s going to be a lot to take in."
Elliott’s former Hendrick teammate Johnson is making his first Rolex 24 start since 2011 before racing in IndyCar road and street events for Chip Ganassi Racing. Since the checkered flag flew on his last NASCAR start at Phoenix Raceway in November, Johnson has been on the go a lot over the last two months preparing for the next step in his career.
"I would say this has been the busiest offseason I’ve ever had," said Johnson, who is also with the Action Express team for the Rolex 24. "I was in an IndyCar immediately following the season finale for NASCAR. The IndyCar team with CGR and this prototype, there’s sim for IndyCar and prototype, seats to be fit for all three cars and learning crew members, teams, systems, meetings. It is by far the busiest winter."
Dillon joins Ware, Salih Yoluç and Sven Muller in the Rick Ware Racing Eurasia’s Le Mans Prototype 2 entry. The Richard Childress Racing driver went to the simulator at Dallara with Ware prior to last weekend’s Roar Before the 24 test session at Daytona to familiarize himself with his new surroundings. It was part of an offseason schedule that gave Dillon more experience to prepare for the twice-around-the-clock endurance race.
"Austin Craven (Business Director at Team Dillon Management) and Rick Ware got together and kind of put it together," Dillon explained about how the deal came to be. "My grandfather also wanted me to get more road course racing experience. I was just glad to get in another car and get on the track. I did a little more offseason racing. I got to go to COTA (in December) and run a WRL (World Racing League) race. That was fun. Looking forward to getting out there in the 24 hours."
NASCAR makes its debut at the COTA track outside Austin, Texas in May and Dillon is bullish on the stock cars tackling the challenging circuit.
"The track is just a true road course that shows different aspects of all road course racing," Dillon said. "You’ve got the long straightaways and you’ve got some technical stuff and then a couple sweepers with the esses. I think the NASCAR fans are really going to enjoy Turn 1, but I don’t know about us drivers. It’s going to get tight really quick."
The NASCAR season will see a healthy dose of road racing in 2021 with seven road courses on the Cup calendar including the Daytona infield circuit which hosted the top division for the first time last year. Dillon missed that race due to a positive COVID-19 test but he’ll be able to compete in the pre-season Busch Clash on the course as a tune-up to coming back for the February 21 points-paying race.
"I’m glad I’m in the Busch Clash because I’ve really never seen the road course at Daytona," Dillon said. "It happened to be when I got COVID last year. So, a little more experience for the race coming up right after the Daytona 500."
As for the long 24 hour race ahead of him this weekend, Dillon isn’t worried about the late hours.
"Now that I have a kid I feel like my tolerance for lack of sleep is pretty good," he said.
Allmendinger is no stranger to the Rolex 24 and is a former winner of the event. He returns with longtime friend and car owner Michael Shank in hopes of adding another victory to the team’s total.
"The Rolex 24 hour race is very prestigious and we’ve been fortunate enough to win it one time," said Allmendinger, who will continue his role with NBC Sports in addition to running the full Xfinity Series schedule, and the Feb. 21 Daytona Cup Series road course race, for Kaulig Racing.
"I love coming to the race, but I really, truly associate this race with Mike Shank. I couldn’t imagine doing it with anybody else."