LE MANS, France (AP) — They are starting to line up champagne glasses inside the Hendrick Motorsports garage with 30 minutes left in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
The No. 24 Chevrolet Camaro wasn’t on its way to winning the world’s most famous endurance race—the Specialized “Garage 56” entry didn’t qualify for any class wins—but just completing the full 24 hours was good enough for NASCAR to announce a major effort to return to Le Mans for the first time since 1976 was a smash hit.
“How does it feel to take the checkered flag at Le Mans?” Team owner Rick Hendrick radioed seven-time NASCAR Champion Jimmie Johnson as he completed the Camaro’s 285th lap around the Circuit de la Sarthe.
Johnson replied, “Awesome.”
Anticipation built all week for the car dubbed “Le Monster.” Partly because it was so different from the rest in the 62-car field, its V8 engine had a distinct rumble that drowned out the competition, and because few had any expectations of entering NASCAR.
Jim France, owner of both NASCAR and IMSA, brokered this deal to field a next-generation NASCAR car for a second year in racing as part of Le Mans’ innovative car class showcasing the technology. Then he recruited Rick Hendrick, Chevrolet, and Goodyear—the most profitable team, factory, and tire manufacturer 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. twice brought NASCAR to Le Mans but failed to come close to finishing the race.
To complete the family’s dream, France wanted to make sure he had partners for a first-class effort that wouldn’t embarrass the racing series that started beach races in Daytona, Florida, and found North Carolina moonshine runners as the oldest stars.
“I wasn’t going to let that happen,” Rick Hendrick told the Associated Press. “The last thing we would do is come here and fall on our noses.”
France was overjoyed.
“It was thousands of hours of hard work by hundreds of people who made this thing happen. And then the team and the gig crew and everyone else performed all week, it was amazing,” France said. “I hope my dad and my brother are somewhere out there looking down and smiling, but the goal when we started was to try to finish last and not be last. And we achieved that.”
Hendrik assigned Chad Knauss, winner of seven cup championships with Johnson, to run the project and asked him to spare no expense. Johnson’s lineup, 2009 Formula 1 champion Jenson Button, and two-time Le Mans winner Mike Rockenfeller have arrived in France after more than a year of garage testing the 56 in hopes of only finishing the race.
But Knauss pushed the next generation to its limits and the final product was significantly modified from what is currently used in the Cup Series. Although the systems and components on the Le Mans model are similar to the next-generation car, the Le Mans edition has working headlights and taillights.
The main differences to the Le Mans entry were that it was about 500 lb (226 kg) lighter than the Trophy car, and had a fuel cell about 12 gal (45 L) larger due to its 8.467 miles (13.626 km) longer mileage. ) track, carbon brake discs and a Goodyear race-specific tire.
It was also much faster than anyone expected.
And after the Hendrick Motorsports pit crew won its class in the pit crew competition – 5th overall – Rockenfeller qualified the car more than three seconds faster than the all-21-car GTE AM class. He called for revised targets, especially when the race organizers decided that Garage 56’s entry would not start last and he moved up to 39th, ahead of all GTEs due to speed disparity.
Suddenly, Team Hendrick fantasized about beating some GTEs.
And when she found herself with a real chance of winning the entire class, expectations changed. Hendrik said he watched the race until 3 a.m., and when he checked his phone when he woke up Sunday morning, he thought, “Holy cow, we can win the GT class!”
“That class, those guys leading, there were some wrinkled Porsches and Corvettes,” Hendrick said. “So we checked all the boxes.”
Two late mechanical problems—first the car had to make an unplanned stop for a brake change with about five hours remaining—rejected the Camaro from contention to take the GTE class by storm. A later pit stop for a gearbox change dropped the NASCAR effort to thirty-ninth overall, but tenth in the GTE class.
Johnson couldn’t help but feel disappointed.
“We’re not in the same class, but we’re the same kind of car, and by our own estimations we thought we’d be a mid-to-mid package GT and you use that for motivation,” Johnson said.
“We were laughing to ourselves when they were shifting gears because the goal was just to finish and then after the first laps on track we thought ‘maybe there’s more to us’ and throughout the week we started racing with the desire to win a GT race.
But it was the bond that developed during the project and the pride in what NASCAR had accomplished that caught Johnson’s attention.
“I hope we can go back and do it again,” he said. “This moment, as with everyone, I hate that it’s over. Like, I hate it. We had such a good time. I hope I can no doubt come back and do this race again. But this moment, this group of people, will never happen again.” .It’s just impossible.”
AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing And https://twitter.com/AP_Sports
“Beer enthusiast. Subtly charming alcohol junkie. Wannabe internet buff. Typical pop culture lover.”