Cadillac driver number 48 discovers a new joy in full road running compared to his NASCAR days
DAYTONA BEACH, Florida – Jimmie Johnson enjoyed racing at Watkins Glen International so much last year that he “laughed” while driving.
It was not like his previous races at Watkins Glen. Instead of the NASCAR Cup Series car he’s driven in his previous 19 races at the famed highway circuit, Johnson drove a Cadillac DPi-VR in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship last year.
“Over the years I have spent behind the wheel of a car, my senses and body have understood a certain level of grip and speed, as well as reference points for brake marks and throttle marks,” Johnson said. “When you just destroy everything you know, it just makes you laugh. I literally laugh in the car. I’m like, “I can’t believe I just did this in a race car.” That’s the part of the sport that I really enjoy.”
Johnson returns to Sahlen’s Six Hours of The Glen this week in Action Express Racing’s No. 48 Daytona Prototype international (DPi) Ally Cadillac. His first attempt at the WGI last year ended in fifth place.
“It was a really enlightening experience that I had last year,” Johnson said. “I had six laps of practice before the race and I was way off pace. Then my stretch near the end, I think I had 20, 25 laps in the car, I was finally close to speed and did my best lap of my lap. It took me 30 laps to finally find the level of aggression.”
Adding to the adjustment is the use of four turns (turns 6 to 9) for IMSA races that are not in NASCAR. The optional “Boots” section is a demanding, high-speed descent/ascent, and doing it right was one of the reasons Johnson was happy.
“In one of these DPi Cadillacs, the speed and effort you have to drive around this race track is impressive, especially compared to my days in NASCAR,” Johnson said. “Some of the braking zones, the bus stop and the carousel, it’s mind-blowing how fast these cars can get through those tight spaces. (I’m) very excited to be back and having this experience again.”
Since leaving NASCAR, the seven-time Cup champion has expanded his experience to racing the IndyCar Series and the IMSA Michelin Endurance Cup of the WeatherTech Championship. Johnson will team up with Kamui Kobayashi and Mike Rockenfeller in the No. 48 Ally Cadillac for Sahlen’s Six Hours starting Sunday at 10:40 am ET.
Johnson, Kobayashi, Rockenfeller and José María López opened the WeatherTech Championship season with a fifth-place DPi in the Rolex 24 At Daytona. Johnson had to sit out the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring presented by Advance Auto Parts in March due to a conflict with IndyCar’s scheduling.
“Very happy to see Kamui and Mike – two great people and great guys,” said Johnson. “Overall, I am very happy to be back in Watkins Glen. This is the track and area that I really like. And to go full circle – Boot – I haven’t done this many times in all the rides I’ve been on, so I’m excited to go full circle.”
Johnson said he plans to spend time in a race car on Wednesday to get used to Watkins Glen, but nothing beats time in a real race car. According to Johnson, the more time it takes in the DPi, the faster it gets.
“You can see the gap is closing and I felt much more comfortable and competitive in the car,” Johnson said. “In a short race, a six hour race, the importance of maintaining pace is even greater. I’m excited to do a few laps in practice and I’m not sure if I can do much more if the practice sessions work. Hopefully the time I spend in (the simulator) really pays off and I can get one step closer to the pace I want to run.”
One thing we know for sure: he will laugh, just like last year.
“I am happy to be back in the racing car and happy to be back with everyone in Action Express Racing,” said Johnson. “… I feel like a child again.”
The WeatherTech Championship schedule for The Glen includes two practice sessions — late Friday night and early Saturday morning — before qualifying on Saturday afternoon (streamed live at 1:15 pm ET on IMSA.com/TVLive).
Sunday’s race, the third of four rounds of the Michelin Endurance Cup, is broadcast live flag-to-flag on Peacock starting at 10:40 a.m., with the USA Network broadcasting TV coverage at 2 p.m. until the end.