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Jimmie Set To Test Endurance

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, December 14 2009
It's all about the challenge, Jimmie Johnson said of entering Rolex 24 at Daytona next month. (File photo courtesy of NASCAR)

It's all about the challenge, Jimmie Johnson said of entering Rolex 24 at Daytona next month. (File photo courtesy of NASCAR)

Jimmie Johnson’s need to exceed in all manner of race cars has again drawn him to the team that is beginning to feel like Hendrick Motorsports Lite.

Johnson, winner of a record fourth consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship last month, has signed-on for another stint in a Daytona Prototype entered by Bob Stallings Racing for the 48th annual Rolex 24 at Daytona. Johnson will join Jon Fogarty and Alex Gurney – who won their second Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series DP championship in three years in 2009 – and former CART open-wheel champion Jimmy Vasser Jan. 30-31 at Daytona International Speedway.

The Rolex 24 is the leadoff event to the 2010 edition of Speedweeks, which will be capped by NASCAR’s 52nd annual Daytona 500 on Feb. 14.

The same BSR driver lineup that finished second in 2008 and seventh last year again will rely on Fogarty and Gurney for the heavy lifting over DIS’ combined 3.56-mile roval. Vasser, the 1996 Champ Car World Series champion, has not driven competitively since last year’s Rolex 24. And despite his record-shattering success in NASCAR, Johnson admitted he will need to re-adjust to the nuances of endurance sports car racing pretty much on-the-fly. Johnson said his schedule likely will prevent him from hot-lapping during the Jan. 8–10 Roar Before the Rolex 24 Test Days.

“From my perspective, (the challenge is) to go off and race a different vehicle,” said Johnson, referring to the No. 99 GAINSCO Auto Insurance/BSR Riley, with Chevrolet replacing Pontiac as the V-8 powerplant. “The second-place we were able to get a couple years ago meant a lot to me. You know, in a Cup race a second – because we’ve won there (2006 Daytona 500) before – is a little more aggravating than finishing second in a Rolex race for me. And I would assume for my teammates it’s kind of the opposite way around.

“But it’s such a great event. So much fun. Such a challenge for me to learn the car, the braking zones, turning points and everything that goes with it. A competitive run, racing with the top guys in sports car racing really from around the world…it says a lot for me and means a lot for me to leave my comfort zone and to do something different.”

Johnson, who will be making his fifth overall start in the Rolex 24, is used to being the center of Cup Series attention inside his No. 48 Lowe’s Chevy Impala SS. Crew chief Chad Knaus and the resources of Hendrick Motorsports are at his disposal. For this event, Johnson is one of four California-born drivers sharing the workload, and basically on-call at all hours.

“Yeah, it’s a totally different world,” Johnson said. “Spotters aren’t regularly used in Grand-Am racing.  The seats themselves, you know, are designed to fit all four drivers instead of just molded to one guy and all comfortable in all the things that I would want. The head-and-neck systems are different, so there is a lot more strain on your neck and shoulders. Plus the car is more physical with the braking and the G’s that it pulls in the turns. Obviously, the length of the race (is omnipresent).

“So, there is a much greater physical demand on the body, mentally as well. You’re out on the track with a variety of different not only classes, but as far as drivers and their abilities. It’s really easy to get sucked into situations with some of the GT cars and even some of the Prototype cars.

“(But) I feel since I’ve matured as a driver, yeah, I do appreciate the talent that comes with an endurance race and really enjoy the physical and mental demands that come with it.  Just really think it’s a great series, great cars, the people, everything associated with it is really a good time.  And I enjoy competing in it.”

Johnson has raced in five of the last six Rolex 24s, including the last two with the Stallings crew. In addition to the second-place finish with the GAINSCO team in 2008, Johnson also was part of 2005’s second-place Howard/Boss Motorsports Pontiac Crawford team. He made his first Rolex 24 start with the same team a year earlier and returned in 2007 for not only the Rolex 24 but also that summer’s Brumos Porsche 250 at Daytona with Riley Motorsports. Johnson turned to Stallings’ organization prior to the 2008 event while looking for a team capable of winning the Rolex 24. BSR, which made its Grand-Am DP debut in May 2005, is 0-for-4 in the Rolex 24, America’s premier endurance event.

Johnson pointed to similarities between the organization assembled by Stallings, a Dallas-based businessman/racer, and the juggernaut that has seen Rick Hendrick preside over nine Cup championships since 1995. This season, Johnson and HMS teammates Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon completed an unprecedented 1-2-3 points sweep at the conclusion of the 10-race Chase.

“First and foremost, good people,” said Johnson, speaking of BSR. “People that really enjoy to go racing, and love racing, and because of that, you know, it doesn’t seem like work, all the hours and time that’s put into it. With all the time that goes into it comes the result, so I have a great time working with everyone. Very professional, organized and accomplished race team. So I’ve really, really enjoyed it.  Hopefully as time goes on we can draw more attention to the team and bring in more revenue to help grow the team.”

Vasser said the chemistry developed by this group could translate into BSR’s first Rolex 24 victory. “You see it with Hendrick Motorsports, you see it with Ganassi, all the great dynasty-style teams. The key ingredient is continuity and chemistry. I think it’s most important,” Vasser said.

“Having won two titles I think Jon and I feel like we’ve established ourselves in the series,” said Gurney, whose father, Dan, won the inaugural three-hour Daytona Continental  in 1962. “We hope to continue that (trend) for a long time.  The 24-Hour is our marquee event.  To win it shows, you know, the mettle of the team.  And I know it’s a big goal of Bob Stallings, and it has been from the inception of the team, a big goal for all of us as drivers.

“I love that we’re going back with the same team, Jon and Jimmie and Jimmy.  We’ve all become really good friends.  To attack this race together and really go into it knowing that we’ve all got each other’s back (we) can be totally open about everything.  It’s a great way to go into this race and try to win it.”

Johnson said his unfamiliarity with the high-downforce cars of this series, and the rigors of road-racing, might cast him as the weak link in the BSR lineup.

“Honestly, I think he’s being humble,” Gurney said.  “You know, he’s taken very little time to get up to speed the last few years that he’s done it with us.  Especially the first year we were really surprised.  Just hopped in and we said, ‘Hey, this guy, there’s no worries here at all.’ So we’ve been really impressed with what he’s done. He’s super-disciplined, very focused, and very good in communicating to our engineer (Kyle Brannan) and communicating to all of us. In general just a nice guy to be around. We haven’t really found much negative with him. We love watching him kick everyone’s butt in NASCAR, too.  So a great addition to our team, I would say.”

Fogarty and Gurney, winners of 12 Grand-Am races together since 2007, clearly have established a championship level of chemistry.  Fogarty, who ended 2009 by winning five consecutive poles and six of the final seven, said Johnson’s transition to BSR has been seamless. “I think if you can be comfortable in a draft at the Daytona 500, it’s pretty hard to step outside of your ‘comfort zone,’^” Fogarty said. “So he’s obviously extremely talented, and shows us that every time he steps into one of these Prototypes.”

Stallings noted that while he took about six months to decide on the 5-liter Chevrolet V-8 as the replacement to the Pontiac after a three-year run, his choice of drivers to partner Fogarty and Gurney was a comparative layup.

“The reason we picked Jimmie Johnson and Jimmy Vasser is because we think that gives us the best opportunity to win. And we really want to win this 24-Hour race,” Stallings said. “Winning any race in the Rolex Series is a lifetime achievement award. It’s just very hard to win. But having the continuity and four drivers that know each other and get along well with each other are kind of like the same kind of car.  And also having the experience of running these races, I think it’s a very big advantage.

“I’m also kind of a loyal person. I’m definitely hung-up on American things. I like American teammates, American drivers and American manufacturers. And so having an American-made car was a pretty big deal for me.

“I certainly wouldn’t dismiss the idea that Jimmie Johnson has been a very important part of our team for three years.  We have much more than a tactical…I’m sorry, we have actually a more strategic relationship with Jimmie, and the fact that he’s a GM driver and Chevrolet driver certainly weighed into that process.”

Live coverage of the 2010 Rolex 24 begins on SPEED on Saturday, Jan. 30, at 3 p.m. ET, prior to the 3:25 p.m. ET green flag, and lasts until 10 p.m. Coverage resumes at 7 a.m. ET on Sunday and will run to the finish at 4 p.m. Tickets for the Rolex 24, and all Speedweeks events, can be purchased online at www.daytonainternationalspeedway.com or by calling 1-800-PITSHOP.

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, December 14 2009
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