One of NASCAR‘s all-time winningest drivers, Jimmie Johnson remains a “weak leak” in Rolex 24 Hours competition.
The seven-time premier series champion was behind the wheel on Jan. 30 when the car went over the wall for significant repairs following an earlier accident.
Johnson said he felt confident before entering his ninth Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway.
The feeling didn’t last.
Jimmie Johnson was behind the wheel when his team’s Rolex 24 machine went in the pits for major repairs
Partnered again with Kamui Kobayashi, a two-time Rolex 24 champion, defending 24 Hours of Le Mans titleholder and former Formula 1 pilot, Johnson believed their developing chemistry would put them in the “the best situation ever” to capture the elusive championship.
Anchored by Kobayashi and Johnson, the new unit placed second last year. The two new friends continued to bond during three additional IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship races last year.
“He’s just such a good dude and cool and fun to be around,” Johnson told NBC Sports. “He’s spent a lot of time in the U.K., and he can cuss like a sailor and has a lot of that British swagger.”
Entering their second year as teammates, Johnson said Kobayashi’s influence had aided his non-NASCAR driving skills.
“I’m definitely less of a weak link than last year,” Johnson said.
It didn’t play out that way.
Johnson’s No. 48 machine suffered right rear suspension damage
Teamed with three 24 Hours of Le Mans champions, Mike Rockenfeller, Jose Maria Lopez, and Kobayashi, Johnson’s unit took the lead during the event’s eighth hour. Kobayashi was behind the wheel during the surge.
With Johnson, who won 83 career NASCAR premier series races, taking over for a second time, the team ran into trouble. A blown tire caused Johnson to spin out off the track. He then struck a competitor’s machine, causing major damage to the right rear suspension.
The No. 48 Ally Cadillac also suffered damage after being hit when Lopez, debuting in the event, was driving.
Johnson and company placed 11th overall, 22 laps behind the winning team headlined by Helio Castroneves.
NBC Sports reported Johnson’s post-race description of his team-crippling incident.
“… I was overtaking a P3 car into the night,” Johnson said. “My right rear tapped his front going into the Esses in Turn 2, and with that touch, it broke the rear suspension and sent me off spinning into the grass.”
Despite his pre-race confidence, Johnson proved to be the team’s “weak link.”
Did Johnson and Kobayashi compete in their last Rolex 24 together?
The future of Johnson-Kobayashi’s partnership remains in question.
Kobayashi now serves as Toyota Gazoo’s team principal and will focus most of his attention on the World Endurance Championship Hypercar division races. His availability next year could be in question.
Johnson and Kobayashi’s team was hastily assembled in the winter of 2020. Kobayashi overcame a slow start and a few early-race adjustment hiccups and led a furious final-stint charge for a runner-up finish.
“Last year, I really feel like we gave it away,” general manager Gary Nelson said. “I could come up with excuses, but in Action Express terms, we didn’t execute as well as we could have with the 48 car last year. …”
This year, either, and Johnson, who will turn his attention to IndyCars, was the driver for part of the time when the team couldn’t find the right gears.