Dale Earnhardt Jr.: NASCAR’s Jimmie Johnson, Austin Cindric Can’t Keep Time at Rolex 24

As an NBC Sports analyst who speaks his mind, Dale Earnhardt Jr. often talks his way into trouble with his friends. The 2021 NASCAR Hall of Fame driver again raised eyebrows with comments on the Rolex 24 Hours competition. 

Earnhardt contends NASCAR drivers are not good enough to compete on the world stage. 

Dale Earnhardt Jr.: ‘We’re kind of the last guy they want in the car’

Former NASCAR Cup Series 7-time champion Jimmie Johnson (48) races during a night segment of the 2021 Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway on Jan. 30, 2021, in Daytona Beach, Florida | Brian Cleary/Getty Images

“I don’t,” Earnhart told The Daytona Beach News-Journal. “I mean, you see the discrepancy with some of my peers who compete with these (IMSA) guys … any of us that drive these stock cars and then get in those cars, we’re never the No. 1 guy on the team.

“We’re kind of the last guy they want in the car. It’s gotten more and more difficult for the non-IMSA guy to go into that world and be competitive. “

“The pure speed of those guys is just ramped way up.”

In its 60-year history, the Rolex 24 has been dominated by drivers such as Hurley Haywood and Scott Pruett, who claimed five event victories. Pruett has NASCAR experience, along with three-time winner Juan Pablo Montoya.

NASCAR drivers have succeeded in past Rolex 24 runnings, highlighted by Jeff Gordon winning in 2017, AJ Allmendinger in ’12, Casey Mears in 2006, and Mark Martin in 1995. Few and far between.

A team with Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Dale Jr. participated in the 2001 race and placed fourth overall (second in class), but NASCAR has enjoyed scant recent success. Representing stock-car racing at Daytona on Jan. 29 will be seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson and rookie Austin Cindric.

Earnhardt Sr. and Dale Jr.’s team placed fourth overall at 2001 Rolex 24 

Some motorsports pundits called it a publicity stunt 21 years ago, but Earnhardt Sr. and Dale Jr. proved otherwise. They took their sportscar training seriously. 

To prepare for the endurance sports car race, both father and son spent six days driving a Corvette C5-R at Daytona International Speedway and additional time at Sebring International Raceway. 

Rounding out the squad were Kelly Collins and Andy Pilgrim, two veteran road racers who mentored the eager-to-learn Earnhardts. 

“These guys are no strangers to horsepower,” Collins told The News-Journal in 2001. “They weren’t thrown off by anything (during testing). 

“They were tickled to death to drive something that has brakes and turned left and right really good.”

Past NASCAR Rolex 24 drivers such as Kyle Bush and Chase Elliott are skipping this year’s event.

Questions persist:

  • Could NASCAR participation in IMSA pick up over the next few years?
  • Will offseason drivers follow 2021 Cup champion Kyle Larson’s example and focus more on short dirt-track racing? 
  • Do they agree with Earnhardt Jr.’s recent assessment of NASCAR’s international-level talent?

Jimmie Johnson: ‘I feel like I had a false sense of comfort last year’  

On a NASCAR hiatus since 2020, Johnson continues to explore different forms of racing like IndyCar. He returns to the Rolex 24 for a second consecutive season, and Cindric will compete in his first for Team Penske. A rookie-of-the-year candidate Cindric, 23, spent part of his teen years racing sportscars.

Johnson’s team placed second last year. With 82 career NASCAR premier series wins, he understands the subtle differences between the two disciplines.

“I feel like I had a false sense of comfort last year,” Johnson said. “I showed up (in IMSA), and I was a second, second-and-a-half off, and I was really surprised by that.

“You look at this driver lineup – Formula 1 drivers, accomplished IndyCar drivers, accomplished sportscar drivers – it is so stacked and so much more intense than I thought a year ago.”

Earnhardt Jr. doesn’t think current NASCAR drivers are good enough. He could be correct, but Johnson and Cindric will be out to prove him wrong.

Like Sportscasting on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter @sportscasting19. 

RELATED: Dale Earnhardt Jr. is ‘Done Taking Risks,’ Next Gen Car Tests Not Alluring Enough to Spark NASCAR Resurrection