DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The 59th Rolex 24 at Daytona was hardly an easy weekend drive for Jimmie Johnson and Chase Elliott
There were stomach-churning moments of lackluster laps times, nerve-wracking misses in traffic and constant pangs of doubt about whether they were doing more harm than good to their world-class teammates’ chances of winning the prestigious sports car endurance racing classic.
And all that discomfort is exactly why you can expect to see both NASCAR champions back in a sports car on the 12-turn, 3.56-mile road course in the future.
“What I’ve realized is that stress and anxiety, and the butterflies and adrenaline and heart racing, questioning if I can do it — that is what I’ve experienced my whole life, and it makes me feel alive,” Johnson said Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway after starting the race and completing two stints in the No. 48 Ally Cadillac. “And someday. I won’t have that opportunity, but I’m not ready to walk away from that now, and I really do like being uncomfortable in how it makes me feel and how it holds me accountable.
“And, you know I’ve jumped into the deep end of the pool with weights around my ankles here for ‘21 and ’22, but it just makes me feel more alive than that I have in quite some time.”
After his third runner-up finish in the Rolex 24, Johnson will have extra motivation to return for a ninth start in the season-opening event in hopes of earning his first watch.
Elliott also has major incentive just to continue the rapid improvement he was showing in his IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship Series debut. After a very public self-flogging on national TV for a first stint he thought was underwhelming, Elliott improved during his second attempt at 3 a.m. Sunday morning.
That was expected to be his last time behind the wheel of the No. 31 Cadillac, but the defending Cup Series champion got a chance to get back in the car because the team fell out of contention. A gearing problem took 22 laps to repair, and the team changed up its rotation to give full-time drivers Pipo Derani and Felipe Nasr a rest and allow Elliott and Mike Conway to split the final four hours.
Elliott drove a little more than five hours and was in the car when the checkered flag flew on a sixth-place finish in class, eighth overall.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” Elliott said. “This is quite the event. What an amazing race this is. It’s an honor to be a part of it. I hope I get to come back and apply some of the things I’ve learned and be able to be more of a help next time around.”
The awkwardness was appealing for the Hendrick Motorsports driver, who said he chose the Rolex 24 for the same reasons he made his dirt racing debut in the Chili Bowl a few weeks earlier.
“Just being uncomfortable,” he told NBC Sports’ Kelli Stavast. “Getting out of your comfort zone. I think it’s a great thing. It’s something I’ve done a little bit of this offseason and just being open-minded about new things, and there’s a lot of little bits here and there about these type of cars that make them go fast that just take time to learn, for me at least.
“So just trying to put it all together. I’ve enjoyed the challenge probably more than anything else.”
Johnson also was up and down, saying he had “two good stints” (particularly leading in the middle of the night) and “one bad one” (struggling with rhythm and traffic in his last stint).
Johnson didn’t spend as much time as Elliott in the car (just short of three hours and 49 minutes over three turns), but he seemed to enjoy it just as much, even while biting his nails watching teammate Kamui Kobayashi try to chase down winner Filipe Albuquerque.
The seven-time Cup champion promised “I’ll be back again sometime in the future to give it another try” but now will turn his attention to the next challenge: A part-time IndyCar schedule in 2021-22 with Chip Ganassi Racing.
As he learned in a test at Sebring International Raceway, it’ll be an extremely difficult transition – which sounds great to him.
“Emotionally, I’m really excited for the experiences ahead and being able to run in a series I dreamed of running in as a kid is a really special opportunity for me,” Johnson, 45, told NBC Sports’ Steve Letarte and Kyle Petty. “But at the same time, it’s not going to be easy.
“I’m not going to look very good for a while, so I know I have a lot of work ahead of myself, but I’m really enjoying the process and enjoying this journey.”