The Rolex 24 at Daytona is special enough that it doesn't need a pair of NASCAR champions to boost its appeal. The race is for the best in the world, in the finest performance vehicles, in front of auto enthusiasts celebrating the start of the racing season.
The Rolex doesn't need Chase Elliott or Jimmie Johnson.
Instead, both champions feel the need to be here.
The gritty, twice-round-the-clock journey through Daytona International Speedway is a celebrated event that draws pure racers capable of competing in anything with four wheels. Johnson and Elliott want in on the action, even though it means giving up an open weekend for a long grind in an unfamiliar car.
The headliners of this weekend's race at their core want to be known as racers beyond NASCAR.
Elliott was already NASCAR’s most popular driver before he won his first Cup Series title last November in what was Johnson's final NASCAR race. The title gave Elliott the cache to step outside stock cars. He's 25 and wants to race anything he can.
Over the last two months, Elliott ran a super late model at the Snowball Derby in Pensacola, a sprint car in Oklahoma for his first Chili Bowl,and next is his first time in a sports car at the Rolex.
He wants to shape himself as a true racer, the kind who can and will race anything. He was mentored by his Hall of Fame father, Bill Elliott, who had his own interests outside of NASCAR.
“When I was a kid growing up, he wasn’t really a car guy. He enjoyed airplanes and bulldozers, he could drive all that stuff, right? Like, if it had a motor, he could operate it no matter what it was," Elliott said. “I think that same thing applies to the racing side of things. Just be diverse. Get in as much stuff as you can get in.”
Johnson wants the diversity he couldn't have during his run through NASCAR's record books. He will be a 45-year-old IndyCar rookie this season running street courses and ovals, a schedule that gave him time to return to the Rolex for the first time since 2011.
Johnson started on dirt bikes in California and would have been an IndyCar driver if not for the 1990s shift of opportunities to NASCAR. It was a business decision that paid off with a record-tying seven titles, but little free time for the father of two to tackle his bucket list.
His first year of semi-retirement begins with a stacked lineup of drivers: Johnson is sharing the car with Indianapolis 500 winner Simon Pagenaud, two-time reigning Rolex winner Kamui Kobayashi and Mike Rockenfeller, a former Rolex and Le Mans winner.
The No. 48 Cadillac is in the Rolex only to win. It's a one-off Action Express entry fielded in a partnership between NASCAR chairman Jim France and Rick Hendrick, who sent Chad Knaus among the handful of Hendrick crew members assisting the entry. Ally, a top Hendrick sponsor that backed Johnson his final two NASCAR seasons, is funding the Rolex ride.
Johnson is the weak link in his lineup, so Action Express used Sunday’s first-of-its-kind qualifying race as a practice session. He got nearly 100 minutes in the car, in wet conditions, too, as the team didn't bother to race for the championship points on the line.
Elliott is in the other Action Express car, the one that races the full season for the championship and wanted those points. So he was sidelined in the qualifier by regular driver Pipo Derani and Felipe Nasr, who won the pole to give Elliott a Rolex 24 front row start to add to the resume.
It all makes for an uneven spotlight for Elliott and Johnson, just two sightseers in a field of sports car superstars. The shift of the attention is good for the Rolex, even if the race that begins Saturday doesn't need the validation.
“Daytona is our crown jewel, the biggest race of our season,” explained Derani. “The visibility they bring, the knowledge they bring from other series, experience it is always great to have and it’s going to be great fun sharing the experience with these guys.”