Jimmie Johnson, pictured at Circuit of the Americas. (HHP/Chris Owens photo)

Jimmie Johnson: From The Coca-Cola 600 To Le Mans

CONCORD, N.C. — On Saturday afternoon, Jimmie Johnson was at home in Charlotte, N.C., packing his suitcase for the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

As one of three drivers who are part of NASCAR’s Garage 56 program, the seven-time Cup Series champion is set to race in the world-renowned endurance contest on June 10-11 at the famed Sarthe Circuit. His co-drivers are former Le Mans winner Mike Rockenfeller and Formula 1 champion Jenson Button 

On Sunday evening, Johnson’s leading obligation was to appear on the starting grid of the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

The Legacy Motor Club co-owner was due for his third Cup Series race of the season, as he is piloting the No. 84 Chevrolet for LMC on a part-time basis this year. The 600-mile marathon around the 1.5-mile oval, which Johnson has won four times in his career, is one of four races he has announced.

On Monday, he had a flight booked to France to begin on-site preparation for Le Mans. The plan was to arrive in Paris by Wednesday for a simulator session for rookie Le Mans drivers to help Johnson better learn the race procedures and protocols.

The NASCAR Garage 56 car is driven during testing for NASCAR’s Garage 56 program at Sebring International Raceway. (Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

However, the weather did little to cooperate, as unrelenting rain fell over Charlotte Motor Speedway on Sunday, postponing the Coca-Cola 600 until Monday afternoon.

Despite the tightened schedule, Johnson has remained optimistic about his options.

“We’ve notified the ACO,” Johnson said. “It appears that they’re willing to work with us and try to figure out how to get me some simulator time on Thursday or Friday, or even Wednesday evening if my flight just gets in late and has me behind.”

But disrupting his calendar has been the least of his worries, as Johnson instead hones in on his behind-the-wheel task of racing at two of the marquee motorsports events in the world.

First up, the Coca-Cola 600.

“I feel about as ill-prepared for a race than I ever have in my life, with the threat of rain and not getting any seat time in a Next Gen car at this particular track,” Johnson admitted.

Previous to the start of the season, the formerly-retired Cup Series driver made laps at the Phoenix (Ariz.) Raceway oval to test the Next Gen car — introduced to the sport two years after Johnson made his exit from NASCAR.

However, that’s the only intermediate oval experience Johnson has at this point.

The tracks he’s raced at so far are Daytona Int’l Speedway — a 2.5-mile superspeedway in Florida — and Circuit of The Americas — a 3.426-mile road course in Texas.

After finishing 31st during the Daytona 500 and 38th at COTA, Johnson wasn’t left with much confidence about his compatibility with the Next Gen car.

Jimmie Johnson aboard the No. 84 Chevrolet. (HHP/Chris Owens)

“I rolled into COTA thinking, ‘Alright, it’s going to be like Daytona.’ And I was mistaken for that. These cars really do drive much differently — the mechanical grip level versus the aero-grip is much different. The shocks and the way the internal bump stops work, in addition to the external bump stops on the car,” Johnson described.

“None of that was taking place when I was in the car last and the car drives so much different as a result. So I’m really under-prepared, or ill-prepared, for this weekend’s race.”

Though its odd for the seven-time champion not to roll onto the track expecting a win, the 47-year-old gracefully defined a “good run” at the Coca-Cola 600 as a top-10 or top-15 finish.

Conquering the Charlotte race remains high on his list of priorities, but his concerns about his next role as a Garage 56 driver also weigh heavy on his mind.   

“All the sports car racing I’ve done to date, I have been in the fastest car. I’ve only had to worry about looking out the windshield and really not, on a consistent basis, being passed in the GT category,” Johnson said. But at Le Mans, “I am concerned about the top division surprising me in the car somewhere in one of these corners.”

Using his mirrors and anticipating the speed of other cars when they approach from behind are two foreign elements Johnson knows he’ll have to adjust to at the French circuit.

But regardless, crossing Le Mans off his bucket list is a dream come true.

“There’s this great excitement in the back of my mind that I know I’m going to jump on a plane Monday or Tuesday and fly across the pond and get into it,” Johnson said. “But it’s just really exciting, but with so many unknowns. It’s hard to really quantify what I’m going to go embark on.”