DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — It’s no secret that IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship star Jordan Taylor is a NASCAR enthusiast who has long dreamed of driving in a Cup Series race.
For most drivers, if that opportunity ever arrives, it’s usually with a smaller team or perhaps even a part-time effort. But when Taylor recently got “The Call,” it came from Hendrick Motorsports, the most successful organization in NASCAR history.
With 2020 Cup Series champion Chase Elliott sidelined several weeks by a broken leg sustained in a snowboarding incident, Hendrick needed to temporarily fill the seat of its No. 9 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1.
Short-track ace Josh Berry was retained to contest the oval races that Elliott will miss, while Taylor was tabbed to race this weekend at the Circuit of The Americas road course in Austin, Texas.
While the circumstances are not ideal, competing in the Cup Series car at COTA is still an amazing opportunity for Taylor and gives him the chance to expand his relationship with Hendrick, which is fielding the Garage 56 collaborative entry between NASCAR, IMSA and Chevrolet at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in June.
Taylor is part of that effort, serving as coach, mentor and potential relief driver for the nominated lineup of Jimmie Johnson, Jenson Button and Mike Rockenfeller. It was the Garage 56 connection that convinced Chad Knaus, Hendrick’s vice president of competition, that Taylor was the best choice as the road course substitute for Elliott.
“Super exciting, obviously, and very unexpected,” Taylor said of the NASCAR opportunity prior to tackling Saturday’s Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring. “Obviously being involved with the Garage 56 thing, I’ve been working with the Hendrick guys for a few months. When I signed up with them, Chad said, ‘I know this (relief driver role) isn’t what you wanted, but just being involved, you never know what it may lead to.’
“I’m super thankful for the opportunity,” he added. “It’s definitely intimidating to go into the race weekend in one of the best cars, but at the same time, not that many guys get that chance to be in such a good car.”
Stepping Into The Known…And Unknown
As the Garage 56 Chevrolet Camaro is heavily derived from NASCAR’s Next Gen Cup car, Taylor has some idea of what to expect when he slides behind the wheel this weekend. He’s also watched hours of in-car video footage and logged as much time as possible in the driver-in-the-loop simulator at General Motors’ Charlotte Technical Center in North Carolina.
Still, when he steps into the No. 9 on Friday afternoon, it will be a step into the unknown.
“If the race was in three weeks, I would have moved to Charlotte for three weeks and spent as much time with the team as possible to get as much of an understanding as I can and get ingrained with Hendrick,” Taylor said. “(Crew chief) Alan Gustafson and Chase are texting me, and they’re the guys I can bounce questions off to try and get an idea how close the simulator can be to real life and understand what the differences will be.
“I’m doing a ton of homework and preparation so when I get to the track, it’s just understanding how to drive the car,” he added. “The car couldn’t be any more different than the Corvette we drive, and even the Garage 56 car. I know a lot of people think it’s going to be close to that, but it’s seven or eight seconds in lap time difference around COTA. So, it’s a different animal.”
Knowing the Track Should Help
One advantage for Taylor is his familiarity with Circuit of The Americas.
He raced IMSA prototypes four times at COTA, winning twice, and more recently participated in Garage 56 testing. He is also fortunate that because COTA is the first road course on the Cup Series schedule, NASCAR is allowing 50 minutes of free practice. At many tracks in the post-COVID era, Cup Series competitors often go straight into qualifying without any practice whatsoever.
“When I signed up for it, there was only going to be 20 minutes (practice time), and I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this is going to be insane,’” Taylor said. “Hopefully, they’ll give us a couple sets of tires, because it will be good to get a run, do a couple setup changes and get another set of tires to kind of understand how to use the new tire for qualifying, how the tires drop off and how to maybe manage them. That’s just another massive thing we’ve never experienced coming into the Cup Series.
“And honestly the biggest part is understanding the pit stop procedure. I’m used to a pit speed limiter button; they’ve got to watch the dash. We tried that one time in the simulator, and it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
From Dan Gurney to Boris Said, NASCAR features a lengthy history of “Road Course Ringers” brought in for those rare occasions when stock cars turn both left and right. At COTA, Taylor won’t be the only road racing specialist in the field.
Button and Kimi Raikkonen, both Formula 1 champions, are entered. So is seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Johnson, fresh off his recent IndyCar experiment and newly minted as a co-owner of the Legacy Motor Club Cup team.
Despite the combined pedigree of Johnson, Button and Raikkonen, expectations at COTA are somehow higher for Taylor. That’s what happens when you step into the championship-winning car normally occupied by NASCAR’s perennial Most Popular Driver.
“I know there’s a lot of hype about Raikkonen, Jenson, Jimmie and myself coming,” Taylor acknowledged. “I don’t even want to throw my hat in the same ring with those guys. I would be super excited to watch this race just to see how those guys would do against all the Cup guys.
“I know it’s a unique situation that I’m jumping in one of the best cars,” he added. “If anybody has a shot of jumping in and figuring it out, hopefully it’s going to be in a Hendrick car. The only excuses are going to be the driver not figuring it out. That’s why I’m taking it so seriously and preparing as much as I can to hit the ground running.”