New year finally takes us away from 2020 – and to start of new racing season

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The best thing about 2020 is the fact it’s almost gone. That means we can be optimistic about 2021.

For me, that means the return of the racing season.

The lure of sports-car racing has always been tempting for NASCAR drivers. Jimmie Johnson is on that long list of stock car drivers who continues to accept the challenge of a twice-around-the-clock race.

Johnson will join Action Express Racing in the No. 48 Cadillac DPiV.R. His co-drivers will be 2019 Indianapolis 500 winner Simon Pagenaud, two-time Rolex 24 at Daytona winner Kamui Kobayashi and former Daytona and LeMans winner Mike Rockenfeller in a second Action Express car.

Action team manager Gary Nelson, the former NASCAR Cup Series Director, last week confirmed the formation of second car for the Jan. 30-31 on the 3.56-mile Daytona International Speedway road course.

“We’ve been talking to Jimmie about running with us for many months,” Nelson said. “It all came together in November with the support of Hendrick Motorsports and their tremendous partner, Ally.

“Jimmie has a lot of experience at Daytona, not only on the oval, but turning into the infield as well. Simon brings a lot of endurance experience and Kamui adds a wealth of car setup knowledge and speed to the car. We won the Rolex 24 with Mike in 2010, so he is familiar with how we operate. I would like to thank fellow IMSA competitor Paul Miller for sharing the 48 number. We’re looking at having a great 10 days in Daytona starting with the Roar Before the 24.”

The Cadillacs have won the last four sports car marathons, including in 2018 when Action Express won with its No. 5 Mustang Sampling prototype.

The other three Cadillac wins were by Wayne Taylor Racing, but Taylor switched to the Acura ARX-05 after Penske Racing withdrew from the series.

Taylor’s void will be filled by Chip Ganassi Racing. The organization that’s won a record six 24-hour races at Daytona will return in a Cadillac with drivers Renger van der Zande and Kevin Magnussen. Additional drivers will be selected later, but Ganassi has a long list of candidates from his NASCAR and IndyCar teams, including four-time Daytona winner Scott Dixon, Kurt Busch, Alex Palou, Marcus Ericsson and Tony Kanaan.

Johnson retired last month as a fulltime NASCAR driver after winning 83 of 686 starts. He will race in selected IndyCar events in 2021, as well as the 24-hour race in Daytona.

Next month’s race will be Johnson’s 10th career sports car start. Eight came at Daytona and one came in 2010 at Watkins Glen International.

“The Rolex 24 At Daytona is one of the marquee races in the world,” Johnson said. “It’s such a challenging event for both team and driver and requires such a high level of concentration throughout. It’s just such a fun and unique race to compete in. This will be the first time I’ve raced with Action Express and have been very impressed with the team and its preparation.

“I’m also excited to have Ally on board and to be co-driving with Simon, Kamui and Mike, who are three world-class drivers with experience in this race and the DPi class. I’ve finished second in this event, so I’m looking forward to trying to get on the top step in 2021.”

Johnson will try to join A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti and Jeff Gordon as the only drivers to win the Daytona 500 at 24 Hours of Daytona.

He also will try to join the ever-growing list of prominent stock-car drivers to win the Daytona sports car race. Kyle Larson, Jamie McMurray, Juan Pablo Montoya, Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, A.J. Allmendinger, Dale Earnhardt, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Clint Bowyer, Michael Waltrip, Mark Martin, Casey Mears, Paul Menard, John Andretti, Darrell Waltrip and Tony Stewart all have appeared in Daytona’s 24-hour main event.

Car owner Rick Hendrick said he expected Johnson and newly-crowed Cup Series champion Chase Elliott to be in the 24-hour race.

“Both of our guys, Chase and Jimmie, will be in the 24 hour race, so I'm looking forward to that,” Hendrick said during Elliott’s post-race celebration.

Hendrick then quickly back-peddled.

“Maybe I jumped the gun on that. I'm not 100% sure. I heard a rumor, okay, so I can't confirm that.”

Elliott hasn’t slowed down in NASCAR’s three-month break. He finished third at the Snowball Derby at Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola, and he’s scheduled to drive a Midget in next month’s Chili Bowl Nationals at the Tulsa Expo Center.

The son of 1988 NASCAR champion Bill Elliott, hasn’t yet confirmed his plans to race at IMSA’s season-opener. Bill Elliott won the smaller GTO Class in the 1987 24-hour race.

The Roar Before the Rolex 24 open practice session is scheduled for Jan. 22-24 and it includes the Motul Pole Award 100 qualifying race to determine the starting grid for the Rolex 24.

The Rolex 24 At Daytona will take the green flag on Jan. 30 at 3:40 p.m.

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