Livescore Thursday, April 25
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LE MANS, France (AP) — So many viewed NASCAR’s trip to the 24 Hours of Le Mans as a bit of a joke, nothing more than an expensive “ science project ” marketing play to take a beast of a car to the most elite endurance race in the world.

The Next Gen stock car? Sharing the same historic track with Ferrari, Porsche, Aston Martin and the like?

Rick Hendrick sensed the doubt — maybe even disdain — and understood that racing’s wine-and-cheese crowd had little use for American hillbillies running “NASCAR’s” at their centenary celebration. This isn’t hyperbole: the official broadcast borrowed Darrell Waltrip’s cringey “Boogity! Boogity! Boogity!” cry when the Next Gen was shown on the screen late in the race.

How wrong the skeptics were.

The Garage 56 project more than exceeded expectations. The car finished the race, its biggest goal, but earned respect across the racing world in how it was done.

“I think we covered both sides of the Atlantic,” beamed NASCAR and IMSA chairman Jim France. “It just helps broaden our fan base – the idea of being able to bring a NASCAR car over. Race fans have maybe seen NASCAR on TV but have never had the opportunity to hear one or feel one up close. And we were able to do that in a big event for 24 hours.”

France engineered the project and got the second-year Next Gen invited to Le Mans in a special “Innovative Car” class. It was nothing more than an exhibition — the class didn’t race any other cars.

But this was never a joke to France, who had hoped since his late father, NASCAR founder Bill France Sr., took him to Le Mans in 1962 that he’d someday take a stock car to the Circuit de la Sarthe.

This type of project could only work with Rick Hendrick, the winningest team owner in NASCAR’s 75 years. Hendrick has a deep connection and loyalty to the France family and he runs a buttoned-up organization. If he committed to a project, then his people would be tasked with creating a first-class effort in which NASCAR didn’t wind up looking like fools in France.

Don’t forget Goodyear and Chevrolet, the winningest tiremaker and automaker in NASCAR’s anniversary season. Chevrolet on Sunday won the GT class for the ninth time with its beloved Corvette and also had three Cadillacs entered in the top hyperclass as Americans made a heavy return to Le Mans this year.

Chevy had enough to do without the Garage 56 effort, but in pulling it off was able to show the FIA its motorsports capabilities and prove it is worthy to grant Michael Andretti and Cadillac a spot on the Formula One grid.

The No. 24 Chevrolet Camaro was an animal compared to the other cars. The thunderous V8 engine startled fans and the five former football players who won the class pit crew competition — the only team to use a manual instead of air jack — were the talk of pit lane.

This beast of the ball was now being called “Le Monster,” a force to be taken seriously.

And when the car qualified more than three seconds faster than the entire 21-car GT class, expectations had another significant shift. Being embarassed and finishing the 24-hour race were the early concerns ( the longest race on the NASCAR schedule is 600 miles) but by the time the race started, NASCAR wanted to win the entire GT class.

If not for two mechanical failures in the final five hours, Garage 56 might just have had a chance. For a moment, there was palpable disappointment among the 200-plus in attendance representing all aspects of the NASCAR industry.

When the car was turned over to seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson — an honor to be the driver to finish the race — it was a reward for the ambassador who just weeks ago was the final driver announced in the top 75 in NASCAR history. Johnson got this ball rolling when he retired from full-time driving at the end of the 2020 season and embarked on a list of bucket list races that included partnering Hendrick with France on a sports car team.

Here they were some two-plus years later, at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, shaking off the disappointment of the mechanical failures to celebrate an original goal. The champagne glasses were lined up with 30 minutes remaining. France and Hendrick and Jeff Gordon, the four-time NASCAR champion and HMS vice chairman, were among the crowd in the garage.

On the final lap, the entire contingent went to pit road fence to watch Johnson complete the race. When he took the flag, France waved his hat in the air, Hendrick clapped, Gordon stood and cheered. Everyone beamed with pride and unity in NASCAR — a feeling not so often felt these days amid financial negotiations for both a television package and a new business model between teams and the France family.

“I feel like we had already captured the trophy right when they dropped the green flag,” said Chad Knaus, Hendrick Motorsports’ vice president of competition. “The thing I’m most proud of is that this wasn’t really anybody but a few people’s full-time job. Everybody accepted this task as a passion project and something that they wanted to participate in. And when you get people like that put together, you can do anything.”

On this day, NASCAR was everyone.

When the gates were opened after the race, fans ran toward their heroes. About 1,000 stopped outside Garage 56, watching the NASCAR celebration for a car that finished 39th out of 62 entries.

The fans chanted “Jimmie! Jimmie! Jimmie!” and Johnson walked out for a salute. Next they chanted for “JB! JB!” and 2009 F1 champion Jenson Button pumped his fist. “Did you like the car?” he shouted. They thundered back their affirmation. Next up was Mike Rockenfeller, a two-time Le Mans winner; it was “Rocky” who did most of the early development on the project.

“My heart is full,” Johnson said. “Coming here with NASCAR, Hendrick, Chevrolet, Goodyear. Many of the people here working were on different teams that I won races and championships with. There were so many familiar faces, to have this experience was just off the charts. The fan reception – whether it was at the parade, or on the cool-down lap just now. Even the corner marshals were going nuts. Everything was just incredible. My bucket is full. I’m really happy”

NASCAR left its mark on Le Mans, and it was as a winner.

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AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports



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