DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Bubba Wallace and John Hunter Nemechek have raced in big events before, the Daytona 500 probably the biggest races of their careers to date.
Even so, neither NASCAR driver had ever seen anything to the extent of the hoopla at the Rolex 24 at Daytona, which starts Saturday. They aren't actually entered in the most prestigious endurance race in the United States, but Toyota put a car together for Wallace, Nemechek and Corey Heim for Friday's opening race of the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge.
The No. 23 Toyota GR Supra GT4 EVO prepared by Smooge Racing will compete in the Grand Sport class of the BMW M Endurance Challenge at Daytona International Speedway, a staple on the NASCAR circuit, but where the stock car drivers are a bit overwhelmed by the talented drivers from around the world who are here for Saturday's main event.
“I think this is a completely different atmosphere. I think with so many different manufacturers, so many different battles in different cars, so many classes,” said Nemechek. “It's Daytona, so obviously it has to be big, right? The atmosphere at Daytona is always different than anywhere else.”
Wallace plans on staying in Florida through next month's Daytona 500 and joked he'd been bumped from his usual spot in the driver motorhome lot to “an overflow area.”
Wallace said the deal was put together when he reached out to Toyota Racing Development asking for “some massive help after my road course career in the Cup Series." His best career finish on a road course was fifth at Indianapolis in 2022 and Wallace last year also asked six-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon for advice.
“I told Toyota whatever it takes to get more seat time, whatever you have to do. And they brought this to me and said I'd be with John Hunter and Corey Heim and I knew it would be a fun time.”
Wallace qualified the black and gold car 20th in the 28-car GS field on Thursday. Sean McAlister won the pole for CarBahn Motorsports.
Wallace drives for Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan at 23XI Racing. Nemechek, who has worked his way back into the Cup Series after stepped back to first the Truck Series and then Xfinity, is now firmly in the Toyota camp and will drive for Jimmie Johnson at Legacy Motor Club in Cup this year.
He was thrilled for the opportunity.
“It goes back to us kind of asking Toyota to get us in something that would get us more road course experience,” Nemechek said. "We want to be able to drive everything and compete and learn to the best of our ability, and being able to hop in different vehicles at different times just makes you adaptable in every situation, which makes us better as drivers.”
Heim will race full-time this season in the Truck Series for Toyota, but earlier Thursday was named Legacy's simulator and reserve driver, as well as a reserve driver for 23XI. Nemechek had held that role for 23XI last year and Wallace recommended Heim to team leadership to replace Nemechek.
“I'm super excited for this opportunity and super excited to take on this year and be part of those two teams,” Heim said. “I don't know what the future holds for me, but this is a big step in the right direction.”
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