Jenson Button Looks Back at Le Mans, Forward to NASCAR Cup Series

Jenson Button's NASCAR adventure continues at Chicago next week - NASCAR Getty Images photo
Jenson Button’s NASCAR adventure continues at Chicago next week – NASCAR Getty Images photo

Jenson Button won the 2009 FIA Formula One World Championship with Brawn GP, the team that later became the all-powerful Petronas Mercedes AMG squad of the previous decade. Since his F1 career ended in 2017, the now 43-year-old Button has worked a variety of sports car races and co-drove with Naoki Yamamoto to win the 2018 Japanese Super GT series.

Earlier this year, Button had his first taste of NASCAR Cup Series competition in the series’ 75th anniversary year, racing at Circuit of the Americas (COTA) with Rick Ware Racing, where he finished 18th in the team’s No. 15 Ford Mustang. That was prior to going to Le Mans and racing the Garage 56 (experimental and non-points-producing) NASCAR Next Gen Cup Series Chevrolet Camaro ZL1. Racing the reworked Camaro with seven-time Cup Series titleholder Jimmie Johnson and Le Mans winner Mike Rockenfeller, the trio acquitted themselves well, winning the pit stop competition and finishing 39th in the twice-around-the-clock near-summer classic.

Now Button is continuing his American racing adventure as NASCAR alights to the city of Chicago next week for the inaugural Grand Park 220 on the city’s downtown streets. He’s again driving the No. 15 Ford Mustang for Rick Ware Racing – his second of three scheduled races – and is still recovering a bit from his crazy and successful Le Mans experience. “I’m lucky enough that I’m in a position where I can go do certain types of racing for fun; racing at Le Mans is something I’ve always wanted since 2018, but to go back in a stock car was pretty awesome – it was one of the best racing weekends of my career,” he admitted.

“I think we put on an amazing show for NASCAR, such a reception from drivers, teams and from the fans,” he noted of the Garage 55 entry. “I think we definitely have a lot more fans that will be tuning in, especially for Chicago, I think!” What was it about the Cup Camaro ZL1 that entranced so many Le Mans fans? “The sound blew everyone away. A meaty v-8, when you pass people in certain corners, there’d be cheering. Every time I was behind the safety car, I’d go around the track waving to the fans – the uproar when the car passed! I think it’s like that childhood sort of love for it.

“At Le Mans, it was a car that got people smiling and made you feel like a kid again, hearing this gigantic V-8 and the look of the car, and then they look at the lap times and see it’s quick as well (His biggest thrill was passing an LMP2 prototype). But I don’t think lap times really matter,” Button mused. “I think it’s more about the presence of the car, and the sound of the car that got people interested.” Because theirs was a single car going around the 8.5-mile Le Mans track, “It’s not the action-packed racing that we’re used to seeing in Cup.”

The veteran of both circuit and street-course racing is ready for his next assignment, racing on the streets of Chicago. They’re all tight and twisty, he realizes, but with a brand new street course laid out just for NASCAR’s Cup Series, “I think we can put on a great show. It’s going to be a big learning curve for everyone. There’s no room for error; you can’t dive into corners, make a mistake and then the next lap around, take it a little bit easier because you’ll be in the wall with a damaged car. We can’t drive like we did at COTA, because none of us will get around Turn 1. I think there needs to be a little more respect for the circuit, as well as the other cars.”

While he’s had some simulator time on iRacing in preparation for his Chicago adventure on July 2nd, Button was about to take on a four-hour sim test shortly after our conversation. The rationale behind using the simulator is to “get my eye in and understand the circuit, where the circuit goes, its bumpiness and also to work on setup for the race. I think there’s a lot that can be done with setup [in the sim] to get a car that really works on a street circuit,” It’s not so much looking for the lap time, but “getting the car to a place where I feel comfortable with it, to push it harder,” he said.

Button has tried his hand on a variety of circuits since leaving F1 and is enjoying his NASCAR experience – Anne Proffit photo

In his initial NASCAR race at COTA, Button spent the first half of the race wondering why he was there and the second half loving the wheel-to-wheel action and not giving an inch. The rough-and-tumble nature of NASCAR was pretty foreign to the single-seat star, but he loved it. “I feel I had more wheel-to-wheel action in the first lap of the race at COTA than I do in a whole Grand Prix. It’s already enough getting used to driving such a big car, and the style of racing is a big step as well. I’m looking forward to Chicago and then Indy (Indianapolis Motor Speedway) in a few weeks time after that.”

After not having a full-time seat for several years, his NASCAR experience is making Button think about taking on a full-time schedule in the future. “I have jumped around doing lots of different things over the years and I’ve been lucky, that I’ve been able to jump into certain cars here and there to race. I didn’t think I’d want to do a full season again, but I feel I’ll be racing in something next year, doing a full season.

“It’s great doing one-off races, but you don’t get the best out of yourself, and that’s why, for me, doing three races here in Cup has been really good, because I get to spend time with the team. I get to spend more time in the simulator and really work with my engineer and crew chief to develop the skills between them and have a good understanding. It will be in endurance racing,” he revealed, “which will be in either IMSA or WEC, or maybe some more NASCAR in the future. I’ll definitely be leaning on Jim France a little bit for that,” Button said with a big smile.

About Anne Proffit 1266 Articles
Anne Proffit traces her love of racing - in particular drag racing - to her childhood days in Philadelphia, where Atco Dragway, Englishtown and Maple Grove Raceway were destinations just made for her. As a diversion, she was the first editor of IMSA’s Arrow newsletter, and now writes about and photographs sports cars, Indy cars, Formula 1, MotoGP, NASCAR, Formula Drift, Red Bull Global Rallycross - in addition to her first love of NHRA drag racing. A specialty is a particular admiration for the people that build and tune drag racing engines.

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