Jordan Taylor gets the call for NASCAR debut at COTA: 'A dream come true, for sure'

Jordan Taylor gets the call for NASCAR debut at COTA: 'A dream come true, for sure'

Jordan Taylor’s phone rang Monday, and on the other end was Hendrick Motorsports vice chairman Jeff Gordon — yes, the same Jeff Gordon that has the full allegiance of Taylor’s alter-ego Rodney Sandstorm, who is never seen without his vintage Rainbow Warrior jacket and trademark jorts.

“Would you be available?” was Gordon’s question, pointing toward an open interim seat in Hendrick’s No. 9 Chevrolet with Chase Elliott sidelined for several weeks by a leg injury. Presented with the opportunity for his NASCAR Cup Series debut in a fill-in role for the Circuit of The Americas later this month, Taylor’s response came quick.

“I was like, definitely, no question. What a ridiculous question that is, if would I want to do it,” Taylor says with a laugh. “Yeah, definitely.”

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Gordon told Taylor he’d keep him posted, that the team was still sorting out the necessary arrangements. Less than 24 hours later, Taylor walked in on a phone conversation with Chad Knaus, Hendrick’s VP of competition. “Hey, Jordan just walked in,” Taylor recalled Knaus saying. “I’ll put you on speaker.” The next voice Taylor heard was Gordon’s: “Hey, so it’s a done deal, if you’re up for it.”

“I’m like, 100 percent. I’m in. Whatever it takes. I’ll move to Charlotte for the next two weeks if I need to, to prep for it,” Taylor told by phone Wednesday during a break in Garage 56 Le Mans testing at the same COTA circuit. “So it was amazing. It’s amazing that it has come full circle with Jeff himself, from back meeting him and racing with him in 2017 and always talking about one day doing a road course. I don’t think either of us ever imagined it would be in a top Cup car like this driving for him. But it’s, yeah, a dream come true, for sure.”

Taylor, a four-time IMSA champion, was announced Tuesday as one of the two drivers set to substitute for Elliott in the No. 9 Chevrolet in the coming weeks. Xfinity Series standout Josh Berry, who was a late-hour fill-in for Elliott last weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, will return to handle the oval-racing duties. But the EchoPark Automotive Grand Prix on March 26 (3:30 p.m. ET, FOX, PRN, SiriusXM) will belong to Taylor, who has two IMSA victories on the 3.41-mile road course in Austin, Texas.

“I mean, it’s honestly hard to believe and still kind of feels like it’s a little bit of a dream,” Taylor said. “Talking with Jeff Gordon, Chad Knaus, (No. 9 crew chief) Alan Gustafson, arranging things to get to the shop to do seats and sim time, it’s still a little surreal. Still going through the paces, it still feels like it happened yesterday and we’re getting in the race car tomorrow, so it feels a bit rushed. But obviously I’ve always talked about openly wanting to do a road course race in a NASCAR, and never in my craziest dreams would have expected it to be in pretty much the best car with the best team possible.

“Obviously, under really unfortunate circumstances with Chase being unable to drive right now, so I was super-honored to be asked to fill in for COTA for them to have the belief in me to do a good job. But yeah, I’m hoping to just make everyone proud and prove to them that they made the right decision.”

Taylor expressed his gratitude for the opportunity on social media shortly after the team’s announcement, hinting that “a heck of a learning curve” awaited him. It promises to be a busy handful of weeks for the 31-year-old sports car veteran, who is wrapping up a two-day test as a driver coach and reserve pilot for the Garage 56 project. He will compete in IMSA’s Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring on March 18, a week before NASCAR arrives at COTA.

Aside from those already scheduled engagements, Taylor says he hopes to immerse himself in preparations on the NASCAR side of things and to draw on Hendrick Motorsports’ resources.

“I’ve already told Chad and Alan that I’ll make myself available any day that I can around my commitments to the Sebring 12-hour next week,” Taylor said. “I can be up there any of those other days to spend with the team and get an understanding of what I need to do to prepare, whether it’s pit-stop practice or sim time. Unfortunately, there’s no way to actually drive a real car to get a feel for it, so that’s all going to come down to race weekend. There’s a lot of amazing people at Hendrick Motorsports, a lot of amazing drivers that I can kind of reach out to and talk to, to get tips here and there. So I’m sure we can prepare as much as possible, but I’m sure once we get to the race track, it’s gonna be a completely different animal to kind of figure out, but it’s gonna be a really cool challenge.”

Taylor’s name adds more intrigue to an already compelling entry list for the first road course of the 2023 Cup Series schedule. IndyCar regular Conor Daly is set to compete with The Money Team Racing at COTA, and Trackhouse Racing announced earlier Wednesday that Kimi Räikkönen will join the field through its Project 91 initiative.

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Taylor said that he’s looking forward to joining in on the participation from other walks of motorsports, but that his chance to mix it up with stock-car regulars in the No. 9 Chevy holds its own appeal.

“It’s gonna be awesome,” Taylor said. “I mean, I’ve known Conor since we were kids and racing against each other, so that’ll be full circle as well. Watching Kimi Räikkönen race Formula One all those years when I was growing up was awesome, so to kind of share the race track with someone like him will be super special. But the same thing goes for all the Cup regulars, you know. I grew up watching all these guys compete and race, so I feel like I know them in some aspects from watching them on TV so much and I kind of know a lot of the racing styles, so maybe I know who to kind of watch out for and who I can lean on a little bit more.

“But yeah, I think it’s going to be a crazy weekend. I think it’s gonna be a lot to take in, but I’m definitely gonna do my homework and come to the weekend as prepared as possible, kind of knowing the guys that I’m racing against.”

Taylor officially joined the Garage 56 program in January, taking on a key role in bringing a Next Gen Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 to the 24 Hours of Le Mans classic June 10-11. His sports-car expertise and long-running relationship with Chevrolet’s Corvette racing program made him a natural choice to work alongside primary drivers Jenson Button, Jimmie Johnson and Mike Rockenfeller.

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The Garage 56 project has two tests in the books already this year — Jan. 31-Feb. 1 at Daytona and Feb. 20-21 at Sebring — both with a focus on endurance. The team’s aspirations for this week’s test at COTA are building speed and feeling out the limits for making adjustments.

“Obviously, our Sebring 24-hour test was very strong, and I think that was kind of the true test before going to Le Mans,” Taylor said. “This one is more performance-based to get some lap time and pace out of it, just doing some more handling work on that aspect. So, it’s been interesting. We’ve done a lot of big swings on setups to kind of get an idea of what the car does to kind of prepare ourselves for what we need to do at Le Mans so yeah, it’s been super positive.

“I think we’ve got one more real track test before heading over there, so this one’s kind of one of our key tests to kind of lock everything down from a parts point of view and those things. It’s been good so far, and we’ve got one afternoon to go to get some more laps. Flawless test so far, I’d say.”