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56th Rolex 24 At Daytona Rearview Mirror: Five Takeaways
Posted by: ASkyler on Jan 31, 2018 - 06:21 AM
Feature Articles
56th Rolex 24 At Daytona Rearview Mirror: Five Takeaways

Staff Report IMSA Wire Service

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – This weekend’s Rolex 24 At Daytona will be remembered for many reasons. A new distance record was established, a couple of championship-winning, two-car teams proved once again why they’re among the best in the sport, the legendary Scott Pruett called it a career, and a pair of active Formula 1 racers were among the many others who had a great time at Daytona International Speedway.

Here are our five takeaways from this year’s race.

1. Don’t Sleep on Action Express Racing
In the run up to what was one of the most highly anticipated Rolex 24s ever, a tremendous amount of attention was given to vaunted “newcomers” to the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship – namely Acura Team Penske, Mazda Team Joest, and the United Autosports team featuring two-time Formula 1 World Champion Fernando Alonso.

And while all have plenty credentials to be worthy of the attention they received, Action Express Racing proved once again in the Rolex 24 – and in the weeks leading up to the race – why it is worthy of consideration as one of the best racing teams in the world. At the Roar Before the Rolex 24 At Daytona three weeks ago, Felipe Nasr posted the fastest qualifying speed in the team’s No. 31 Whelen Engineering Cadillac DPi-V.R, which earned prime pit and garage real estate for the two-car program.

Come race weekend, Filipe Albuquerque placed the No. 5 Mustang Sampling Cadillac DPi third on the grid in a hotly contested qualifying session, with Nasr landing the No. 31 sixth on the starting grid. And not long after the green flag dropped on Saturday afternoon, it was obvious that both AXR Cadillacs would be tough to beat.

In all, the No. 5 machine shared by Albuquerque, Joao Barbosa and Christian Fittipaldi led an astounding 579 of the record 808 laps completed, including the final 293 consecutive laps. The No. 31 Caddy co-driven by Nasr, Eric Curran, Mike Conway and Stuart Middleton led a total of 66 laps. And, of course, they crossed the finish line 1-2, with the No. 5 team taking the victory.

In Thursday’s Prototype class qualifying session, the top 13 cars turned laps within less than a second of Renger van der Zande’s pole-winning time in the No. 10 Konica Minolta Cadillac DPi, and most experts predicted that any one of at least 10-15 cars – and maybe even more than that – had a legitimate shot at winning the race.

Then Action Express came in and led just short of 80 percent of the race. Truly an impressive performance from the Gary Nelson-led squad, which announced its presence with authority.

2. Speaking of Dominance, How About Ganassi?
In the GT Le Mans (GTLM) class, the race-winning No. 67 Ford GT co-driven by Richard Westbrook, Ryan Briscoe and Scott Dixon completed a total of 783 laps, as did their Ford Chip Ganassi Racing teammates, Joey Hand, Dirk Mueller and Sebastien Bourdais in the No. 66 Ford GT.

The No. 66 machine had two different stints where they led a triple-digit amount of laps, including the first 168 laps and a middle segment when they led 267 laps. In all, the defending GTLM race-winner led a total of 625 laps.

The No. 67, meanwhile, led a total of 149 laps, including the final 76 en route to victory. In all, the Ganassi Fords led a total of 774 laps – 98.8 percent – leaving just nine laps for others, namely the No. 4 Corvette (3 laps led) and the No. 911 Porsche (6 laps led).

Like Action Express Racing in the Prototype class, the pair of Ford Chip Ganassi Racing entries also finished 1-2. It was the 200th victory in the history of Chip Ganassi Racing, and you’d be hard pressed to find any of those victories to be as dominant as this one was.

3. Roar Qualifying Foreshadows Rolex 24 Success
The inaugural qualifying session for Rolex 24 pit and garage selections that took place on Sunday, Jan. 7 at the Roar Before the Rolex 24 turned out to be a pretty strong indicator of success in the race itself, as the fastest Prototype and GTLM qualifiers finished second in the race behind their team cars.

In the GT Daytona (GTD) class, the No. 11 GRT Grasser Racing Team Lamborghini Huracán GT3 went one better, taking the Italian manufacturer’s first ever Rolex 24 win. Co-drivers Mirko Bortolotti, Franck Perera, Rolf Ineichen and Rik Breukers combined to lead a total of 201 laps, nine laps shy of the class-leading total of 210 laps led by the No. 29 Montaplast by Land-Motorsport Audi R8 LMS GT3.

As the clock approached the 24-hour mark, both the Grasser Lamborghini and the No. 48 Paul Miller Racing Huracán shared by Bryan Sellers, Madison Snow, Bryce Miller and Andrea Caldarelli were top GTD contenders, with the No. 48 leading a total of 153 laps itself.

Both cars overcame some adversity to get into position to win. The No. 11 failed the post-qualifying stall test in technical inspection, which sent it to the rear of the grid after Bortolotti had qualified third. The No. 48, meanwhile, underwent changes to its engine, gearbox and electrical components after issues were discovered in final practice Friday morning. The team took the car down to the half-mile New Smyrna Speedway some 12 miles away from Daytona International Speedway on Friday night for a one-hour shakedown test, which clearly paid dividends.

4. Alonso Enjoys Rolex 24 At Daytona Experience
While he undoubtedly would have appreciated a better result than the 13th place he achieved in the No. 23 United Autosports Ligier LMP2 car with co-drivers Lando Norris and Phil Hanson, two-time Formula 1 World Champion Fernando Alonso enjoyed his maiden run in the Rolex 24 At Daytona.

“Positive feeling,” Alonso said after his final driving stint. “Despite the issues and the reliability, it was a very nice experience, the whole event, the test and the quality, the restarts, the stints, the fatigue at night and the transition from night to day, that was one of my stints where it was very nice being on the track at that time.

“I really enjoy the traffic management, the car itself. Maybe the nicest thing was how competitive we felt, because we entered the race with no high hopes because we were never competitive, and we picked up the pace and everyone was smiling in the garage. So that was a nice feeling.”

It was announced Tuesday morning that Alonso – who will compete for McLaren in the 2018 Formula 1 World Championship – will be doing even more sports car racing this year. He will join Toyota for the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the FIA World Endurance Championship.

He has an interest in returning to the Rolex 24 in the future as well.

“I think so,” Alonso said in response to a question on if he’d return. “It’s a race that is in January, where normally the motorsport calendar is quite empty. I think for us drivers, it’s quite convenient to come here to do this race. It’s an iconic race, a prestigious race.

“As I said this is in one part of the year that we are quite relaxed, normally preparing ourselves for our season and whatever category you are. Yeah, instead of being on the bicycle or in the gym, you know, you are driving. So, it’s much better.”

5. Acura Team Penske Shows Promise in Rolex 24
Although they finished ninth and 10th in their WeatherTech Championship debut race, it’s safe to assume the pair of Acura ARX-05 DPi race cars from Acura Team Penske will be top contenders throughout the season.

The team’s No. 7 entry shared by Helio Castroneves, Ricky Taylor and Graham Rahal battled back after falling a lap down early when the door didn’t latch properly on the first driver change when Taylor took over for Castroneves, going on to lead a total of 106 laps during the race. Contact with the No. 31 Cadillac DPi around 6 a.m. on Sunday morning ultimately took the car out of victory contention.

The No. 6 Acura DPi shared by Dane Cameron, Juan Pablo Montoya and Simon Pagenaud led a total of 21 laps and was in contention past the halfway point in the race. However, an alternator problem in the middle of the night ended its victory bid. In the end, the No. 7 finished ninth, with the No. 6 in 10th place.

“Overall, it was a good comeback weekend for Acura Team Penske,” said Castroneves, referencing the team’s return to sports car competition for the first time since the 2009 GRAND-AM Rolex Sports Car Series season. “We qualified up front, ran strong the whole day and finished the race. There is something to be said about finishing a 24-hour race.

“It wasn’t without our problems, that is for sure. It’s too bad that both of our cars were running 1-2 into the early hours of the morning and we both ran into problems. First, the other car had alternator problems and then we got run into by another car while running second. I feel like we had a legitimate shot to win this race, which tells you how prepared we were coming into today. We have nothing to hang our heads about.”

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