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Dale Earnhardt Jr. hails IMSA growth; all but rules out Rolex 24 return

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Once his full-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career comes to an end in three weeks before he joins the NBC Sports team as a broadcaster in 2018, Dale Earnhardt Jr. will have the luxury of picking and choosing where else he’ll race on a case-by-case basis.

But a return to driving in the Rolex 24 at Daytona is an unlikely one, Earnhardt said Friday at Texas Motor Speedway.

Earnhardt’s famous first run in the race with father Dale, then Corvette Racing regulars Andy Pilgrim and Kelly Collins in 2001 saw them end second in the GTO class and fourth overall. Teammates Johnny O’Connell, Ron Fellows, Franck Freon and Chris Kneifel scored a famous overall win for Corvette that year.

He also returned in 2004 co-driving a Howard-Boss Motorsports Chevrolet Crawford with Tony Stewart and Andy Wallace. Late-race suspension failure cost that car an overall win and dropped them to fifth overall, and third in the Daytona Prototype (DP) class.

Because of how the now merged IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship series has increased in overall competitiveness and depth of field, Earnhardt said Friday that jumping in for a one-off is much harder now.

02 FEB 2001: The #3 Corvette GTS will be driven by Dale Earnhardt, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Andy Pilgrim and Kelly Collins during the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona, Florida. DIGITAL IMAGE Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Ferrey/ALLSPORT

“I don’t think I’ll be (driving) at the 24 Hours of Daytona,” Earnhardt told reporters Friday at Texas. “Back when we did those things, it felt easier to do those one-offs.

“That series is so competitive… you can’t come in as a hobby, and it’s ‘I’m gonna come in and have fun.’ It’s so competitive. That series has grown to be so good. It’d be like one of them flirting with NASCAR!”

Earnhardt said he wouldn’t want to be a drain on a lineup either. Rolex 24 lineups feature either three, four or five-driver rotations between the three classes.

“I don’t think I’d have the success I want to have or be in the equipment I want to be in. Working with the 24-hour race, to run that, you want to do it with people you know.

“I drove for Corvette and Crawford (DP). That was really nerve-wracking… and with teammates I don’t know that well and man, I don’t want to be the guy that screws that up. So it’s a completely different experience.

“If I were to do it again, it’d have to be with drivers I’m friends with. So it’s fairly unlikely.”

Earnhardt didn’t rule out attending the race as a spectator, as well as potentially visit other events.

“It’s a very fun race though. Staying up all night long, that’s right up my alley,” he laughed. “It’s such a cool atmosphere with the cars running around. It’s a race I might go have fun as a spectator at. Watch it on person, or watch on TV.”

As far as other events, Earnhardt said he’s limiting his future driving beyond this year to a handful of NASCAR Xfinity Series races with his JR Motorsports team, and perhaps Late Model races.

He’s never attended a Formula 1 race either and hopes to do that soon. Jeff Gordon, who co-drove the winning No. 10 Konica Minolta Cadillac DPi-V.R at this year’s Rolex 24, has been at both the Singapore and Mexican Grands Prix this season. Daniel Ricciardo, meanwhile, said at Circuit of The Americas last month he planned to see Earnhardt this weekend at Texas.

“I’ve never been to a Formula 1 race. It’s something, you have to check that box,” Earnhardt said.

“There’s other series and forms of motorsport that I have equal interest in observing. So that would be awesome. I’m sure there’s opportunities that will present themselves.”

IMSA: Heavy news week leading into Thanksgiving holiday

Photo courtesy of IMSA
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After the weekend and before the Thanksgiving holiday this week, IMSA has rolled out a number of announcements itself, while IMSA could be set for further announcements in the weeks to come starting next week.

Here’s a roundup:

QUALIFYING AT ROAR SET FOR PIT POSITIONS, GARAGES AT ROLEX 24

Here are key notes from IMSA’s Monday release about how Sunday at the Roar Before the Rolex 24 will take on a greater significance:

  • The pit boxes and garages each team will use during the Rolex 24 will now be allocated based on fastest qualifying times set during Sunday’s third and final day of the Roar. Each of the three WeatherTech Championship classes – Prototype (P), GT Le Mans (GTLM) and GT Daytona (GTD) – will have a 15-minute qualifying session on Sunday, Jan. 7.
  • The fastest-qualifying Prototype will receive the first pit box on pit lane starting at pit-in and also will be assigned to the first garage in the Prototype section of the WeatherTech Championship garage. The fastest GTD car will receive the second pit box on pit lane and the first garage in the GTD section, with the fastest GTLM car receiving the third pit box and the first garage in the GTLM section.
  • New for 2018 – P and GTLM will pit together under a full course yellow. Therefore, to give class separation in the pits, P and GTLM teams are assigned pit boxes to ensure they are separated by a GTD Team.

This, coupled with the addition of the first IMSA Prototype Challenge Presented by Mazda one-hour, 45-minute race with two drivers, will make this a more shaken up Roar.

REGS, REGS, GET YOUR REGS

IMSA has released the Sporting and Technical Regulations for 2018 this week. The aforementioned note about P and GTLM teams pitting together is a change from P and Prototype Challenge (PC) class cars pitting together, with GTLM and GTD together as it was this year.

Restart procedures changed will see P cars moved to the lead ahead of GT cars; this created confusion at times throughout 2017 as sometimes another class leader in PC, GTLM or GTD had been the first car behind a pace car.

Each team will be limited to one car change in-season only, subject to “force majeure.”

On the off chance a driver is racing in two cars, his or her maximum drive time will be counted cumulatively between the two cars.

There are other tweaks, of course, but most are largely procedural or within the fine print.

RATINGS REVEALED

The good news with IMSA going down from four classes to three for 2018 is that only one designated pro-am class remains in the form of GT Daytona, which requires at least one Silver (or Bronze) full-season driver alongside the designated pro. Those sneaky “Super Silvers” remain an invaluable asset for using his or her results to their benefit.

The FIA released the initial driver ratings for 2018 this week with a few changes, some young pros going up from Silver to Gold and others getting their request to get downgraded from Gold to Silver approved. Drivers have a couple weeks to appeal if they so desire.

Here’s your friendly reminder of what drivers can be in what GTD cars for the first two races at Daytona and Sebring:

  • Daytona (5 drivers max): GTD: In any nominated two (2) or three (3) Driver combination, a maximum of one (1) Platinum or Gold rated Driver is permitted. In any nominated four (4) or five (5) Driver combination, a maximum of one (1) Platinum and (1) Gold rated Driver are permitted or a maximum of (2) Gold Drivers.
  • Sebring (4 drivers max): GTD: In any nominated two (2) or three (3) Driver combination, a maximum of one (1) Platinum or Gold rated Driver is permitted. In any nominated four (4) Driver combination, a maximum of one (1) Platinum and (1) Gold rated Driver are permitted or a maximum of (2) Gold Drivers.

MAZDA KEEPS ON TESTING, CLOSES ON ANNOUNCEMENTS

The Los Angeles Auto Show, held after Thanksgiving, is a likely landing spot for Mazda Team Joest to reveal, officially, its revised “Evo” version of the Mazda RT24-P and its driver lineup for the 2018 season. While most of the Prototype class lineups (DPi and LMP2-spec cars) have been revealed, Mazda’s has been an exception. In the interim, not long after its Daytona test late last month, they’ve also been testing at Sebring.

FROM SPACE CENTER TO DOWN UNDER

Jordan Taylor undertook testing of a different kind not long ago at, of all places, the Kennedy Space Center. One of this year’s Prototype class champions was undertaking a straight line test in his No. 10 Konica Minolta Cadillac DPi-V.R. Taylor being Taylor, the moment couldn’t pass without him winning at social media (see third tweet).

Taylor goes from down a long runway to down under, visiting his first Virgin Australia Supercars Championship race this weekend at its season finale in Newcastle.

‘MAKING OF A CHAMPION’ PIECES ROLL OUT

The fourth installment of IMSA’s “making of a champion” series highlights Jordan Taylor, who co-drove with brother Ricky to the Prototype class championship this year. These two are part of four done by IMSA so far, along with Pato O’Ward (PC) and Christina Nielsen (GTD). More should follow in the coming weeks.

SPEAKING OF CHAMPS, HINDMAN, AGOSTINI, PRESTIGE WIN LAMBORGHINI WORLD FINAL

The Lamborghini Super Trofeo World Final was held last weekend at the Imola circuit in Italy and the American Prestige Performance team won the World Final overall, with co-drivers Trent Hindman and Riccardo Agostini.

The World Final brings together teams from North America, Europe and Asia that campaign the spec Lamborghini Huracán LP 620-2 in Super Trofeo regional competition. Hindman and Agostini got the weekend off on the right foot by winning the North American championship first, then followed it up at the World Final itself to topple all other domestic and international entries.

You might remember we profiled Hindman last month, as the 22-year-old’s star in the sports car world is clearly on the rise.

Somehow, someway, at the end of the day today we received the title 2017 Lamborghini Super Trofeo World Champions. Race 2 was not perfect and much more nerve racking than we would have hoped but fortunately in the end the job was done. I am honored to be sharing this with @rickyagostini as well as the entire @prestigeperfctr @waynetaylorracing team and I thank them for their incredible effort all year. With this result, we are the first ever American team to win the Lamborghini Super Trofeo World Championship overall. 3/4 overall wins along with the Super Trofeo North America and World titles marks the end of a successful 2017 campaign. Back to reality tomorrow. Thank you all for following us along on this incredible journey.

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