Photo courtesy of IMSA

New (but familiar) faces emerging in the IMSA paddock with Felipe Nasr, Tristan Vautier and Matt McMurry

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As an international event that attracts drivers and teams from around the world, the Rolex 24 at Daytona sometimes features unknowns to the American sports car racing scene. And while they don’t always feature prominently in the storylines of the event, last weekend’s Roar Before the 24 test session indicated that quite a few could run at the sharp end of the grid.

Here are drivers who could make their marks at the Rolex 24, which will be held Jan. 27-28 at Daytona International Speedway.

FELIPE NASR – WHELEN ENGINEERING ACTION EXPRESS RACING

Former Sauber F1 driver Felipe Nasr likely wasn’t on many lists as a driver positioned to be in a leading role, but he stole the spotlight in a big way at the Roar.

The 25-year-old Brazilian set the fastest time of the weekend, pacing the Sunday afternoon qualifying session to give the No. 31 Action Express DPi-V.R top pick of pit and garage stall.

Though new to American racing, Nasr was a star on the rise three years ago in Formula One. As a rookie with Sauber in 2015, he scored points in two of his three races, finishing fifth at the Australian Grand Prix and eighth at the Chinese Grand Prix.

His 2015 campaign in F1 totaled six finishes in the points, a strong showing for a rookie driver with one of the smaller teams. However, his 2016 campaign went off the rails. He had only one points finish – ninth at the Brazilian Grand Prix –  and was ousted when the team signed Pascal Wehrlein for the 2017 season.

Sidelined for 2017, Nasr looked stateside for an opportunity and landed a good one with Action Express, which had victories with both of its cars in 2017 and won three consecutive Prototype championships from 2014-16 in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.

Don’t be surprised if Nasr is a fixture at the front of the field — not just during the Rolex 24 but during the 2018 season.

TRISTAN VAUTIER/MATT MCMURRY – SPIRIT OF DAYTONA RACING

The resurgent (and rebranded) Spirit of Daytona Racing spent a lot of time at the front of the Prototype class, ranking in the top four of every session except the last (which suspension damage ended early for the team).

After struggling with three chassis in 2017 (two Multimatic/Riley LMP2s before switching to a Ligier JS P217 and getting a win), the team’s rebound extends to its drivers.

Full-time driver Tristan Vautier is also on the comeback trail in the American racing scene. A champion of the 2012 Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, Vautier seemed on track for stardom in the IndyCar Series after a promising 2013 rookie campaign.

But he didn’t return to IndyCar until 2015, running a partial season with Dale Coyne Racing. Over the past two seasons, he raced only once in IndyCar, subbing for the injured Sebastien Bourdais in June 2017 at Texas Motor Speedway (where he ran in the top five much of the race prior to a lap 151 crash).

Aside from his sporadic presence in IndyCar, Vautier has been working on a budding sports car career. He contested the entire Blancpain GT Series Sprint Cup in 2016, winning a race along the way. And he spent the 2017 season as a full-time IMSA competitor, piloting a Mercedes-AMG GT3 for SunEnergy1 Racing. He set a GT Daytona class record on his way to scoring a pole at the 2017 Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring.

Alongside Vautier, Matt McMurry also represents something of an unknown quantity. At only 19, the Phoenix native lacks the seasoning in a lot of the Prototype class’ heavy hitters.

A closer look at his career reveals a driver who is remarkably accomplished. In 2014, he became the youngest driver to enter and finish the 24 Hours of Le Mans (with Caterham Racing).

McMurry also is a veteran of the Rolex 24 with three previous starts, one from the pole position with Michael Shank Racing in 2015 and two in the GT Daytona class with Park Place Motorsports in 2016 and 2017.

Now with a high-profile team seeking to be a contender, Vautier and McMurry could become household names for race fans in 2018.

GRT Grasser Racing Team

From the “Where did they come from?” file, GRT Grasser Racing Team – a full-time Blancpain GT team slated to run only the Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup events in IMSA – emerged from a very deep GT Daytona class as the fastest entry from the Roar Before the 24.

But a quick glance at its record in European sports car competition reveals a bit of a powerhouse, especially in its recent history. Drivers Mirko Bortolotti and Christian Engelhart brought home a 2017 Blancpain GT championship, and Engelhart and Rolf Ineichen won the 2017 ADAC GT Masters season finale.

It remains to be seen how GRT Grasser Racing Team will perform in the Rolex 24, but its prowess at the Roar put them among the GT Daytona powers. And given that last year’s GTD winner was an underdog in Alegra Motorsports, GTD could be primed for another unexpected winner.

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GoDaddy to sponsor Patrick in ‘Danica Double’ at Daytona, Indy — now all she needs are rides

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By The Associated Press

Danica Patrick is going back to green.

GoDaddy Green, to be exact – a fitting color for her farewell tour.

The company will sponsor Patrick in the upcoming “Danica Double” that will close out her racing career, The Associated Press has learned. Patrick has no ride yet for next month’s Daytona 500 or the Indianapolis 500 in May, but she now has the financial backing to pull it off.

This time around, the original GoDaddy Girl will symbolize the new core mission of the company that helped make her one of the world’s most recognizable athletes.

“There’s this great story: I left IndyCar with GoDaddy on my car, I started NASCAR with GoDaddy on my car, I’m most recognized as the GoDaddy green car and driver, and so to finish up my career that way feels appropriate,” Patrick told the AP from Scottsdale, Arizona.

Her final race will be the Indy 500, an appropriate choice because it was “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” that rocketed Patrick and GoDaddy into pop culture notoriety.

GoDaddy and Patrick grew up together. The company switched series with her and marketed her as a strong, sexy woman in 13 Super Bowl commercials – a record appearance for celebrities. Now, the company is most interested in Patrick the budding businesswoman who is firmly closing the door on her racing career and rebranding herself as an entrepreneur . She has a book out, an apparel line, a wine label and confirmed to AP this week that she’s dating Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

“Our goals are so well-aligned,” Barb Rechterman, the chief marketing officer of GoDaddy, told AP. “She’s passionate, tenacious and creative just like so many of our customers who are also looking to leverage the power of the internet and turn their `side hustle’ into a full-time business. Danica absolutely epitomizes the heart of our GoDaddy customers.”

Prepare to hear a lot about the “side hustle” as GoDaddy climbs aboard the so-far fledgling “Danica Double.”

Patrick announced in November she would end her driving career with the Daytona 500 and Indy 500, but didn’t have a deal completed for either race. Still doesn’t. Yet somehow, Patrick always figures a way to get what she wants. Talks ended with Chip Ganassi Racing about a possible ride, and late last month, Patrick said, she called former GoDaddy founder Bob Parsons and asked about a reunion.

GoDaddy has rebranded since it last teamed with Patrick. The company now touts itself as “the world’s largest cloud platform dedicated to small, independent ventures,” and there’s no better spokeswoman than Patrick, who is in the next chapter of her life and her brand.

GoDaddy pulled out of racing after the 2015 season, and Patrick hasn’t had the same level of funding and marketing support since. Patrick has slowly reshaped her image, first into a Instagram model and is now a full-blown lifestyle guru. She realized – at the age of 35 – she was on her own.

She and GoDaddy aligned for a splashy move into NASCAR, where she was glamorous off the track but only mediocre on it. Through all of this, she was married, divorced, spent five years dating fellow driver and competitor Ricky Stenhouse Jr., and then seemed to find herself through a tailored diet, exercise and a healthy lifestyle.

She is cutting the cord on racing after Indy, and her focus is on a sense of well-being far away from the track.

“Their business is so perfectly paired to what is going on with mine, so when we sat down and met, it was like, `Let’s talk about our business. Let’s talk about the messaging. How does this work?”‘ Patrick said. “And this is undeniably perfect for both of us. Not only is it a huge two races and the biggest two races of the year, but on top of that, you have so much `side hustle’ going on, and all the messaging and our brands, and where we are going is so perfectly paired.”w

GoDaddy can help Patrick move on to whatever it is for racing’s former “It Girl.” The company will help her streamline her online presence. Patrick, for the company, is back as a neon green-and-yellow symbol to all the wannabe entrepreneurs chasing dreams.

She’ll get those rides, too. Patrick said she knows she will because she believes she will.

“That’s just the way the universe works,” she said. “You have to ask for what you want. Things have taken a long time with this, but you just have to go with the flow on these things. The universe is not on your time schedule.”

More AP auto racing: https://racing.ap.org/