Did final half-hour ruin an otherwise great Rolex 24? (UPDATED)

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IMSA officials were surely hoping this year’s Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway would be an awesome debut for the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship and a new era of North American sports car racing.

And outside of the horrific crash yesterday that sent drivers Memo Gidley and Matteo Malucelli to the hospital, it was looking like just that going into the final hour of the race today, with tight battles for victory ensuing in nearly all of the classes.

But instead of being hailed as an out-and-out classic, this year’s Rolex (won by Action Express Racing) will likely be remembered by some for its chaotic finish, which evolved over the final half-hour and transformed the race into something more akin to a NASCAR-style “green-white-checkered” rush.

With about 22 minutes to go, Leh Keen had just taken the No. 22 Alex Job Racing Porsche out of the pits but then slid off the track at Turn 2, and bounced into the nearby tire barriers.

The impact inflicted some front-end damage, but Keen was able to keep the car going out of that and almost immediately came back onto the track. However, that didn’t stop IMSA from throwing a full-course yellow in surprisingly quick fashion – bunching up the field for what would turn out to be a final, eight-minute dash when the green returned.

In hindsight, Keen’s incident meriting a full-course yellow was iffy at best, considering how fast he was able to get his wounded Porsche on course again. But while that may have caused an eye-roll or two, the conclusion to the GTD duel between Level 5 Motorsports’ Alessandro Pier Guidi and Flying Lizard Motorsports’ Markus Winkelhock would prove more stunning.

After the two had made contact in the bus stop chicane shortly following the green flag, Pier Guidi overshot the same corner on the penultimate lap but took the lead back from Winkelhock as the white flag came out. Then in the infield, Winkelhock and his Audi came up to battle side-by-side with Pier Guidi in his Ferrari.

The two gave no quarter to the other but didn’t appear to make contact before Winkelhock went off-course, allowing Pier Guidi to pull away for the win. Instead, IMSA chose to give Pier Guidi and the No. 555 team a time penalty for avoidable contact, which meant Winkelhock and his No. 45 squad were dubbed GTD class winners.

The decision was met with surprise and shock, and MotorSportsTalk’s man on the ground, Tony DiZinno, confirmed that IMSA officials were discussing the final outcome in GTD. Several hours after the finish, IMSA announced that they would reverse their original decision and declare the No. 555 team as GTD class winners after a review of the last-lap incident.

Article 48, Section 3 of IMSA’s TUDOR Series rulebook says that any driver who is found by the Race Director to have caused “avoidable contact with another competitor, whether or not such contact interrupts the other competitor’s lap times, track position or damages other competitor’s Cars, and whether or not such actions result in actual contact, may be warned or penalized.”

So, IMSA was within its right to issue the original penalty, even if you may think the rule is misguided because their was no contact on the final lap.

But it begs the question of why that penalty wasn’t issued right after the two had come together in the bus stop. So, even though IMSA officials have decided to overturn their call on Pier Guidi and give the No. 555 the class victory, they still appeared to have missed one.

It’s a shame we’ve had to focus on this, because outside of this and the Gidley-Malucelli crash, the 2014 Rolex was really fun to watch. And the fact that there was a very sizable crowd to attend the festivities bodes well for the new TUDOR Championship. They have several positives to build upon as they continue deeper into their inaugural season.

But one can’t help but wonder if today’s finish has put a damper on an otherwise great event.

Mario Andretti says Colton Herta could be next American star in F1

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Mario Andretti’s last Formula One victory is also the last by an American driver in more than 42 years on the international open-wheel road racing series.

If you had told Andretti that while he was celebrating on the Grand Prix of the Netherlands podium on Aug. 27, 1978 at the Vandzoort circuit, he wouldn’t have believed it.

“Absolutely not,” Andretti told Kyle Petty during the most recent “Coffee With Kyle” episode (video above). “It’s a shame. Somehow we have so much talent here, and either there’s no invitation or something there. But I think it’s time to give some of this young talent that, in my opinion, is absolutely capable.”

The Dutch GP was the last of Andretti’s 12 victories in F1 and came during his championship season. No one since has come close to matching his success in F1.

Mario Andretti drives his Lotus-Ford to victory in the 1978 Grand Prix of the Netherlands (Bernard Cahier/Getty Images).

Andretti’s son, Michael, took a full-time ride with McLaren in 1993 but left with three races remaining in a season marred by crashes and mechanical problems.

Scott Speed was the last American to run a full F1 season in 2006, and Alexander Rossi made the most recent F1 start by a U.S. driver in 2015. Rossi has said he has no desire to return to racing in Europe after winning the 2016 Indianapolis 500 and becoming an IndyCar championship contender.

But Mario Andretti believes Andretti Autosport has another rising star with F1-caliber ability.

“Colton Herta is one that comes to mind,” Mario Andretti said. “As a young lad, his dad sent him to Europe, he was doing Formula 3, and he knows most of the circuits there. He’s trained. He’s showed in his rookie season and won some premium races at COTA (and Laguna Seca), beat two of the very best Indy has to offer (in) Will Power and Scott Dixon.

“This is one kid I’d love to see him get a break over there to fly the U.S. colors again.”

Herta, 20, seems interested in exploring an F1 leap over the next few years. After winning Sept. 13 at Mid-Ohio from the pole position (his third career victory in the NTT IndyCar Series), the No. 88 Dallara-Honda driver is ranked fourth in the standings in his sophomore year and regarded as one of the series’ top prospects.

Herta recently told RACER.com “I’d love to give Formula 1 a crack” but said he also would be happy driving in IndyCar and IMSA.

A naturalized U.S. citizen who told Petty about spending several years with his family in an Italian refugee camp before coming to America, Mario Andretti said F1 brought an enormous sense of patriotic pride.

“Formula One is like the Olympics in a sense,” he said. “You’re in a different country, a different continent. When you earn that highest step of the podium, they play your national anthem. That’s when you take nothing for granted. You feel like I’m representing my country, and the proudest moments are those.

“I’d just like to see some other American drivers experience that. It’s time.”

Mario Andretti with four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon and six-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton before the Nov. 22, 2015 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images).

During the “Coffee With Kyle” conversation, Andretti also discussed:

–His versatility as a winner in IndyCar, sports cars, NASCAR and Formula One;

–His 1967 Daytona 500 victory and how he enjoyed racing with crew chief Jake Elder at the famed Holman-Moody team;

Mario Andretti Colton Herta
Mario Andretti and Kyle Petty saluted “The King” by wearing their Richard Petty-style hats during the latest “Coffee With Kyle” (NBCSN).

–Why he delayed his entry to F1 for a few years because of his earnings power in IndyCar. “I always say I’d race for free, but at the same time, you’re thinking of family and the future,” he said. “It was in the back of your mind that you can’t give up the earning power of IndyCar. That kept me from going full time in Formula One, but I always said that sometime in my career, I’d have to devote a period to Formula One.”

–On what it was like racing in an era when driver deaths were more prevalent. “If you’re going to do this, you’re not going to dwell on those negatives,” Andretti said. “There’s no way. You knew it was present. Especially in the ‘60s at the beginning of the season at the drivers meetings, you couldn’t help but look around and say, ‘I wonder who is not going to be here at the end of the season.’ We’d lose four to five guys. In ’64, we lost six guys.

“It’s something if you dwell on that, you’re going to take on a different profession. It’s a desire and love to want to drive that overcame all that and then the confidence it’s not going to happen to me. And then you pray.”

Watch the full “Coffee With Kyle” episode in the video above or by clicking here.

Mario Andretti looks on before the 103rd Indianapolis 500 on May 26, 2019 (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).