Rolex 24 2015 Preview: Shank versus the world?

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The above headline is not something I expected to write even one month ago, but it’s the key storyline going into today’s 53rd Rolex 24 at Daytona.

The 2012 Rolex 24 champions, Michael Shank Racing, enter today’s race as prohibitive favorites – even though one of their drivers is a high school junior (coincidentally, at the same high school I attended) and the team is about to embark on its first voyage with its brand-new LMP2-spec chassis (well, not brand-new as it has several races under its belt, but very new compared to Daytona Prototype-spec machinery).

Shank’s No. 60 Ligier JS P2 Honda, in the hands of his long-time full-season co-drivers Ozz Negri and John Pew, Daytona veteran and NASCAR Sprint Cup Series ace AJ Allmendinger and 17-year-old Rolex 24 debutante Matt McMurry, topped all four of the pre-race sessions. Negri and Allmendinger led two practice sessions apiece, and Negri scored his second Rolex 24 pole – albeit nearly a decade after his first.

While the short-term goal for Shank, who is a racing “lifer” and has made his race team his primary business (unlike others where the race team is only part of the business) is a Rolex 24 win, the long-term goal is being the first to change the game for running top-level prototype machinery in North America.

You see, the DP-spec cars have always been derided as something of a redheaded stepchild in the grand scheme of things, particularly in terms of their place in the pantheon of great-looking sports cars (spoiler alert: until the last 3-4 years, they weren’t).

They have provided great racing, but, have only been raced within the GRAND-AM Rolex Series and now, the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship. In an overall scale, the DPs have not been widely accepted beyond the borders of Daytona Beach and their affiliated series.

So a P2 car winning at Daytona – particularly in the hands of a prior DP stalwart who built his business and won the 50th anniversary of the race in 2012 in a Riley-Ford DP – would send shockwaves through the sports car world.

“The new car is a bit of fresh air,” Shank said during the Roar Before the Rolex 24 test. “DP is what established our team, to allow smaller teams to be competitive, and I’ll always owe GRAND-AM and the France family for that vision.

“But we needed to make a change based on where I think the world is heading for ’16, ’17, ’18 and beyond. We went to the Ligier JS P2 and we did it. You’ll talk with Philippe Dumas (from Ligier chassis manufacturer Onroak Automotive); we did the deal about Dec. 1 and have been rolling since.”

The longer-term plan for Shank is a Le Mans appearance, ideally in 2016. But 2015 will see the team lay the groundwork first.

Shank’s car isn’t the only P2 in the field, but as Krohn Racing has a new car and a gentleman driver, the Tequila Patron ESM HPD ARX-04bs are premiering and the SpeedSource Mazdas seek reliability rather than an outright result, Shank’s has the best shot of up-ending the DPs.

As this is a race preview and not merely an ode to Shank’s efforts both this week at Daytona and at the Roar earlier this month, we would be remiss to avoid the other potential win contenders.

Defending champions Action Express Racing will no doubt be the top Corvette DP contender in the hands of Joao Barbosa, Christian Fittipaldi and IndyCar ace Sebastien Bourdais. Bourdais is bullish on the team’s improvements for 2015, in what is now the No. 5 Mustang Sampling-backed entry.

“At the Roar we got the paddle shift, all the new software and everything out of the way,” Bourdais told MotorSportsTalk. “It was all good. At the Roar, we had a bit of a different aero balance with the wing we’re given. We’ll land on our feet.

“We found a couple tenths and could be quicker than at the Roar. It should be a very tight race. Ganassi is much better prepared than they were last year. The package was quite strong. Ideally, we should definitely be a strong contender for the last few hours.”

Ganassi, as hinted at, should have a much stronger shot at the overall win than it did 12 months ago.

The twin-turbo, Ford EcoBoost V6 engines are a more refined, better package than it was upon debuting last year. Either of the team’s Riley-Fords – the full-season No. 01 or “all-star” No. 02 featuring NASCAR stars Jamie McMurray and Kyle Larson and IndyCar champions Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan – is a win contender provided it stays out of the garage.

“It’s night and day difference,” said Scott Pruett, a five-time Rolex 24 champion and co-driver of the No. 01 with Joey Hand, Charlie Kimball and Sage Karam. “It was a massive undertaking switching the cars over, putting in the different technologies and engine, with a twin-turbo V6, and all the things that go along with that.

“We knew coming in last year it was going to be tough at best. It was great to win Sebring, Long Beach and COTA, but now we can take everything we learned and move forward in 2015.”

Beyond those four cars, the No. 10 Wayne Taylor Racing Corvette DP is also in with a good shout at overall victory. A win for brothers Jordan and Ricky Taylor, along with WTR longtime driver Max Angelelli would emulate the feat achieved by Wayne in 2005, with Angelelli and Emmanuel Collard.

Other potential spoilers could potentially include the No. 90 VisitFlorida.com Racing and Whelen Engineering-backed No. 31 Action Express Racing Corvette DP, but neither car has shown enough outright pace to be considered a “favorite.”

It’s not the other three classes beyond Prototype lack intrigue, but they’re also harder to pinpoint.

GT Le Mans and GT Daytona are both wide-open. Any combination of Aston Martin, Audi, BMW, Dodge, Ferrari and Porsche could win, but it will take a mix of great pace, great reliability and likely great luck to remain in contention into the Sunday morning hours.

On paper, anyway, it seems a car with a shade of orange should win Prototype Challenge in either CORE autosport or RSR Racing.

Starworks Motorsport could surprise and BAR1 Motorsports stole the headlines in qualifying with of all things, a SpongeBob SquarePants movie-liveried No. 16 car where Englishman Johnny Mowlem rung the neck out of it for the class pole in an inspired effort.

All told, today’s race should be a fun one, as 53 cars go for their chance at glory and a new Rolex watch.

ROLEX 24 PRE-RACE RECAP

Qualifying Report
Class previews: P, PC, GTLM, GTD
Roar Recap

Meyer Shank Racing wins Petit Le Mans to take final DPi championship in dramatic finale

Petit Le Mans championship
IMSA
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Meyer Shank Racing outdueled Wayne Taylor Racing to win the Petit Le Mans and clinch the championship in a thrilling final race for the DPi division.

Tom Blomqvist, who started from the pole position, drove the No. 60 Acura ARX-05 to a 4.369-second victory over Pipo Derani in the No. 31 Action Express Cadillac.

“That was incredible,” Blomqvist told NBC Sports’ Matt Yocum. “I’ve never dug so deep in my life. The adrenaline. I did that for the guys. I was so motivated to win this thing this weekend. But I’ve got to thank everyone on the whole team.”

With co-drivers Oliver Jarvis and Helio Castroneves, Blomqvist helped MSR bookend its season-opening victory in the Rolex 24 at Daytona by winning Saturday’s IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season finale at Michelin Road Atlanta.

In between those two victories, the No. 60 earned five runner-up finishes to stay in the thick of the championship hunt and trail WTR’s No. 10 Acura by 14 points entering Saturday’s race.

WTR’s Filipe Albuquerque had a lead of more than 10 seconds over Blomqvist with less than 50 minutes remaining in the 10-hour race.

But a Turn 1 crash between the Chip Ganassi Racing Cadillacs brought out a yellow that sent both Acuras into the pits from the top two positions.

Though he entered in second, Blomqvist barely beat Albuquerque out of the pits, and he held the lead for the final 45 minutes.

Blomqvist said he gained the lead because of a shorter fuel fill after he had worked on being efficient in the second-to-last stint.

“The team asked a big job of me with the fuel; I had a big fuel number to hit,” Blomqvist said. “We knew that was probably our only chance. The yellow came at the right time and obviously we had a bit less fuel to fill up, so I was able to jump him and then it was just a matter of going gung-ho and not leaving anything on the line. And obviously, the opposition had to try too hard to make it work. I’m so thankful.”

Albuquerque closed within a few car lengths of Blomqvist with 14 minutes remaining, but he damaged his suspension because of contact with a GT car in Turn 1.

It’s the first prototype championship for Meyer Shank Racing, which also won the 2021 Indy 500 with Castroneves.

“We’ve had in the last four years, three championships for Acura, the Indy 500 win and the Rolex 24, it doesn’t get any better,” team co-owner Mike Shank told NBC Sports’ Kevin Lee.

It’s the third consecutive runner-up finish in the points standings for Wayne Taylor Racing, which won the first Daytona Prototype international championship in 2017. The premier category will be rebranded as the Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) class with the LMDh cars that will establish a bridge to racing in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Kamui Kobayashi finished third in the No. 48 Cadillac of Action Express that also includes Jimmie Johnson and Mike Rockenfeller.

The podium showing marked Johnson’s last scheduled race in IMSA’s top prototype division. The seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion has raced in the No. 48 Ally Cadillac lineup as the Action Express entry has run the Endurance Cup races.

Johnson said a lack of inventory will preclude him having a 2023 ride in the top category. But he still is hopeful of racing the Garage 56 Next Gen Camaro in next year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans and possibly running in a lower class for the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

“I’d love to be at Le Mans next year,” Johnson told NBC Sports’ Dillon Welch after his final stint Saturday. “I’d love to be at the Rolex 24. The series is going through a shake-up with the reconfiguration of the rules and classes, so I don’t have anything locked down yet, but I’m so thankful for this experience with Action. The support Ally has given us, Mr. Hendrick, Chad Knaus, all of Hendrick Motorsports. It’s been a fun two years, and I certainly hope I’m on the grid again next year.”