Grant Enfinger dominates to win second straight ARCA season opener at Daytona

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Grant Enfinger earned his second consecutive ARCA Series season-opening race, dominating en route to victory in Saturday’s Lucas Oil 200 at Daytona International Speedway.

Enfinger led at the halfway point of the 80-lap race around the 2.5-mile high-banked racetrack.

“It’s an incredible feeling,” Enfinger told FoxSports1 after the race. “A few weeks ago there was a lot of uncertainty. I didn’t know when I was going to get back in a car. … I can’t say enough about GMS racing and this opportunity they gave me. We’re going to savor this one for a while.“

Xfinity Series rookie Daniel Suarez, who will compete for Joe Gibbs Racing, finished a strong second.

“A few days ago, I was thinking where do I need to be have to be to win this race and normally that would be second place,” Suarez said. “Ten laps to go, I said, ‘Well, here we are, second place, let’s try to win this thing.’

“I was trying to pass the 23 car in the last couple laps, but I just didn’t know how to make that pass. I’m not sure exactly what I did, but I’m happy with a second place.”

Outside pole-sitter Cody Coughlin, 19, finished fourth in his first-ever race at Daytona.

“We had a lot of fun in my first time at Daytona,” Coughlin said. “To come away with a top-five finish is cool. We were up front all day and could taste the victory, so it’s a little bit bittersweet in that aspect. We had a wicked fast Toyota today, I learned a lot and next time we’ll get the checkers.”

ARCA veteran and 10-time series champion Frank Kimmel once again fell short of his bid to finally win at Daytona.

Kimmel, who has earned 80 ARCA wins in his career, finished fifth, adding to the three-runner-up finishes he’s had in career starts at DIS.

A pit road problem cost Kimmel the win. He was leading the race just short of halfway when he came in to pit.

The connector part of the fuel can came loose, dumping the entire contents of the fuel on the gasman and on the ground.

Kimmel had to come back around to take another can, dropping him from the lead to 34th position.

Wrecks were few and far between, but one must be noted.

On Lap 54, Leilani Munter bounced off the left rear of Blake Jones, sending her into Terry Jones and then bounced off and into Buster Graham and Bobby Gerhart.

Gerhart needed assistance to get to the ambulance. It seemed he was pretty shaken up, but he said he was fine after being discharged. Gerhart finished 39th.

“The tape will tell it all,” Gerhart said. “I’m not pointing any fingers or placing any blame. There’s not a lot of room for error when you’re three-wide. Everybody was just at the right place at the wrong time.”

J.J. Pack appeared to run over debris from the five-car wreck that punctured the fuel line on his car, leading to a spectacular fire. Pack was uninjured.

NOTES:

* Mark Thompson, who at 63 became the oldest driver to ever win a pole in DIS history (in Friday’s qualifying), finished 14th.

* Former NASCAR Sprint Cup and Xfinity Series driver Bobby Hamilton Jr. finished 26th in his first race of any series in nearly four seasons. It also was Hamilton’s first race in an ARCA car since 1999.

* Vancouver, B.C. native Sarah Cornett-Ching made her Daytona debut, ultimately finishing 31st out of the 40-car field. She fell behind in the first two laps, and was forced to pit to fix a motor issue.

Competing in the first of what she hopes to be at least 10 races on the ARCA circuit this season, Cornett-Ching came back on the track

* Martinsville Speedway president Clay Campbell qualified fifth, but suffered overheating problems that left him with a 35th place finish.

FINISHING ORDER:

1 Grant Enfinger

2 Daniel Suarez

3 Brett Hudson

4 Cody Coughlin

5 Frank Kimmel

6 Mason Mitchell

7 Matt Kurzejewski

8 Scott Sheldon

9 Josh Williams

10 Will Kimmel

11 Tom Hessert

12 Daniel Hemric

13 Austin Hill

14 Mark Thompson

15 Austin Wayne Self

16 David Levine

17 Blake Jones

18 Tyler Audie

19 Terry Jones

20 Cole Powell

21 Patrick Staropoli

22 Brad Smith

23 Bo LeMastus

24 Thomas Praytor

25 Karl Weber

26 Bobby Hamilton Jr.

27 Bill Catania

28 Barry Fitzgerald

29 Sean Corr

30 Ed Pompa

31 Sarah Cornett-Ching

32 Roger Carter

33 John Lowinski-Loh

34 Garrett Smithley

35 Clay Campbell

36 J.J. Pack

37 Buster Graham

38 Leilani Munter

39 Bobby Gerhart

40 James Swanson

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Alexander Rossi hopes to dodge oncoming traffic in second Baja 1000

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One of the great viral videos of last year’s offseason was the sight of Alexander Rossi’s Honda Ridgeline off-road vehicle and its near head-on collision with a passenger SUV coming in the wrong direction of last year’s Baja 1000.

The video of the incident overshadowed an outstanding debut for Rossi in the SCORE OFF Road Desert race.

Rossi (pictured above on the right along with fellow driver Jeff Proctor) told NBCSports.com that driving down the same roads still used by passenger traffic is one of the unique challenges of the Baja 1000.

“The most demanding form of racing is IndyCar racing,” Rossi told NBC Sports.com. “But the big thing for me in the Baja 1000 is mentally being able to understand the terrain that is coming at you at 120 miles an hour in the dust and pedestrians and other cars, people and cattle that come along with this race.”

Rossi is becoming a modern-day Parnelli Jones, A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti. He wants to race anything on wheels and win.

Since the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season concluded with the Sept. 22 Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey, Rossi competed in the Bathurst 1000 in Australia on Oct. 13. Earlier this year, Rossi drove for Acura Team Penske in the Rolex 24 at Daytona and the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring.

This weekend, the winner of the 100th Indianapolis 500 in 2016 and a perennial contender for the NTT IndyCar Series championship will compete in the Baja 1000 for the second straight year.

Rossi will be driving for the Honda Ridgeline Racing team and is the sixth Indy 500 winner to compete in the Baja 1000.

Other Indy 500 winners who have raced in the SCORE Baja 1000 include Jones, the 1963 Indianapolis winner and a two-time Baja 1000 race winner (1971 72); fellow Honda IndyCar Series driver and Andretti Autosport teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay, the Indy winner in 2014; Rick Mears, who won the Indianapolis 500 four times, 1985 Indy 500 champion Danny Sullivan and 2004 Indy winner Buddy Rice.

NTT IndyCar season champions who have raced in the Baja 1000 include Mears, Hunter-Reay, Sebastien Bourdais, Jimmy Vasser and Paul Tracy.

Rossi has a better understanding of what to expect in this year’s Baja 1000 after last year’s rookie experience.

How valuable was last years’ experience?

“It’s hugely valuable,” Rossi said. “The course changes each year. There will be some elements that are the same, but it’s a new route from start to finish this year. That is why we go down a week early. We do pre-running in a similar type of vehicle and take course notes and analyze each individual section of the course, find the danger areas and what you need to do come race day.

“Ultimately, the biggest thing is having the knowledge of how to prepare for the race and what to expect once you roll off the starting line. That is something I will have going for me this year that I didn’t have last year.”

As an off-road rookie, Rossi acclimated to the demands of desert racing as the Jeff Proctor-led Honda Off-Road Racing Team finished second in Class 7. It was the fourth consecutive time the team finished first or second in the Ridgeline Baja Race Truck at the Baja 1000.

“I don’t know that I can pinpoint any highlights other than just the whole experience,” Rossi said of last years’ experience. “The whole week and a half I had down there in 2018 was phenomenal. The team made me feel part of the family from Day One. I just love driving a desert truck through Baja California. It’s an experience unlike any other.

“The entire event was a highlight more than one specific moment.”

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Driving an off-road Honda Ridgeline through the desert of Baja California in Mexico is vastly different than Rossi’s regular ride in the No. 27 NAPA Honda in the NTT IndyCar Series. But Rossi believes there are many similarities, also.

“It’s very different, for obvious reasons, but ultimately, a race car is a race car,” Rossi said. “It has four wheels, and you are trying to get it from Point A to Point B quicker than other people. The general underlying techniques of getting a car through the corner efficiently is all the same; it’s just a different style.

“Everyone here is very talented at what they do and very good so in order to win this race, you have to be at the top of your game.”

The Baja 1000, like most forms of off-road racing, is more against the clock than a wheel-to-wheel competition such as IndyCar. Rossi believes it is a different form of endurance racing, similar to IMSA in many ways.

“You have to compare it like an endurance race,” Rossi said. “It’s a race where the first part of it, you are trying to get through and not take chances and stay in touch with the people you are trying to stay in touch with.

“When you get down to the final 20 to 30 percent, that is when you try to either close the lead of extend the lead of whatever position you are in. That is similar to the Rolex 24 at Daytona. It comes down to the last three or four hours, and we take a mentality closer to that.

“The only difference is if you get it wrong at Daytona, you spin in the grass. Here, it can be more dramatic than that.”

As an off-road rookie in 2018, Rossi acclimated to the demands of desert racing as the Jeff Proctor-led Honda Off-Road Racing Team finished second in Class 7. It was the fourth consecutive time the team finished first or second in the Ridgeline Baja Race Truck at the Baja 1000.

“The Honda off-road guys and my co-driver/navigator Evan Weller make it so easy for me to just jump right in and go to work,” Rossi said. “I can’t wait to share the seat with Jeff [Proctor] and Pat [Dailey] once again, and hopefully, bring home a win.”

The Honda Off-Road Racing Team has had an outstanding 2019 season, including class wins for the Baja Ridgeline Race Truck at the Parker 425, the Mint 400 and the Baja 500; where the team successfully debuted the second-generation “TSCO” chassis; and a second-place Class 7 finish at the Vegas-to-Reno event.

Proctor won his class in the Baja 1000 in both 2015 and 2016 with the Ridgeline, finished second in class in 2017 and 2018; and won the companion SCORE Baja 500 race both in 2016, 2018 and again earlier this year. The Ridgeline competes in Class 7, for unlimited six-cylinder production-appearing trucks and SUVs.

“We are stoked to have Alexander back racing with us in Mexico for his sophomore attempt at this iconic off-road race,” Proctor said. “This year’s 52nd annual Baja 1000 course covers ALL of the toughest terrain and areas in Baja Norte….as always, it will be tough.

“Alex is one of the brightest motorsports minds I’ve worked with, and he is a great asset to our team.”

The Baja 1000 begins Friday and runs through the weekend along the Baja Peninsula of Mexico.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500