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Without a Shank seat, Allmendinger opts out of Rolex 24 pursuit

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AJ Allmendinger is one of the notable drivers absent from this year’s Rolex 24 at Daytona, after being a regular in the race for the better part of the last decade.

The Californian, now 35, raced for Michael Shank Racing from 2006 through 2016 at the Rolex 24, and was a key cog in the team’s overall race win in 2012 with Ozz Negri, John Pew and the late Justin Wilson.

But with Shank’s team having earned the right to run Acura’s factory program within the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship GT Daytona class, there was a different focus on who the extra drivers for the Rolex 24 would be.

Beyond Shank’s four full-season drivers in the pair of Acura NSX GT3s, Tom Dyer and Mark Wilkins have been added as the full-season endurance race extra drivers, while IndyCar stars Graham Rahal and Ryan Hunter-Reay have received the nods as fourth drivers for Daytona.

That’s a move Allmendinger understands, and without a shot at driving with one of his best friends in racing, he opted not to pursue an alternative for 2017.

“Most of it was the fact he got that Honda deal, which was awesome for Michael Shank,” Allmendinger told reporters during the NASCAR Media Tour in Charlotte.

“All the years, he’s been working by himself. John Pew was huge for 10 years. (Getting) Honda was special. They wanted their IndyCar guys in, which I totally understand.”

Pew retired from full-time driving at the end of 2016, although Shank told NBC Sports in December that a seat is aways warm for him in any car Shank fields. The team has desired to return to the prototype ranks at some point, although the Acura deal is a multi-year program.

For Allmendinger, whose bout with Starworks Motorsport’s Ryan Dalziel and Allan McNish in the 2012 race marked his most memorable sports car drive of his career as he fought against full-time sports car stars, it’s the less-fun things that go with the challenge of Daytona he’ll appreciate missing.

“I was a bit beat up the end of last year,” Allmendinger said. “Part of doing that race is doing it with Michael Shank for 10 years.

“So I didn’t know (anything else). It would be strange not running with him.

“I’ll miss it until 4 a.m., until I’m sleeping, because getting the knock to wake up isn’t good!”

April 9 in Motorsports History: Al Unser Jr. gets sixth Long Beach win

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The list of winners in the Grand Prix of Long Beach is a ‘who’s who’ of open-wheel racing.

Mario Andretti won at the famed street course four times. His son Michael won there twice.

Paul Tracy is also a four-time winner at the beach. Alex Zanardi, Juan Pablo Montoya, Sebastien Bourdais, and Alexander Rossi also have won at the famed course multiple times.

But there is only one “King of the Beach”: Al Unser Jr.

The winningest driver in the race’s history, Unser won at Long Beach four consecutive times from 1988-91. He won again in 1994 and entered the 1995 edition as the race’s defending champion and the defending CART champion as well.

Starting fourth, Unser made slight contact with Gil de Ferran when he passed the Brazilian on Lap 3. He then continued to move up to the front, taking the race lead from Teo Fabi on Lap 30.

Once he had the lead, Unser ran away from the field, winning by more than 23 seconds over Scott Pruett.

Unser’s victory was such a familiar scene that after the race, CART news manager John Procida began the winner’s news conference with the following statement: “Well, we have a very familiar face on the top rung of the podium. As we listed on the prerace press release, this seems to be the Al Unser Invitational.”

Indeed it was. Unser’s victory was his sixth at Long Beach, and the 28th of his career. overall. While it would be his last win there, Unser continued to race at Long Beach through 1998 before missing 1999 with a broken leg and moving to the Indy Racing Leauge in 2000.

In 2009, Unser was inducted into the Long Beach Motorsports Walk of Fame, which honors significant contributors to the race and California motorsports community.

“It truly is just an honor to be mentioned with the names and the legends that have already been put into the sidewalk,” Unser said during the induction ceremony. “To have Brian (Redman, the inaugural winner of the race) and Parnelli (Jones) is really an honor and just to be in their company is very, very special.”

Also on this date:

1971: Jacques Villeneuve was born in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Canada. The second-generation driver was one of the best in open-wheel racing during the 1990s, winning the Indianapolis 500 and CART championship in ’95 and becoming a Formula One champion two years later.

1989: Rick Mears dominated CART’s Checker Autoworks 200 at Phoenix International Raceway, leading every lap from the pole and lapping the field.

2011: Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas won the Porsche 250 at Barber Motorsports Park, their sixth consecutive victory in Grand Am competition. Their lengthy win streak, which started on Aug. 7, 2010 at Watkins Glen, prompted Grand Am to offer a $25,000 bounty for any Daytona Prototype team that could beat the dominant duo. The Action Express trio of Joao Barbosa, J.C. France, and Terry Borcheller finally unseated Pruett and Rojas in the series’ next round at Virginia International Raceway.

Follow Michael Eubanks on Twitter @michaele1994