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Dale Earnhardt Jr. hails IMSA growth; all but rules out Rolex 24 return

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Once his full-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career comes to an end in three weeks before he joins the NBC Sports team as a broadcaster in 2018, Dale Earnhardt Jr. will have the luxury of picking and choosing where else he’ll race on a case-by-case basis.

But a return to driving in the Rolex 24 at Daytona is an unlikely one, Earnhardt said Friday at Texas Motor Speedway.

Earnhardt’s famous first run in the race with father Dale, then Corvette Racing regulars Andy Pilgrim and Kelly Collins in 2001 saw them end second in the GTO class and fourth overall. Teammates Johnny O’Connell, Ron Fellows, Franck Freon and Chris Kneifel scored a famous overall win for Corvette that year.

He also returned in 2004 co-driving a Howard-Boss Motorsports Chevrolet Crawford with Tony Stewart and Andy Wallace. Late-race suspension failure cost that car an overall win and dropped them to fifth overall, and third in the Daytona Prototype (DP) class.

Because of how the now merged IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship series has increased in overall competitiveness and depth of field, Earnhardt said Friday that jumping in for a one-off is much harder now.

02 FEB 2001: The #3 Corvette GTS will be driven by Dale Earnhardt, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Andy Pilgrim and Kelly Collins during the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona, Florida. DIGITAL IMAGE Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Ferrey/ALLSPORT

“I don’t think I’ll be (driving) at the 24 Hours of Daytona,” Earnhardt told reporters Friday at Texas. “Back when we did those things, it felt easier to do those one-offs.

“That series is so competitive… you can’t come in as a hobby, and it’s ‘I’m gonna come in and have fun.’ It’s so competitive. That series has grown to be so good. It’d be like one of them flirting with NASCAR!”

Earnhardt said he wouldn’t want to be a drain on a lineup either. Rolex 24 lineups feature either three, four or five-driver rotations between the three classes.

“I don’t think I’d have the success I want to have or be in the equipment I want to be in. Working with the 24-hour race, to run that, you want to do it with people you know.

“I drove for Corvette and Crawford (DP). That was really nerve-wracking… and with teammates I don’t know that well and man, I don’t want to be the guy that screws that up. So it’s a completely different experience.

“If I were to do it again, it’d have to be with drivers I’m friends with. So it’s fairly unlikely.”

Earnhardt didn’t rule out attending the race as a spectator, as well as potentially visit other events.

“It’s a very fun race though. Staying up all night long, that’s right up my alley,” he laughed. “It’s such a cool atmosphere with the cars running around. It’s a race I might go have fun as a spectator at. Watch it on person, or watch on TV.”

As far as other events, Earnhardt said he’s limiting his future driving beyond this year to a handful of NASCAR Xfinity Series races with his JR Motorsports team, and perhaps Late Model races.

He’s never attended a Formula 1 race either and hopes to do that soon. Jeff Gordon, who co-drove the winning No. 10 Konica Minolta Cadillac DPi-V.R at this year’s Rolex 24, has been at both the Singapore and Mexican Grands Prix this season. Daniel Ricciardo, meanwhile, said at Circuit of The Americas last month he planned to see Earnhardt this weekend at Texas.

“I’ve never been to a Formula 1 race. It’s something, you have to check that box,” Earnhardt said.

“There’s other series and forms of motorsport that I have equal interest in observing. So that would be awesome. I’m sure there’s opportunities that will present themselves.”

Attention NASCAR teams: IMSA drivers available for Daytona!

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NASCAR will be making its debut on the Daytona International Speedway road course next month, and there’s a big fan who’d like to join the historic weekend.

This fan actually has impressive credentials, too — a few thousand laps around the 12-turn, 3.56-mile layout that annually plays host to the Rolex 24 at Daytona in January.

In 2014, the winning GTLM team in the sports car endurance classic included IMSA Porsche driver Nick Tandy, who rabidly has followed NASCAR for more than 30 years since growing up in England.

So why not try racing NASCAR? Especially because Tandy has the weekend of Aug. 14-16 free.

He’s not picky, either — offering up his services on Twitter (as well as those of Porsche teammate Earl Bamber) for an ARCA, Xfinity, trucks or Cup ride.

Tandy’s affinity for American stock-car racing runs deep.

His first trip to the World Center of Racing was as a fan attending the 50th running of the Daytona 500 on Feb. 17, 2008. During Rolex testing in January, Tandy, 35, said he hadn’t missed a Cup race on TV in 15 years.

Among his favorite NASCAR drivers: the Earnhardts, Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch. When IMSA ran the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course in 2014, Tandy stayed a few extra days at the Brickyard and bought Kyle Busch gear for himself and his children.

He briefly took the stage during a NASCAR weekend last October. After IMSA’s season finale at Road Atlanta, Tandy made a few demonstration laps and a burnout in his No. 911 Porsche before the Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway.

He also has some experience in stock cars, having raced Modified-type grass-roots series on England’s quarter-mile short tracks.

Couple that with a Daytona road course record that includes two consecutive podium class finishes (including last Saturday) and a sports car resume with 13 IMSA victories and an overall win in the 2015 24 Hours of Le Mans … and maybe a NASCAR team should take a look.

And Tandy isn’t the only IMSA driver who likely would be available.

Corvette driver Jordan Taylor, who won the 2017 Rolex 24 overall title with Jeff Gordon as a teammate (and the inspiration for his Rodney Sandstrom persona), also tweeted his availability for the weekend on the high banks.

Sports car veteran Andy Lally, a GTD driver with multiple class wins in the Rolex 24 as well as 38 Cup starts (he was the 2011 rookie of the season in NASCAR’s premier series), also hung out his shingle.

There also is AIM Vasser Sullivan’s Jack Hawksworth (who just won at Daytona last Saturday), the Englishman who teamed with Kyle Busch at the Rolex 24 in January and made an Xfinity start at Mid-Ohio last year with Joe Gibbs Racing.

Many sports car drivers (such as Taylor) already live in Florida, and many are hunkering down in the Sunshine State with IMSA returning to action at Daytona last week and Sebring International Raceway next week. Because of COVID-19-related travel concerns and restrictions, several IMSA stars who live outside the country are riding out the pandemic within a few hours of Daytona with nothing to do.

Why not a weekend at the World Center of Racing?

Over the years, scads of “road-course ringers” (including some Formula One veterans) have tried their hands in stock cars at Sonoma Raceway and Watkins Glen International.

How about considering the many sports car drivers who already have reached victory lane at Daytona by making a few right-hand turns, too?