Photo courtesy of IMSA

Rolex 24: Action Express hang on for victory, Ganassi gets 200th win

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Although the finish of the 56th running of the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona did not produce the same no-holds-barred fight we’ve seen in recent years, there was plenty of drama as overall and class leaders battled either mechanical problems or varying fuel strategies that kept the results uncertain right to the very end.

But, at the checkered flag, the No. 5 Mustang Sampling Cadillac DPi for Action Express, No. 67 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT, and the No. 11 GRT Grasser Racing Team Lamborghini Huracan GT3 all claimed victories.

For Action Express, it is their third overall victory at the Rolex 24, while Ford Chip Ganassi Racing claimed its second consecutive GT Le Mans crown and gave team owner Chip Ganassi his 200th win as a team owner across all of his racing organizations. Meanwhile, GRT Grasser Racing Team took its maiden class victory, taking home GT Daytona honors.

Below are quick reports on all three classes:

Prototype

The final hours of the Rolex 24 were incredibly tense as Action Express Racing continued to battle overheating problems, notably on their leading No. 5 Mustang Sampling Cadillac. In the hands of Filipe Albuquerque, the team asked him to back off considerably, at times shutting the car off on the banking while running lap times anywhere from three to six seconds slower than its closest challengers.

As a result, both the sister No. 31 Whelen Engineering Racing Cadillac, in the hands of Stuart Middleton, and the No. 54 CORE Autosport Oreca 07 Gibson, in the hands of Colin Braun, decreased the gap dramatically, with both Middleton and Braun even getting back on the lead lap in the final minutes.

However, Albuquerque was able to nurse the car home to take the win and avenge last year’s disappointment, when the team ended up second after late contact with Ricky Taylor.

Albuquerque was joined in Victory Lane by co-drivers Joao Barbosa and Christian Fittipaldi, and also gives Action Express its third win at the Rolex 24.

The No. 31 experienced drama of its own, with Middleton needing to get back in the car near the end of the race to meet his minimum drive time quota. The team thought he had met the minimum, but IMSA officials informed team officials that Middleton was just short, forcing them to call an audible and put Middleton back in the car.

Despite being the youngest and least experienced driver of the lineup, Middleton ran a clean race to the checkered flag to finish second with co-drivers Mike Conway, Felipe Nasr, and Eric Curran.

Colin Braun managed to finish third, with co-drivers Jon Bennet, Romain Dumas, and Loic Duval.

GTLM

A dominant performance by Ford Chip Ganassi Racing produced a 1-2 finish for the team that spent nearly the entire race in the GTLM lead.

After trading the lead back and forth several times between them, it was the No. 67 Ford GT of Ryan Briscoe, Richard Westbrook, and Scott Dixon taking the victory over the No. 66 of Joey Hand, Dirk Mueller, and Sebastien Bourdais.

It is the second consecutive team victory for Ford Chip Ganassi Racing, with the No. 66 team taking the win last year. It is also the 200th victory for Chip Ganassi Racing as an organization and their eighth Rolex 24 victory (six in Prototype, two in GTLM).

The No. 3 Corvette Racing Corvette C7.R finished third with Antonio Garcia, Jan Magnussen, and Mike Rockenfeller.

GTD

A closely fought battle that saw three marques and four teams fight tooth and nail in the final hours saw GRT Grasser Racing Team bring home the GTD victory with Mirko Bortolotti, Rolf Ineichen, Franck Perera, and Rik Breuker.

Bortolotti held the the lead for GRT Grasser in the waning minutes and appeared to face a challenge from Jeroen Bleekemolen in the No. 33 Mercedes-AMG GT3 for Mercedes-AMG Team Riley Motorsports, but a late stop for fuel put an end to their chances for victory.

The win gives Lamborghini its first ever class win at the Rolex 24, and the Lamborghini Huracan GT3 was consistently one of quickest cars going back to the Roar Before the 24 test on the first weekend of January.

The No. 86 Michael Shank Racing with Curb/Agajanian Acura NSX GT3 finished second with Alvaro Parente, Katherine Legge, AJ Allmendinger, and Trent Hindman.

Third went to the No. 48 Paul Miller Racing, Lamborghini, with Andrea Caldarelli, Bryan Sellers, Madison Snow, and Bryce Miller.

The race, which featured only four full-course cautions, also shattered the records for total laps and total distance covered. The winning No. 5 Action Express Cadillac covered 808 laps and over 3,070 miles, shattering the previous records of 762 laps 2,760 miles

 

Full results

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Graham Rahal tries to get up to speed in IndyCar iRacing Challenge

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Although he’s just 31 years old, Graham Rahal has been driving an Indy car since the 2007 Champ Car Series season when he still a teenager.

When it comes to the virtual world, however, Rahal is an admitted “newbie.”

The Rahal Letterman Lanigan driver hopes to get up to speed in time to be competitive in Saturday’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama virtual race. It’s part of the INDYCAR iRacing Challenge and will be televised live by NBCSN at 2:30 p.m.

The six-time NTT IndyCar Series race winner got his virtual racing rig before last week’s American Red Cross Grand Prix at Watkins Glen International but was still learning the nuances of the iRacing platform. He started 12th and finished 14th out of 25 cars in the contest. The first 12 finishers were on the lead lap. Rahal was one lap down.

“I had never done it before,” Rahal said Friday. “At least it probably had been 10 years since I had driven any sort of sim. It’s addicting…rather addicting. Second of all, it’s bad for your marriage, but it’s a great way to kill a day of quarantine.

“But I think it’s been a big challenge just to get used to the way that you feel a car, the way that you drive a car in the sim, it’s all completely different than real life. To get used to that sensation, to get everything set up right is a huge part of it.”

Inside the cockpit of his No. 15 Honda at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, Rahal feels at comfortable in his own element. It has taken him time to find that comfort level in the virtual world.

“For me it has been a challenge to just figure out the right settings, what to do from afar, too,” Rahal said. “Obviously you don’t have anybody here (at his home) that plays iRacing or anything to help you firsthand. It’s been a bit of a challenge; but I’ve really enjoyed it.”

Next up is Barber Motorsports Park, which in the real world is a very challenging course but it puts on some of the best road course racing on the real IndyCar schedule. Rahal believes it will also be quite a challenge on iRacing.

“I think Barber is going to be actually more difficult than Watkins Glen,” Rahal said. “The track has a little bit less grip than Watkins Glen did last week. Although everybody was still crashing at Watkins Glen, I think you can get away with more than what you can at Barber. In real life it’s that way, too.

“I’m looking forward to it. I think it will be fun.”

Rahal is married to former drag racing star Courtney Force. Both are playing it safe by staying home by statewide order from Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb. But Rahal still has to find the balance between husband and virtual race driver.

By contrast, some of the other IndyCar drivers are spending 10-12 hours a day practicing on iRacing.

“That’s the challenge,” Rahal said, responding to a question posed by NBCSports.com. “I could definitely spend way more time on it. My line to Courtney is, ‘Just give me two laps.’ Then, one hour and 45 minutes later I’m still sitting there. It’s frustrating.

“As Robbie Wickens said, the frustrating part is you go out, you put in a good lap, then it’s, ‘I need to go beat that.’ You spin and you spin, and you spin. Then you get mad. The competitiveness in you, two more laps, two more laps. You try to go and go and go.

“You sit there for hours and hours and hours.”

Rahal admits he can’t stay away from iRacing for long. He is genuinely curious and interested in seeing what the competition is doing.

“I go on pretty frequently to see what’s going on,” Rahal said. “A lot of guys are on all the time. Scott Dixon, Sebastien Bourdais has been on a load, Tony Kanaan, Willie P (Will Power). I think everyone is enjoying it. But it’s a huge challenge.

“There are a couple of guys that are clearly quicker than everybody else, Will being one of those. I’m trying to figure out where and how to find the lap time. I’m telling you, it’s so different than reality in that way.

“But it’s been fun, man. I’ve enjoyed the challenge. It’s good for the exposure, good because people are paying attention. You can see it on our Instagram. If you look at the clicks or page views in the last seven days, they’ve been doubled since we started to do this stuff. While it’s great for that, it also does help kill a ton of time.”

These are unique times as the world has essential shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic. As more and more humans are testing positive of the potentially deadly virus, the threat becomes more real.

It has also created a tremendous void as people try to find something to do to pass the long times of isolation.

By giving race fans a few hours of entertainment, even if it is virtual instead of real, then Rahal believes it’s worth it.

“I think a lot of people are just dying for something to do, something to watch,” Rahal said. “The competitiveness in all of us wants to see some sort of sport.

“I know there are other buddies like hockey players that are watching it because they just want to watch something. They need something to do. So, I think that’s a big part of it.

“I think it’s great that NBC Sports is covering it this weekend other than just being online. I think it will be tremendous to see how that turns out.

“This is very realistic. When you see the cars on track, you watch a replay, see the photos, it’s eerily real looking. I did a race at St. Louis last weekend. It was extremely entertaining I think for the drivers that were participating. Other than 400 yellow flags, which happened early in the race, it was really, really entertaining to be a part of. People who watched that race would have loved the show that they had been seeing. I think there’s a lot of realism to it.

“I think it’s also people just want something right now. The desire and the demand is there to log in or tune in and see something competitive on TV.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500