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Downsized Ganassi team still packing plenty of punch

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Since 2011, Chip Ganssi Racing has brought at least four cars to the Indianapolis 500 – they even brought five cars in 2015.

However, with incumbents Max Chilton and Charlie Kimball departing for the newly formed Carlin Racing, the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season sees Ganassi only fielding two cars for Scott Dixon and Ed Jones.

And with the team opting not to field extra entries for the 102nd Indianapolis 500 Presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, its two-car assault will be left to contend with a four-car effort from Team Penske and a six-car effort from Andretti Autosport.

Even teams like Dale Coyne Racing and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports are bigger in numbers this year – Coyne with four entries, SPM with three (and a fourth in a partnership with Meyer Shank Racing).

Still, despite being down on size in comparison to previous years, the Ganassi effort is no less potent.

Scott Dixon was last year’s pole sitter, and with the fastest speeds turned in since 1996 – Dixon’s pole run came in at 232.164 mph.

And Ed Jones was no slouch either, qualifying 11th for Coyne and finishing third, despite suffering a damaged nose late in the race.

Still, while both impressed last year, they will look for better race results this year. Dixon led early and was running in the Top 5 before his infamous airborne crash after colliding with Jay Howard.

Jones, meanwhile, was somewhat frustrated in that he felt his No. 19 Honda was good enough to win if not for the aforementioned damage.

In short, even though it’s only two cars, Ganassi’s effort is no less stronger.

Tuesday’s practice was somewhat of a mixed bag for Dixon and Jones, however. While Dixon ranked second behind Marco Andretti, Jones was down in 27th, and 18th in the non-tow ranks.

Dixon’s non-tow lap was actually even slower, as he was 26th on the non-tow board.

However, the 2008 Indy 500 winner was not concerned.

“Not a bad day (on Tuesday),” said Dixon after Tuesday’s practice. “We worked on a number of things with the PNC Bank car. One of the most important was running in traffic out there with some other cars. We’ll get as much data as we can from those runs today, take a look at what we find and then apply it to the next steps for preparing the car for the race.”

He also explained in the post-practice press conference that a two-car effort is a little more challenging than their four-car efforts, in terms of gathering data, but also asserted that the working relationship with Jones is a positive one, even while Jones is still getting up to speed with the Ganassi team.

“It’s been good. (Ed) is super laid back and good to work with,” said Dixon. “I think on this combination (of only two cars), it’s a little more difficult. Ed is trying to get up to speed with our package and our car. They’ve tried some interesting stuff.”

Jones explained that his Tuesday struggles came as he and the team tried to find a perfect balance on his No. 10 NTT Data Honda, and that they will look to find more speed on Thursday and Friday.

“I wouldn’t say I was 100 percent happy with the NTT DATA car today. We’re continuing to focus and work on the balance of the car. That’s really the main thing. There are so many variables and things to try to make it fast, and we have quite a bit of practice time here before next week. We’ll just keep trying to improve the car and try things out to be ready for qualifying this weekend.”

Practice for the 102nd Indy 500 continues on Wednesday.

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Don’t know the Rolex 24? You should. Here’s why.

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Hello, America. It’s time to go racing again.

Yes, Supercross is now three weeks into its season, and the Chili Bowl Nationals is now effectively the Christopher Bell Invitational after the young NASCAR star won his 3rd consecutive Golden Driller last weekend.

But the Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway is the first marquee event on the American racing calendar – an event that just happens to have international prestige.

It’s also the start of Daytona Speedweeks, which culminates with NASCAR’s Daytona 500 on Feb. 17. But this is no mere opening act just warming up the crowd for the headliner.

In case you’re new to this event, here are a few reasons why it stands out:

Twice around the clock: Are you the kind of person that appreciates a challenge? Well, challenges don’t get much bigger in motorsports than a 24-hour endurance race where drivers, crews, machines, and strategies must work together flawlessly. For those behind the wheel in the Rolex 24, the obstacles are numerous: Punishing G-forces, extreme mental focus, lack of sleep, and staying on top of hydration and nutrition.

Star power: Speaking of those behind the wheel, the Rolex 24 traditionally draws top drivers from other disciplines such as IndyCar, Formula 1 and NASCAR to join sports car regulars from North America and around the world. As a result, the winners’ list is a Who’s Who of Motorsports.

This year’s field includes a clutch of NTT IndyCar Series drivers, highlighted by 5-time series champion and past Rolex 24 winner Scott Dixon. But pre-race buzz has centered on two particular interlopers: Alex Zanardi, the former CART champion making his first North American start since losing his legs in a 2001 crash, and Fernando Alonso, the two-time F1 champion looking to add another endurance triumph alongside his win with Toyota in last year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Cool cars: If you’re a gearhead, the Rolex 24 is a 200-mile-per-hour candy store. Across the four separate classes of competition, 13 of the world’s premier car manufacturers are represented.

The majority of those manufacturers are found in the Grand Touring classes that feature vehicles based on road-going production models. Chevy and Ford’s eternal rivalry rages on in the factory-backed GT Le Mans, but the class also boasts efforts from BMW, Porsche, and Ferrari. It’s even more diverse in the pro-am GT Daytona, where Porsche is joined by Audi, Lamborghini, Lexus and Mercedes.

As for the exotic, purpose-built Daytona Prototypes, they are powered by engines from Cadillac, Acura, Mazda and Nissan.

Nifty fifty: This year’s Rolex 24 begins the 50th anniversary season for IMSA, the sanctioning body for North American sports car racing. A select group of teams will mark the occasion at the Rolex 24 by running historic IMSA paint schemes on their machines. You may not be familiar with these looks, but it’s worth discovering the history behind them.

Here’s an example. The Starworks Motorsports team (GT Daytona) will carry a scheme based on Audi of America’s 90 Quattro from the 1989 IMSA GTO season. Boasting sports car legends Hurley Haywood and Hans-Joachim Stuck in the driver lineup, the 90 Quattro captured 7 GTO wins that season.

Audi’s performance led one competitor to create a “no passing” sticker with Stuck’s face on it. Stuck’s response: A doll fixed to his car’s rear window that dropped its pants to moon anyone Stuck put behind him.

Status symbol: Last but not least, the Rolex 24 has a unique prize – a trophy you can wear.

Winners get a standard cup, but what they’re really after are the Rolex Oyster Perpetual Cosmograph Daytona watches, which include a special engraving to commemorate their victory. A standard version of this watch retails for tens of thousands of dollars, but you can’t put a price on the ones awarded at the Rolex 24.

This year’s grand marshal, 5-time Rolex 24 winner Scott Pruett, sums it up as “the ultimate reward.”

“To be presented a watch engraved with the word ‘Winner’ after 24 hours of intense racing is a moment that lives with you forever,” he added. “Your Rolex is a constant reminder of the perseverance and hard work that goes into succeeding at the highest level.”