Rolex 24 at Hour 20: Chase Elliott’s car suffers failure; Jimmie Johnson still in hunt for a win

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – As the Rolex 24 at Daytona ticked down to winning time over the final four hours, one NASCAR Cup Series champion remained hopeful of his first overall victory Sunday while another’s debut ignominiously ended with a mechanical failure.

The Action Express Racing No. 31 Cadillac, whose Rolex 24 lineup includes defending Cup Series champion Chase Elliott, headed to the Daytona International Speedway garage out of contention after the car was stuck in gear while pole-sitter Felipe Nasr was leaving Turn 6 and entering the transition to the oval banking.

“I lost the drive and could hear a loud bang on the gearbox, that was the fourth gear done,” Nasr told NBC Sports pit reporter Parker Kligerman while the team fixed the car. “I don’t know what to say. I feel terrible for everybody. We put in such a good work all weekend. Last weekend starting on pole. I don’t know what to say, man. We’ve got to come back with better luck next time.

HOW TO WATCH THE ROLEX 24Full broadcast schedule on NBC Sports

‘STEEP LEARNING CURVE’: Chase Elliott and Jimmie Johnson make sports car transition

“It’s the hardest race we go to, and that’s why it’s the biggest race of the year. … I had a great lineup of teammates. Not our turn.”

Elliott already had completed his time in the car after running a little more than two hours over five stints spread over two times behind the wheel, including an opening run that left him frustrated over what he considered his “terrible” pace. But the team elected to put him back in the car after completing repairs that left the car 22 laps down.

Running in the sister Action Express car, Johnson also was done after three times and more than three hours in the car on the 3.56-mile road course. The No. 48 Ally Cadillac remained very much in the hunt for an overall victory with two-time defending Rolex 24 winner Kamui Kobayashi, Mike Rockenfeller and Simon Pagenaud.

Though Johnson lost time in his final stint, he led for a while during an early morning outing after starting the race and said he improved throughout behind the wheel. After two hours of sleep, he was up by 5 a.m. and at the pit stand more than an hour ahead of getting in the car.

“I was trying to get some rest but just having so much fun, so I was curious how the car is performing and what’s taking place,” Johnson said. “And with the caution flags, it just pushed my time in the car back later and later, and I was definitely there much earlier than I needed to be. It’s been an amazing experience. Now these guys are really stepping up and showing what they have, and I really appreciate every lap I have. I’m learning so much with each lap that I make.”

This marked Johnson’s eighth Rolex 24 start but first in a decade and in the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship Series’ DPi division. The seven-time Cup champion is using the high-downforce sports cars to help prepare for the part-time schedule he’ll run in the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series.

“Last night, being able to lead and manage traffic was really a good stint for me,” he said. “I had the right flow in traffic. I seemed to just catch the right breaks. This most recent outing, Rocky and I were just talking about how those things come and go, there’s just a flow to a certain stint, and this morning’s stint did not go as I had hoped with flow and traffic.

Mike Rockenfeller was behind the wheel of the No. 48 Cadillac as the sun rose Sunday at Daytona International Speedway (Jasen Vinlove/USA TODAY Sports).

“It’s really been an eye-opening experience, and I knew the competition was going to be tough, but as I started looking at the names of the drivers on each of these teams, I just realized how competitive this DPi field is going to be, even when you look through GT and LMP divisions, there’s talent everywhere. The last time I ran this race, I don’t think the talent was as deep and consistent certainly in the top category. I’ve been losing times with ins and outs on cold tires and charging to the pit box, and just some of the small details I didn’t have to worry about in previous races here, because you weren’t at 10/10ths like they are now for a variety of reasons.”

He seemed to earn the respect of the other veterans, including three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves, whose path crossed with Johnson during Sunday morning Zoom news conferences.

“Big congrats, man,” Castroneves told Johnson. “For you to be doing those things, I want to be like you. Absolutely awesome.”

Alexander Rossi led in the No. 10 Acura of Wayne Taylor Racing for a stretch Sunday morning (Jasen Vinlove/USA TODAY Sports).

Castroneves had good reason to be in his typically chipper mood after completing his time in the No. 10 Acura of Wayne Taylor Racing, which was vying for its third consecutive Rolex 24 victory.

After lacking speed over the first several hours, the Acuras of WTR and Meyer Shank Racing came to life as the sun rose over the track.

Driving the No. 10 (which made the switch to Acura in the offseason after winning two of the past three Rolex 24s with a Cadillac), Alexander Rossi held the lead for long stretches of the morning, including a spirited battle between the 2016 Indy 500 winner and Formula One veteran Kevin Magnussen.

The lead eventually was wrested away by Magnussen, but the Chip Ganassi Racing driver, who was making his Rolex 24 debut, was forced to pit from first for a drive through penalty for wheel rotation while the car was jacked up during a pit stop.

Chase Elliott and Alexander Rossi, who share a primary sponsor (NAPA) in their other full-time auto racing gigs, talk in the pits before the Rolex 24 at Daytona (Jasen Vinlove/USA TODAY Sports).

Renger van der Zande, Magnussen’s Ganassi teammate, said the Acuras “found some speed overnight clearly, where yesterday I could get by them easily and drive away, that’s not there anymore.

“It’s so tight,” van der Zande said. “It’s so tight, man.

“We’re fighting for the lead in the race every time, and you make a small mistake, you lose a position. That’s how tight it is.

“There’s a lot of competitive cars who can do it at the end. We got lucky with the Bus Stop in traffic. Sometimes you’re stuck behind some GT or LMP3 car in the Bus Stop, and they just fly by you like sitting ducks. If that happens at the end of the race, man. That’s going to be the decision right there. The competition is high. Competition is big. Both, very competitive drivers, they know what to do, and I think also the teams, they run a very good program. it’s only seven cars, but all of them are doing very well.”

With four hours remaining in the season-opening sports car endurance classic, there were five DPi cars on the lead lap, led by Wayne Taylor Racing’s Filipe Albuquerque over Pagenaud in the No. 48 Cadillac.

Aside from the No. 31 being out of contention, the No. 5 Mustang Sampling Cadillac also was nearly 50 laps down after the car was damaged in an incident late Saturday night.

In other classes with four hours remaining, Corvette Racing held the top two spots in GTLM, the No. 18 of Era Motorsport was tops in LMP2, Riley Motorsports’ No. 74 led in LMP3, and the Winward Racing No. 57 Mercedes was first in GTD.

Heather Lyne, Dennis Erb Jr. make history in the World of Outlaws Late Model Series

Lyne Erb Outlaws Late
Jacy Norgaard / World of Outlaws
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More than two decades in the making, the pairing of Heather Lyne and Dennis Erb Jr. produced a historical milestone in Dirt Late Model.

Last month, Erb and his long-time crew chief Lyne won their first World of Outlaws Late Model Championship and with this achievement, Lyne became the first female crew chief to win in a national late model series. Their journey together goes back 21 years and tells the story of hard work, persistence and belief in oneself.

After a career-best season with the World of Outlaws, Erb and Lyne secured the points championship at US 36 Raceway in Osborn, Mo. with three races remaining in the season. The consistency and success of their season came down to pinpoint focus. Lyne and Erb are a team of two living out a David vs. Goliath tale. In order to be as successful as possible this year the duo knew they had to do as much as possible with the resources they had.

“It’s always a challenge when you only have two people, both at the racetrack and at the shop,” Lyne told NBC Sports. “I also work full time, so during the day, Dennis has to do a significant amount of work so that when I get down there I can start working and maintaining. It’s planning ahead. It’s having that system in place and making sure that you’re prepared ahead of time.

“When you have a problem at the track, making sure you have all that stuff ready so it’s a quick change and not a lengthy process to make a repair. We had zero DNFs in the World of Outlaws, we had only one DNF out of 96 races [combined among all series].”

Dennis Erb clinched his 2022 championship before the World of Outlaws World Finals. Jacy Norgaard – World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Taming Time

This was not an easy feat. Between a full travel schedule and Lyne’s full-time job as an engineer, time comes at a premium. What they lack in time and resources they made up for in patience and planning.

“We buckled down, and we got all the equipment that we needed back, motors freshened, and things of that nature,” Lyne said about the mid-point of last season. “We were able to keep up with that. We just had a higher focus. I tried to reduce my hours at my day job as much as I possibly could while still maintaining what I need to get done at work. I got rid of a lot of the other distractions and got a more refined system in place at the shop.

“We did certain tasks on certain days so we had time to recover. We were on the road a little bit more, as opposed to coming home to the shop. So we had to be more prepared to stay out on those longer runs. It was just really staying on top of things a little more. It was a heightened sense.”

This was Lyne and Erb’s fourth full season with the Outlaws, but they’ve been on the road together for the last 21 seasons starting in 2001. Their partnership began with Lyne’s bravery. When one door closed, she was quick to open another. In 2001, Lyne’s dad was ready to stop racing. Her mother wanted to regain her weekends, but Lyne knew this was her life path and wasn’t prepared to lose it.

“I’ve always been a tomboy at heart,” Lyne said. “I watched racing with my dad. Growing up he watched NASCAR. In high school, I got tired of playing at the lake house, so I went to the local dirt track and fell in love with it. I just couldn’t get enough. It took a year for me to convince my dad to come to the track with me. He finally did and we sponsored a car that year, the following year he started to race limited cars. He ran hobby stocks and limited late models.”

At some point, Lyne and her father’s level of commitment drifted apart.

“He did it for about five years,” Lyne said. “And then my mom said: ‘I’m done racing. I want my weekends back. It’s just not fun anymore.’ I wasn’t ready to hang up my wenches and Dennis raced out of the same hometown so I, on a dare, went down and introduced myself; told him if you ever need any help, I’ll drill out rivets, I’ll help wash, whatever you need. Twenty-one years later here I am.”

Heather Lyne became the first female crew chief to secure a national touring late model championship in 2022. Paul Arch / World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Breaking Through

Lyne entered a male-dominated job in a field that is also male-dominated – and where there were few examples of women creating these places for themselves. In this way, Lyne became a blueprint for other women as they strive to find a place for themselves in racing and in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) overall. She has her mother to thank for providing a strong role model, her father for sharing her passion, Erb for taking a chance on an unknow entity and most importantly herself.

“I was raised to believe that I can do anything, I want to do, as long as I put my heart and soul into it.” Lyne replied when asked about role models in the sport growing up. “My parents did not raise me to have that limitation. But from a racing role model perspective, I went in there completely green and just introduced myself to Dennis, the fact that he was brave enough to take that risk and bring a girl to the racetrack. Someone he didn’t know at all speaks volumes for him.”

Lyne and Erb have learned how to survive and succeed with each other on the road. They do this by leveraging decades of combined experience and an ability to adapt to the everchanging landscape of dirt late models. Next year the World of Outlaws visits nearly a dozen new tracks and Lyne sees it as an opportunity for continued success.

“I just want to do it again,” Lyne says going into next season, “I’m looking forward to the competition, I always do. I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t competitively driven.

“There are some new tracks on the schedule that I’m looking forward to trying for the first time that I haven’t been to myself,” Lyne said of the 2023 season, “Dennis seems to do well on those first timers. We won out at Marion center, we finished second at Bloomsburg. We have a good solid notebook of information to tackle them over the last three years with these rocket race cars that we’re running. It’s good to have that information and leverage it to try some new things.”