DAYTONA BEACH, Florida — Overcoming adversity with the resilience that’s become a trademark during its championship run, Wayne Taylor Racing won Sunday’s qualifying race to earn the pole position of the 60th Rolex 24 at Daytona.
The No. 10 Acura is aiming to win a record fourth consecutive Rolex 24, and the team showed its championship mettle over a 24-hour roller coaster at Daytona International Speedway.
“It was a lot of work,” said Ricky Taylor, who took the checkered flag after hanging onto the lead despite a bump in the left rear from Richard Westbrook’s No. 5 Cadillac entering Turn 1 on the last lap. “The last stint, (Westbrook) felt quite a bit stronger than us. He was really putting on a lot of pressure.
“Really fun racing, though. If that’s a glimpse of what the Rolex 24 is like, I don’t think people are going to sleep much — fans, drivers and teams.”
After teammate Filipe Albuquerque qualified second Saturday for the 100-minute race that set the field for the endurance race class, the team’s time was disallowed by IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship officials because of an improper rear wing assembly angle.
Though Taylor paced Saturday night’s practice on the 12-turn, 3.56-mile road course, he also damaged his ARX-05 in a collision with a GT car.
But WTR’s fortunes quickly turned positive Sunday just as they always seem to do when the green flag waves at Daytona. After starting seventh at the rear of the DPi field, Albuquerque diced through traffic and needed only 19 laps to take the lead before handing off the car to Taylor on the next pit stop.
Despite a mistake in traffic that briefly cost him the lead to Westbrook’s pole-sitting Cadillac, Taylor retook first through pit strategy and led the final 22 laps of an “exhausting” sprint race.
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“Obviously it’s been very bumpy the last 24 hours, but I think the team doesn’t miss a beat,” Taylor said. “They always are prepared for anything. They’re such a great group of guys.
“That’s what is great that separates the great teams from the not-so-great is when you do have a bump or mistake, everyone is trying their best. We don’t blame anybody for being on the edge, and they do the same with us. When you have that trust back and forth, we can just doing all our jobs to our best, and pick up where we left off. It just goes to show the strength of the team from top to bottom.”
Though he celebrated with typical exuberance, team owner Wayne Taylor told NBC Sports’ Kevin Lee that the win “doesn’t really mean much,” especially given the strength of the competition.
“Right at the end, the competition was really heavy,” said Taylor, whose team won its third consecutive Rolex 24 last year despite a mad scramble after an offseason switch to Acura. “The Cadillacs were super, super fast, but we were able to keep them off.
“We like to win in Daytona, but we have to work hard for next week because those cars have something, I’m not sure where they’ve got it from, but we’ll have to see.”
Though the Acuras of WTR and Meyer Shank Racing led every practice session of the Roar before the Rolex 24 weekend and won the qualifier, the other five Cadillacs in DPi showed considerable speed.
Albuquerque joked that his car could stand to lose about 10 kilograms and suggested IMSA might consider rules tweaks to bring the manufacturers in line.
“I think IMSA will have the read now,” Albuquerque said. “That’s what this race is for to analyze data and go on, but to be fair, I think it was a nice race. They looked strong in the end. We need to analyze that to be better, and for sure for them as well. So we need to wait to see what IMSA’s call is about Balance of Performance and so on, but so far, we are happy with this first win, but for sure going to be always tight.”
Said Ricky Taylor of the Cadillacs: “I think in different circumstances, they seem strong. Definitely last night, we were really strong. There were times over the weekend when we seemed to have great pace. Filipe was really fast in qualifying, but at the end of the race, they did seem like they had a lot of pace. So whether it was us backing up to them or them picking up the pace at the end, we don’t know.”
Despite spinning from his contact with Taylor, Westbrook finished second a little less than 2 seconds ahead of Kamui Kobayashi, who co-drove the No. 48 Ally Cadillac with Jimmie Johnson.
There were no hard feelings between Westbrook and Taylor, a former teammate.
“I’m on a steep learning curve,” Westbrook said. “I’ve come from GTs for the last four years, though I’ve done DPs before, and I’m on a fast track to where I need to be. Today was all about learning what I can get away with and what I can’t in traffic. I don’t think it could have gone better. Battling with Ricky, my former teammate, I enjoyed every minute. We had good pace and the setup of the car was really good. There’s more to come.”
Though Sunday’s race ran without a caution flag, there were plenty of close calls and contact among the 61 cars, the most entries for a Rolex 24 since 2014.
With 35 GT cars now running with the same specifications (since the offseason removal of the GTLM class), Albuquerque and Taylor both said Sunday’s laps were important for gauging how to navigate traffic.
“It’s really busy,” Taylor said. “I made a mistake on judgment last night and today. There’s definitely a new dynamic. And it just takes a little bit of a learning curve to get the rhythm. Watching back this race before we go start the 24 Hour will be good to study a bit and see the flow a little more.”
Albuquerque said he went to IMSA race director Beaux Barfield before Sunday’s race to lobby for emphasizing traffic management in prerace driver briefings, especially where slower cars should be positioned while being overtaken.
“I don’t know if my heart will survive,” Albuquerque told Lee about the Rolex 24. “If this is 100 minutes, 24 hours like this, it’s going to be crazy. It’s a good start. It shows that it doesn’t matter where you start. It’s going to be a hell of a race.”