For 12 IndyCar drivers in field, the Rolex 24 will be ‘like having an NFL preseason game’


DAYTONA BEACH, Florida – The green flag will fall in Florida on the NTT IndyCar Series season again, just as it had for nine consecutive seasons until the pandemic disrupted the past two.

But even though the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg is on the pole position of this year’s schedule (after openers at Texas in 2020 and Barber in ‘21), another race in the Sunshine State will offer a de-facto preseason race for IndyCar.

The Rolex 24 at Daytona will feature a whopping dozen full-time drivers from IndyCar, comprising nearly half of the starting grid that is expected at St. Pete next month.

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And the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season opener probably could have featured nearly the entire IndyCar field if supply had met demand.

Though the championship-contending outfits of Andretti Autosport, Chip Ganassi Racing (with all four drivers) are well-represented, Team Penske will have no entries (aside from Austin Cindric, the lone full-time NASCAR Cup driver in the field) – and not for lack of trying.

IndyCar on NBC analyst Townsend Bell (who will be racing in his 10th Rolex 24) noted that Scott McLaughlin and Will Power (who has wanted to run the Rolex 24 for years) both had been disappointed they were unable to land rides for the endurance classic at Daytona International Speedway.

“Realizing how badly IndyCar drivers that aren’t part of that field want to be in this race was really interesting,” Bell told NBC Sports. “They were saying it’s almost harder to get into this race than it is an IndyCar ride.”

Indy 500 winners Simon Pagenaud and Helio Castroneves will be Meyer Shank Racing teammates in the 2022 NTT IndyCar season as well as on the team’s No. 60 Acura for the Rolex 24 at Daytona (IMSA).

That’s despite a car count that has risen by 12 entries (meaning at least three dozen more seats) for the 2022 Rolex 24. With seven IndyCar drivers scattered across five of the seven DPi entries (as well as four more in LMP2), there’s a good chance another IndyCar driver will leave with a prized Rolex from a class victory – just as Alexander Rossi and Helio Castroneves did last year with Wayne Taylor Racing.

But the real value will be the experience, especially given IndyCar’s heavily restricted offseason testing policy. Many drivers will have only one test at Sebring in the five-month layoff between last year’s Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach finale and 2022’s kickoff at St. Pete.

“I think the great thing about being able to compete in the 24 Hours of Daytona as an IndyCar driver is you get to race in January going into the season opener in February,” Rossi, who returns with a WTR team hunting a record fourth consecutive Rolex 24 win, told NBC Sports. “The cars are pretty different. There’s not a whole lot of crossover in terms of driving technique and the way you go about it. But you’re race sharp, you’re race ready.

“So when we go into Turn 1 at St. Pete, other guys have been out of the car since September. There’s going to be an advantage to that.”

Andretti teammate Colton Herta said having consecutive weekends of practice, qualifying and racing on the 12-turn, 3.56-mile road course essentially serves as a de-facto warmup, especially for the 11 IndyCar drivers who will be in the high-downforce prototype cars that some have described as an Indy car with fenders.

“It knocks the rust off for us,” Herta told NBC Sports. “We can kind of get into the flow of things, and quite slowly if we need to, just because we have the Roar (test session) and a mock qualifying race and then another weekend of racing and practicing going into the race. It’s plenty of time to get back into the flow of things and feel the car.”

Said Sebastien Bourdais, who left IndyCar for a full-time IMSA ride this year with Ganassi: “I think we’re all racers, so that’s the first draw to doing this. There’s very, very limited testing prior to the season opener at St. Pete. Any miles you can log in the car and sharpen your skills, there’s no shortage of that obviously at Daytona. You’re running at night, sometimes in the rain with very difficult conditions, and that always tends to sharpen your skills. And I think for everybody that’s the benefit on top of obviously we’re just racing freaks and love racing cars and driving in general.”

As he shifts to full-time IndyCar in 2022, Jimmie Johnson is back in the No. 48 Ally Cadillac, which finished second in last year’s Rolex 24 at Daytona (IMSA).

Jimmie Johnson will be racing the No. 48 Ally Cadillac for Action Express in his second consecutive Rolex 24 before his first full season in IndyCar — and also will be driving the other three IMSA endurance races for the second consecutive year. Though the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion enjoys IMSA road racing, the extra laps have helped prepare him for driving a high-downforce vehicle with some of the same techniques as IndyCar.

“I asked Jimmie about what he does to prepare for his first full season in IndyCar, and he said, ‘The best thing I do is drive the prototype,’ ” Bell said. “I think for IndyCar drivers, getting in a prototype is most desired because the braking dynamics are very similar to IndyCar, and as limited as the IndyCar testing is now, any track time in any sort of real racing environment has got to help. The racecraft, working with the team, having the adrenal levels high, which you don’t get in any kind of training that you do. There’s nothing like what you get from pure competition, so given those testing restrictions, if I was a full-time IndyCar driver again, I’d want to be (in the Rolex 24) for that very reason.

“There’s no better way to prime yourself than this is like having an NFL preseason game for the IndyCar drivers is probably how they look at it.”

Though he will be the only IndyCar driver racing in the more production-based GT class, Kyle Kirkwood still views his time in the Vasser Sullivan Lexus RC F GT3 as a needed primer heading into his rookie IndyCar season with A.J. Foyt Racing.

“It is a good warmup because there’s a long off period where you’re not in race mode but test mode,” said the 2021 Indy Lights champion, who has been allowed offseason tests at Indianapolis, Sebring and Barber as an incoming freshman. “It’s nice to get back into the rhythm of racing and being in this environment. There’s a lot I can learn from this race. We’ve got three drivers; everything has to be consistent. There’s a lot of fuel and tire saving and pit stop strategies are super important to learn, because that’s something you don’t get in junior formulas.

“Just getting in the racing mindset. I feel like almost all drivers just build on top of just being in the environment as the year goes on, so starting it off earlier and trying to get a little bit of a head start is super important. I don’t think it matters going from the GT vs. the DPi. There’s maybe a physical aspect that might be better in DPi, but I personally like driving the GT car, because you have to be super precise, and the consequences are much bigger in a big, heavy GT car than they are in an Indy car.”

The LMP2 division will feature much of IndyCar’s 20something star brigade. Pato O’Ward will join Andretti drivers Herta and Devlin DeFrancesco in the No. 81 DragonSpeed USA ORECA. Rinus VeeKay will be in the No. 29 for Racing Team Nederland.

The Rolex 24 will be an opportunity to build camaraderie for other teams. Before their first season as full-time teammates at Meyer Shank Racing, Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud will share the No. 60 Acura at Daytona.

Ganassi has three IndyCar drivers in its two Cadillacs — defending IndyCar Series champion Alex Palou and six-time champion Scott Dixon in the No. 01 and Marcus Ericsson in the No. 02 lineup.

Daytona will mark the sports car endurance debuts for Palou and Ericsson, who again will lean on the wisdom of Dixon, who has started the past 18 Rolex 24s and has four victories (three overall).

“It’s always good if you can get seat time, and unfortunately with our offseasons and the way the testing rules on the IndyCar side have transpired, it’s really hard,” Dixon told NBC Sports. “I think for all of us, we’re drivers. What we want to do is drive. So to be able to do this and be able to keep it in house, which is always a favorite for us. Especially with such a successful team as well, you know you’ve got a great shot at trying to win the race.”

Ericsson has been targeting a Rolex 24 ride since leaving Formula One for IndyCar three years ago.

“It’s a prestigious race and perfect way to get the season started,” Ericsson told NBC Sports. “It’s been tough because I last raced in Long Beach in September and haven’t been in the race car since then. So this Daytona experience is going to be very, very good for my season to get going after the holiday and the offseason.”

Roger Penske, Chip Ganassi bring their storied rivalry to a new level at Rolex 24

Ganassi Penske Rolex 24
Chris Owens/Penske Entertainment

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – To measure the impact of Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi squaring off for the first time in overall sports car wins (starting at the Rolex 24), look at the auto racing titans’ lineups.

There are 12 combined drivers across four entries representing Chip Ganassi Racing (competing as Cadillac Racing) and Team Penske (as Porsche Penske Motorsport) in the 61st Rolex 24 at Daytona.

And with the possible exception of six-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon, none of those behind the wheel is as famous and accomplished as the U.S. motorsports icons who will be sitting atop the pit stands at Daytona International Speedway.

In the NTT IndyCar Series, Penske and Ganassi are synonymous with success, having combined for 23 Indy 500 victories and 30 championships. They also competed in the NASCAR Cup Series for two decades with several signature wins for each.

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Until now, the rivalry never extended to the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, where they competed in different classes from 2018-19 and have competed in the top category in differing times over the years.

But the 2023 season opener at Daytona will mark the beginning of a new era in which Ganassi and Penske will compete for sports car overall victories on two continents. A Ganassi Cadillac Racing V-LMDh and Porsche Penske Motorsports Penske 963 will run full time in both the premier prototype divisions of IMSA and the European-based World Endurance Championship – whose crown jewel is the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Having two of the world’s biggest sports car races welcome the Ganassi-Penske battle seems only fitting in a season in which IMSA’s new Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) class is expected to introduce a stiffer level of competition.

“We obviously like beating each other,” Ganassi told NBC Sports. “I think if you beat Penske, you know you’ve beaten someone. You’ve accomplished something great. It’s going to be the same as always. Just another platform at another track, but the rivalry will be just as heated I’m sure.

“On one hand, he’s always the first guy to call us out for a penalty or something. On the other hand, he’s also the first guy to congratulate me on a win, so I think it’s a healthy rivalry, but we certainly pound each other’s heads into the ground on race day. Monday through Friday it switches to more of a good relationship.”

After starting his career in sports cars, Penske also is looking forward to having a new arena to race Ganassi.

“There is a lot of anticipation and excitement about the Rolex 24 and the upcoming sports car season overall,” Penske said in a statement to NBC Sports statement. “With the new hybrid prototype formula ready to make its debut, and some great competition expected on the track between teams, drivers and manufacturers, there is a lot of momentum building right now. Porsche Penske Motorsport is excited to compete in both the IMSA WeatherTech Championship, as well as the FIA World Endurance Championship, this season and I can’t wait to see the No. 6 and No. 7 Porsche 963s in action at Daytona this weekend. We also look forward to bringing some new rivalries and storylines to the sport.

Roger Penske confers with Chip Ganassi before the 2013 Honda Indy Toronto (Andrew Weber/USA TODAY Sports Images).

“In the new IMSA GTP class, there should be a good competitive balance between Porsche, Cadillac, Acura and BMW. We have seen how the rivalry between Team Penske and Ganassi Racing has developed in the NTT IndyCar Series in recent years, and that could certainly extend to sports cars as our teams and drivers continue to develop the new formula and push the production on track in both IMSA and WEC. We will see how the competition plays out, starting this weekend, as we always enjoy racing against Chip and his teams.”

Though there have been some fiery moments over the years (Dario Franchitti vs. Will Power, anyone?), Ganassi vs. Penske mostly has been a story of respect between two organizations whose main strengths are people.

“It’s just the depth of the organizations going up against each other,” Ganassi said. “It’s not just he and I. It’s at every level of the organization.

“We’re smaller. I’d like to think we’re a little more nimble. This is all I do is race cars. I don’t have 200 car dealerships or a truck rental company or a transportation company. I just have racing is all I have.”

Heading into Saturday’s Rolex 24 at Daytona, here are the thoughts of Ganassi and Penske drivers in the Rolex 24 at Daytona:

Earl Bamber, No. 02 Ganassi Cadillac: “When I grew up as a kid, I remember watching Chip Ganassi Racing and Penske battle each other for many years, obviously following Scott Dixon and his career in IndyCar (Bamber is a New Zealand native like Dixon). And when the opportunity came up to come and race for Chip, it’s a no-brainer. It’s one of those teams you want to drive for in the world. It’s one of the biggest and most successful teams in the world. And then we’ve got Porsche, where I used to drive, with Penske. It’s going to be a phenomenal rivalry over the next couple of years and that rivalry continues between two absolute legends of our sport. Two people who have been the most successful. I hope we can get Cadillac and Chip their first Le Mans win. That’s obviously the ultimate goal for us and beat his old rival, Roger.

“Those two powerhouses of the sport, they definitely raise the bar. You’ve seen it in IndyCar for years and years. One finds something and the next pushes it forward and forward. You’ll see the same in sports car racing. We all saw what Chip Ganassi Racing did back in the day with the GT program. So no doubt we can do the same again. It’s the ultimate highest level of motorsport when it comes to sports car racing, and there’ll be no stone unturned to make sure that we’re winning these races. It will be a really great fight, great for the fans and great for the sport, because both of them love winning.”

Dane Cameron, No. 6 Porsche Penske: “I think anytime you have Chip and Roger come to town to start fighting for wins, it raises the profile of the whole thing. Hopefully it brings a few more eyes to everything. Certainly brings a lot of expectation with it as well, and I also think it reflects really strongly on the championship to show how competitive it is. They respect the championship and challenge, but when they come to town, they come to win for sure.”

Scott Dixon, No. 01 Ganassi Cadillac: “The battle between Chip Ganassi Racing and Penske is always a fierce one. I obviously know it well from the IndyCar side. But I think it’s a lot more than that. It’s impressive to see a lot of the manufacturers that have come in for this battle. I imagine if it’s not from the first race but during the season that Penske and Ganassi will fight it out pretty hard.

“I think the rivalry between Chip Ganassi racing and Penske has always been strong and in a good way. There’s been some battles and the 2010s for me and other drivers when it gets fierce. Some disagreements here and there. But it’s always been a great pure battle, which is what I think these championships are made of and what brings the fans to the track. So I’d sum it up as a very healthy rivalry.”

Alex Lynn, No. 02 Ganassi Cadillac: “Even as a little boy (growing up in England), you knew exactly who Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi were. You knew what their teams represented. For me to represent Chip and his team is a huge honor. I’m extremely motivated to try to add to his legacy and be part of the fabric of this team. I think having the battle between Penske and Ganassi is iconic. Also Porsche and Cadillac as brands, respectively, just adds to the occasion. Makes me smile even thinking about it knowing what we get to represent when the flag drops.”

Felipe Nasr, No. 7 Porsche Penske: “I think it’s fantastic especially because we’re merging the IMSA and WEC Series and giving the opportunity for teams like Penske and Ganassi to fight for overall victories. You look at the history of those teams, they’ve been on top. We always hear it from the IndyCar guys or the NASCAR side, you’re talking two big names in motorsports. You expect nothing but them fighting for wins. For sure Ganassi has strengths, and we have strengths as well. I’m pretty glad I have the opportunity to be representing Team Penske and continue to write history with them and Porsche is a great opportunity.”

Richard Westbrook, No. 02 Ganassi Cadillac: “The chance for the two most famous teams in America to go head to head in the Daytona 24 Hours and also the Le Mans 24 Hours. I expect that rivalry to keep going up more notches.”

Renger van der Zande, No. 01 Ganassi Cadillac: “Obviously, it’s such the big houses of racing in the U.S. Penske and Ganassi are taking it at each other. The rivalry is big. The best of the best. The most famous ones in the U.S.

“Ganassi is part of Cadillac. We’re the race team that runs the factory program for Cadillac. Penske is running it for Porsche, obviously a high brand as well. Those teams have their little rivalry, but they’re working for a bigger company, a bigger brand, which is Cadillac and Porsche. So those two premium brands taking on each other and then two of the best teams in America taking on each other. It’s very simple: Cadillac got the best team in the U.S. and Porsche got the best team in the U.S. So let’s see what happens. It’s going to be a cool fight.”