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After one-year absence, A.J. Allmendinger back for 12th career Rolex 24

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A.J. Allmendinger will take part in his 12th edition of the Rolex 24 this weekend at Daytona International Speedway.

But in a way, Allmendinger feels almost like a rookie in his first time taking part in one of the world’s highest-profile endurance races.

“It’s going to be different,” Allmendinger said during Tuesday’s NASCAR Media Day in Charlotte, North Carolina. “I’ve always run the Prototype class and Shank’s (Michael Shank Racing) first year last year with the GTD class and the Acura NSX’s.

“They’ve really built a lot of speed. They won two races last year so the car’s got a lot of speed in it. But it’s a different way of racing, you know? Being a Prototype, you’re the aggressor. You’re the one making the moves.

“With the GT cars there’s a challenge to allowing cars to get around you and not losing a lot of time and that’s where the best GT drivers are so good at it. I got only about 30 laps probably at the Roar (the Roar Before the Rolex 24 three weeks ago, also at Daytona).

“ABS (system) brakes is way different than anything I’ve ever driven. It took me a while to learn. And I can’t say I’ve really got a full understanding of it yet but I love that race. I love working with Mike Shank and that whole team.”

Allmendinger is the only full-time NASCAR Cup driver taking part in this year’s Rolex 24, along with Xfinity Series part-time drivers Austin Cindric and Justin Marks.

Allmendinger likes the idea of competing with some of the world’s best drivers across various disciplines of racing.

Among big names in this year’s race: two-time F1 champ Fernando Alonso, Team Penske drivers Simon Pagenaud, Helio Castroneves, Juan Pablo Montoya, as well as fellow IndyCar drivers Ryan Hunter-Reay, Spencer Pigot and Graham Rahal.

Allmendinger, who turned 36 on December 16, knows that one day he’ll race in his final Rolex 24, much like veteran Scott Pruett is doing in this weekend’s race, bringing an illustrious three-plus decade career to an end.

“At some point, I’m sure I’m going to have to give this up,” Allmendinger said. “I would love to (win again). I love what IMSA is doing. There’s going to be 20 brand new Prototypes, there’s 21 or 22 cars in the Prototype class, which is bigger than any other Prototype class in the world.

“The GT class and our class, there’s 21 or 22 cars as well. It’s such a competitive field; I think the top 15 at the test were separated by 7 or 8 tenths. What they’re doing is great. There’s so many different manufacturers in there now. And I would love to do it, for sure.”

As for Pruett’s final race, Allmendinger is highly complimentary and respectful of Pruett and his career.

“What Scott Pruett has done for the sport of just auto racing, not NASCAR or IMSA or anything like that, it’s what he’s done in general for the world of racing has been pretty special, he’s done it all,” Allmendinger said. “He’s raced everything (including) IndyCar, he’s run sports cars, he’s run NASCAR, and he’s been fast in everything that he’s done.

“More importantly, he’s always been such a great promoter of the sport and great to go talk to if you needed to ask questions. (He’s a) hard competitor. To see him go out on his own terms and to go out with the biggest race in their sport, I think we’d all like to be able to do that.”

Allmendinger will drive the Michael Shank Racing No. 86 Acura in the Rolex 24, teaming with Katherine Legge, Alvaro Parente and Trent Hindman.

And that’s where the rookie feeling comes in: In his previous 11 Rolex 24 starts, Allmendinger has competed behind the wheel of a Prototype. This year is different: it’s his first time piloting a ride in the GTD class.

Allmendinger has been part of the Shank team for every year since 2006. That includes winning the 2012 race, was third in 2013 and earned the pole in 2015.

But because Shank switched to Honda last season to be part of Acura’s factory program in the GTD class, Allmendinger was forced to watch from the sidelines to make room for several Honda drivers from other motorsports series.

But Allmendinger won’t be sidelined in 2018. He’s right back in the thick of things and intends on doing his best to win the 24 yet again.

“It’s definitely nice to be back again, for sure,” Allmendinger said.

And it would definitely be nice to be back again in victory lane, for sure, as well.