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Allmendinger Steps Up, Closes Door at Rolex

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, January 29 2012

Michael Shank Racing's winning team celebrates in Victory Lane after the 50th running of the Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway Sunday. (Photos courtesy of the Rolex GRAND-AM Sports Car Racing Series)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – On a weekend when Grand Marshall A.J. Foyt had to call in sick, another A.J. legend was born in the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Driving the final stint for 2 hours and 48 minutes, A.J. Allmendinger battled with Scottish sports car racing great Allan McNish and then held off perennial American road racing champion Scott Pruett as well as rising star Ryan Dalziel to bring the victory to Michael Shank Racing.

Currently known as a strong closer in the Sprint Cup – a reputation that helped land a plum ride with Penske Racing for the 2012 season – Allmendinger won the race in stock car style by passing McNish in the Starworks Riley-Ford on the banking during an exchange of fender-banging reminiscent of many battles on the Daytona back straight among NASCAR drivers.

“You knew if you could lead the race, you had a good chance of staying ahead of the guy,” said Allmendinger. The ultimate result of getting past McNish was Allmendinger’s first victory since leaving Champ Car to join the NASCAR ranks in 2007 as well as a first 24-hour victory. Co-drivers Oswaldo Negri and John Pew, the Shank team’s regular Grand-Am drivers, and Justin Wilson were also first-time winners.

With a little more than two hours remaining, the outcome was unclear. Leader McNish took exception when Allmendinger’s car cracked the rear fender of his Starworks Motorsport entry at the exit of the

The second-place Riley Ford of Starworks Motorsports.

banking in NASCAR Turn 2 and retaliated with a full door-to-door broadside as the two drivers approached the bus stop chicane at the end of the backstraight. But it was Allmendinger who got to the corner first.

“That’s not the kind of racing we should be doing at 180 miles an hour,” said an irate McNish. “It was a clean fight until that point.”

Allmendinger took exception to McNish closing the door at the exit of Turn 1 four laps earlier as “Dinger” tried to go around on the outside. McNish carried the Shank Racing Riley off the edge and over the curbs while rubbing fenders and holding the lead.

“I wasn’t a big fan of his move in Turn 1,” said Allmendinger, who was sarcastic about the subsequent high-speed contact with McNish on the banking. “I’ll take the NASCAR approach,” he said. “I got loose in (NASCAR) Turn 2 and we touched.”

Team owner Shank said Allmendinger’s pass was a turning point – preceded by his decision to change the driver sequence before dawn on Sunday morning, lining up Wilson, Negri and Allmendinger for triple stints in the push to the finish.

“There were a lot of key turning points,” said Shank, who has attempted the 24-hour with Negri in his

The Rolex 24 winning Ford Riley of Michael Shank Racing. A.J. Allmendinger was at the wheel at the finish line. (Photo courtesy of the Rolex GRAND-AM Sports Car Racing Series)

line-up nine times and seven times with Allmendinger. “We made a change in the driver sequence and it worked perfect. When I saw Justin go out and lead I knew we had something for these guys.”

It was a comeback for Wilson, too. He was racing for the first time since breaking his back in an IndyCar accident at Mid-Ohio last year. Two years ago at Daytona, Wilson drove to a runner-up finish in 2010 after he pitted for an unscheduled stop in one of Chip Ganassi’s entries in the closing hours.

“Hopefully this is the start of a good season,” said Wilson, who will drive an IndyCar entry for Dale Coyne this year. “We were joking about that before the race, win this one, and move on, win St. Pete and who knows, maybe the Indy 500. We’ve just got to take it one step at a time.”

Driving a Ford-powered Riley chassis, the Shank team completed a near-record distance in the 50th anniversary running of Daytona’s classic season opener. Crossing the line 5.198 seconds ahead of pole winner Dalziel of Starworks, the winners’ 761 laps fell just three miles short of the record 2,712.720 covered by the Eagle-Toyota of Dan Gurney’s All American Racers in 1992.

Shank’s older Riley-Ford chassis took third place due to a relatively trouble-free run by Michael McDowell, Felipe Nasr and Indy Lights regulars Jorge Goncalez and Gustavo Yacaman. The car returned to the lead lap during a spate of four cautions in the final five hours.

In the debut of GM Racing’s new Corvette as the Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series rolled out the third generation of Daytona Prototypes, it was Ford and the new Riley chassis that dominated in terms of speed on the 3.56-mile infield and oval circuit versus the GM cars and the BMW-powered Rileys of Target Chip Ganassi Racing. Ultimately, the Corvette of Gainsco/Bob Stallings was the only new Chevy to lead any laps; after a blown radiator and an off-course excursion the “Red Dragon” finished 33rd.

After starting on pole, Dalziel’s Starworks car clearly had legs on the straightaways under Ford power produced by Roush Yates Engines. Equally strong was the No. 60 entry of Shank. But after Lucas Luhr overcooked his braking into the bus stop chicane with four hours, 35 minutes remaining, the Starworks Riley lost a lap while the team pulled off the damaged rear fenders.

With reduced downforce in the rear, the Starworks car’s fate was written under sunny Florida skies that

Allan McNish took a beating. (Photo courtesy of Martyn Passe)

meant a hot slick track as the teams surged toward the mid-afternoon finish. “We started changing the tire pressures to get the car balanced again,” said McNish. “We got it balanced, but without the downforce it wasn’t the same.”

“It was almost like the fairy tale ending to a difficult couple of days for us where we qualified on pole,” said Dalziel, who chased Allmendinger to no avail despite a late caution. After relieving McNish, Dalziel could not cut down the gap quickly opened up by Allmendinger to as many as eight seconds. “We clearly had the best car for the first half of the race and it just kind of fell away from us,” said Dalziel.

Engine problems contributed to the downfall of the Corvettes. The No. 5 Action Express entry missed qualifying due to a blown Chevy V-8, then spent the entire race battling an intermittant electrical problem that left the engine with a flat response. Darren Law, David Donohue and Christian Fittipaldi soldiered to a fifth-place finish, the best result by the Corvette, which is a new bodywork design fitted to chassis manufactured by Pratt & Miller Engineering, Riley Technologies and Dallara Automobili.

SunTrust Racing suffered the biggest setback among the Corvettes. The team owned by Wayne Taylor went to the garage in the first hour. A valve train problem took 60 laps to repair and Taylor elected to retire the car which Max Angelelli had put on the front row alongside Dalziel in qualifying.

The perennial favorites at Ganassi led most of the laps during the long Daytona night between midnight and dawn. But the No. 02 entry of Dario Franchitti, Juan Pablo Montoya, Scott Dixon and Jamie McMurray suffered a broken shifter that put them four laps down during the 12th hour; they finished fourth, one lap in arrears. The No. 01 car of Pruett, Memo Rojas, Joey Hand and Graham Rahal remained in contention until the final hour, when Pruett lost first and second gears on his final pit stop, dropping it from the lead lap to sixth at the finish.

In front of a capacity infield crowd, the race threatened to turn into the “24 yellows of Daytona” in the early going, averaging one caution per hour during the first seven. That kept the prototype leaders bunched on the lead lap, in part becuase of a new “lucky dog” rule that returned the first car a lap down to the lead lap. By the finish, there were 49 lead changes among nine of the 14 prototypes starting the race.

– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jingram@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, January 29 2012
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