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Pedley: Rolex A Great Watch As Season Begins

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Tuesday, January 31 2012

A record crowd packed the Daytona International Speedway infield over the weekend. They got to see a classic. (Photos courtesy of the Rolex GRAND-AM Sports Car Racing Series)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor

The first big race of 2012 is history and, truly historical the Rolex 24-hour race was. Not to mention exciting and entertaining.

Some random thoughts about the 24, its cars, its drivers, its teams and its big moments.

– The race was devoid of mega NASCAR driving stars like Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon this year. But it was not devoid of NASCAR flavor. Two NASCAR drivers played pivotal roles in the outcome and earned spots on the podium.

Penske Racing’s A.J. Allmendinger, of course, was on the winning Daytona Prototype team and at the wheel when the Michael Shank Racing Ford Riley took the checkered flag. But equally impressive was NASCAR journeyman driver Michael McDowell.

McDowell drove his guts out when behind the wheel of the third-place Michael Shank car. He helped keep it scrapping and clawing and when the No. 01 Chip Ganassi Racing BMW Riley was sent to the paddock with a gear box problem, McDowell’s team was there to move up to a podium finish.

NASCAR regular Jamie McMurray nearly played a big role as he rubbed away at the car of his Chip Ganassi Racing teammates –  teammates in a No. 01 car which was in contention for the DP victory.

NASCAR-related machinery also played a leading role in the 24. Perhaps most notably engines produced

Daytona 24 DP winners Justin Wilson, Oswaldo Negri, John Pew and AJ Allmendinger.

by Earnhardt Childress Racing. The ECR engines were in four of the top-seven qualifying car, including the DP Corvettes of SunTrust Wayne Taylor Racing and Gainsco/Bob Stallings Racing.

NASCAR tactics also played a big part in the finish of the race. That’s when Allmendinger and veteran sports car driver Allan McNish went all Craven/Busch/Darlington on the Daytona International high banks. McNish would voice displeasure. Allmendinger would voice, “I’ll take the NASCAR approach.”

And a NASCAR rule also made an appearance. Specifically, the “lucky dog” rule that puts the first car a lap off the pace back on the lead lap during a caution.

– Fears that the large field of GT cars, many with inexperienced “Gentleman Drivers”, would cause massive havoc never fully were realized.

There were some crazy moments. Some very frustrating moments, like near the end when inexcusably bad driving and spins threatened to alter the results of what have been 23 hours of good racing. But the amateurs never did produce any barrel-rolling, flaming catastrophes. Not even that AC/DC guy. Thank goodness.

– Ferraris and Audis had rough introductions. They just did not prove to be good enough to challenge the highly seasoned Porsche GT3 Cup cars. The No. 63 Risi Competizione Ferrari fared best – it came home

Rolex GT class winners Andy Lally, John Potter, Richard Leitz and Rene Rast.

fifth in GT.  The top placing Audi – the No. 51 APR entry – was 31st in GT. The Audi story; clutch problems.

But, look for fortunes to improve for the two marques as their integration into the series continues.

– The race was an all-star event for sports car drivers. As the advance releases rolled in during the months leading up to the race, the names of top drivers piled up and melded together. It was a hoot on race day as every pit stop inserted another top name into the race.

It would be easier here to name the still-driving stars who were not in the race. (Heck, let’s start with Tom Kristensen.)

– Travis Pastrana proved, first, he can drive a sports car. Second, that guzzling Red Bulls and television interviews are a bad mix. Oh, and Travis, when you’re rolling up pit lane after leaving your stall, both hands on the wheel and both eyes forward. Take care of the fiddling before lifting off the brake pedal.

– Lots of highs for SPEED and its TV coverage. Top marks go to booth guys Leigh Diffey (perhaps the best play-by-play guy in racing coverage), David Hobbs, Calvin Fish and Tommy Kendall. Great insight from guys who know their stuff.

Nitpick: In sports car racing, even at Daytona, the cars are worked upon in paddocks, not “garages”.

Finally, the long time complaint – ending the coverage on Saturday night so dang early and, would love to see sun rise over the backstretch grandstands at DIS on TV.

– A top story line featured driver Andy Lally and his old boss, Kevin Buckler of TRG.

The No. 01 Chip Ganassi Racing car had a tough time on Sunday.

The worked together well at TRG for years and in both sports cars and NASCAR. Then, something went bad between them last year. (Too bad, both are good folks.)

At Daytona over the weekend, Lally won in GT while driving a GT3 for Magnus. Buckler’s No. 67 car finished second.

– Ford’s surprisingly strong showing had to make for a great party in Dearborn. Carmakers tend to get all happy when they win even when they’re supposed to win. To dominate DP like Ford did both in terms of power and reliability, and do that in stealth mode, makes the party even better.

Also, they were feeling pretty darn good in Concord, N.C. as well. The Ford engines which swept the DP podium were built by Roush Yates.

Said good-guy Doug Yates, CEO of Roush Yates Engines, “It just doesn’t get any better in road racing than winning the 50th running of the Rolex 24 – such a prestigious event.”

Maybe the most significant testimony to the power of the Fords came from 2011 Daytona 24 winner, Scott Pruett: The BMW-user called the Ford engines unfair.

– Too bad A.J. Foyt had to miss out on being grand marshal at DIS – knee problems. Some of the current generation tend to forget what a big part Foyt played in American sports car racing. They tend to not

Hurley Haywood drove his way to one last podium.

know that he was part of that Ford gang that traveled to Le Mans in the 1960s and administered a red, white and blue drubbing to the kings of arrogance; Ferrari and the tifosi.

Quick anecdote: Back when Foyt was fielding NASCAR team, the annual Media Tour visited his shop. There on the wall and really big was a photo of Foyt in the GT 40 with the light such that you could see Foyt’s face behind the wheel and his arms muscling away at the wheel.

Almost, but not totally, making up for Foyt’s absence at the 24 was the presence of Sir Jackie Stewart. And complete with tartan hat and trousers yet.

– Finally, great/sad to see Hurley Haywood, one of the world’s all-time great sports car drivers, climb the podium one last time. (Thanks for putting up with the phone calls and stupid questions, Hurley.) Few will be offended if you opt to race another time or two. Like, at Indy this year?

Overall, great job Rolex and GRAND-AM. Great kickoff to 2012.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Tuesday, January 31 2012
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