Column: News & Notes From Friday At The 2020 Rolex 24 At Daytona

Column By: IMSA – DAYTONA BEACH, FL – News and notes from Friday of Rolex 24 At Daytona weekend on Jan. 24, 2020.

CONVERGENCE: TALK OF THE PADDOCK

Sports car racing’s highest-profile team owners, manufacturer representatives, series executives and drivers came together Friday afternoon in Daytona for one of the sport’s most significant modern-day announcements – the convergence of the top categories of endurance racing under the unified designation LMDh.

IMSA Chairman Jim France said he and the ACO (Automobile Club de l’Ouest) leaders first broached the idea five years ago, realizing the massive undertaking it would take to make the union a reality. But France said he and the other executives also realized an enormous upside of uniting the cars in the world’s great endurance races from the Rolex 24 to the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring to the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Motul Petit Le Mans.

“It’s a continuation of the vision where both cars are competing at Le Mans are also competing at Daytona for the overall victory,’’ France told the rapt audience. “It’s a step to that spot. The proof will be when we have a car that wins Daytona and wins Le Mans in the same year, that’s what I’m looking forward to.”

“The way I view it,” he continued afterward, “is if you ever catch the Ford vs. Ferrari movie where the cars went back and forth at Le Mans, that’s the era that we’re getting ready to enter into here, that is my optimistic hope.

“I can’t control what the manufacturers do and how they approach it, but the opportunity will certainly be there.”

DALE JR. READY FOR YEAR TWO OF BROADCASTING ROLEX 24 AT DAYTONA ON NBC

Popular NASCAR driver turned commentator Dale Earnhardt Jr., and his former Hendrick Motorsports crew chief Steve Letarte will broadcast their second Rolex 24 At Daytona this weekend. They met with the media Friday morning along with on-air talent Calvin Fish and Leigh Diffey as part of the NBC Sports team covering that is covering the race.

NBC Sports’ coverage of the Rolex 24 starts live on the NBC network Saturday at 1:30 p.m. ET, with NBC network coverage of the finish airing at 12 p.m. ET Sunday. In addition to the network windows on Saturday and Sunday, additional Rolex 24 Coverage includes windows on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App and the race in its entirety on TrackPass on NBC Sports Gold.

Fish, a former driver and longtime IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship announcer, spoke about the extended benefits of having the NASCAR pair on the broadcast team for the Rolex 24 for a second consecutive year.

“I think we just have a great mix,’” Fish said. “It’s great to be back, and I think last year working with Dale and Steve up there on the pit box, they come at the sport from a different angle so they’re very curious about a lot of things and I think that opens you up to look at it differently yourself.

“I think that was great for the fans.”

Earnhardt was similarly enthused to be trackside for the annual twice-around-the-clock classic endurance race. He competed in the race twice, scoring a memorable runner-up finish in 2001, co-driving a GTO-class Chevrolet Corvette with his father, seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Dale Earnhardt and sports car champion Andy Pilgrim.

He finished fifth overall and third in the marquee Daytona Prototype class in the 2004 Rolex 24 co-driving with NASCAR champion Tony Stewart and sports car great Andy Wallace. The team led 345 of 519 laps, only to suffer a suspension problem in the closing laps.

“I have to remind myself that I even ran this race a couple times because we come here as the NASCAR guys. When you sit on the [NBC Sports] pit box you really do kind of fall into that fandom sort of experience watching the race and seeing who the underdogs are and who the guys to beat are,’’ Earnhardt said smiling.

“It’s an incredible experience from a fan perspective.”

Earnhardt joked that he and Letarte were enjoying their Rolex experience so much, they should field a team and compete themselves one day soon. Earnhardt said Letarte would be the designated “gentlemen” driver, he would be the 50-plus driver because he’d probably be 50 years old before they could make this attempt.

“Then we’d have to have someone really really fast to save us,” Earnhardt said. “Every time we daydream about it’s a different driver.”

Both Earnhardt and Letarte said they fully expected Kyle Busch would not only enjoy his first 24-hour race experience but fully expected the reigning Cup champ to be competitive in his driving stints. There wasn’t much advice Earnhardt felt he could give the recently crowned two-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Busch at this point.

“Kyle’s got a great team around him and great drivers that he’s working with and his experience will be completely different from mine,” Earnhardt said. “It was so long ago that I don’t know that I could help him a whole lot.

“It will be fun to watch him experience it. He’s such a talented driver. He’s going to be so prepared mentally and knows exactly what he needs to do to do the job right.”

BUSCH IS READY TO ROLL

Kyle Busch conceded there have been some definite “lessons” preparing for his first Rolex 24 At Daytona start. But the reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion was quite optimistic about his No. 14 AIM Vasser Sullivan Lexus RC F GT3 and the challenge that awaited the team.

The car will start 16th among the 18 GTD cars. The team did not make a qualifying run after an eventful pre-qualifying run when the car went over a raised speed bump-type section of the bus stop turn entering the NASCAR Speedway Turn 3.

The team repaired the damage from the heavy hit, changed the engine and had limited practice Thursday evening. Busch insisted the team recovered well, and that he and driver Jack Hawksworth, who drives the car fulltime, were back to quicker lap times by Friday morning.

“We’d love to get that better and feel a little more competitive, but we’re also trying to make sure we stay on track and complete all 24 hours,” Busch told reporters on Friday.

“Got some good laps last night and some good laps this morning. I think I ran the quickest of our cars this morning,’’ adding with a grin, “I’m not sure what that means.”

The team handed out driving assignments on Friday and Busch said he is tentatively scheduled to drive from 6-9 p.m. on Saturday, overnight from 2-4:30 a.m. and then again Sunday morning, 7-9 a.m. Of course the schedule changes – in lineup and timeframe – as the twice-around-the-clock event goes on.

CHALLENGING IMSA DEBUT FOR DEEGAN

Hailie Deegan may not have won the race in her IMSA debut, but the 18-year old Ford factory driver said she’ll leave Daytona International Speedway’s road course feeling optimistic about her return to the track for the ARCA Menards Series season-opener Feb. 8 on the traditional Daytona 2.5-mile high-banked oval.

Deegan’s No. 22 Multimatic Motorsports Ford Mustang suffered a pair of mechanical issues, at one point requiring about half an hour of work in the garage. But after driving more than two hours, Deegan finally brought the car into the garage for work and a driver change, leaving Ford teammate Chase Briscoe to finish the four-hour BMW Endurance Challenge.

“I feel like I just gained a lot of experience,” Deegan said after climbing out of the car. “I’m here to gain experience after that three-day road test, coming here and practicing for two days. I just feel like I know a lot more about racing than I did before and that’s why I’m here and supposed to be doing.”

Deegan ran as high as 12th in the 51-car field before the lengthy pit stop. A full-course yellow came out for an accident in the bus stop with about 13 minutes remaining in the race, freezing the field. Deegan’s teammate Chase Briscoe rallied to get the car back up to 29th in the final class standings. His fellow NASCAR Xfinity Series competitor Austin Cindric finished right behind them co-driving the team’s other Ford Mustang.

The adventurous day for all ultimately could be chalked up as a learning experience for the young NASCAR talents.

“I’m gaining experience,’’ Deegan said of day. “And that’s what I’m here to do.’’

No. 7 ACURA BOUNCES BACK FROM QUALIFYING CRASH

In Friday’s final practice session before the Rolex 24 At Daytona, the No. 7 Acura Team Penske DPi entry was second-fastest in the field.

And that time of 1:35.733 (133.872 mph) shows just how quickly the team bounced back after Ricky Taylor’s high-speed crash at the bus stop in the waning minutes of the DPi qualifying session on Thursday. The team immediately went into scramble mode, reassembling the Acura in time to make it out on track during the final five minutes of the night session on Thursday – but didn’t record a lap time.

Taylor said that the team had been planning to use the evening session “to do a lot of our development work” as they knew following the Roar that they had a lot of ground to make up on Mazda Team Joest, which won the pole for this weekend’s race. But the Friday morning session gave the team the chance to make those adjustments.

“So, I’d say that the only setback right now is that we lost a set of tires,” Taylor said during a Friday media session. “We were hoping to save a set of tires, that qualifying set was lost. So that’s an extra double-stint that we have to do in the race, which equates to some time.

“But in the grand scheme of things, pace-wise, we should be right where we were.”

That could mean good things for the team co-driven by Helio Castroneves and Alexander Rossi that is aiming to improve over their third-place finish a year ago.

JORDAN TAYLOR A BORE? HE IS AT THE BUFFET

Jordan Taylor has long been one of endurance racing’s most outgoing personalities. He’s funny, he’s witty and he’s always pulling pranks on social media.

But when it comes to his food choices for a 24-hour endurance race, let’s just say Taylor’s plate doesn’t match his personality.

In fact …

“I’m pretty boring,” said Taylor, on the eve of his 13th drive in the Rolex 24. “I eat the same thing every meal. I just eat salad, pasta and chicken every meal of the whole weekend pretty much other than breakfast.”

Taylor’s dull dining is the byproduct of experience, one of the “little things” he said has evolved with his Rolex 24 prep since he first tackled the twice-around-the-clock challenge in 2008. Back then, eating well wasn’t a priority.

Neither was rest.

“The first one, I had no idea what I was doing,” said Taylor, a two-time Rolex 24 winner. “I was trying to sleep after the first stint, didn’t sleep and then I was too excited after the second stint and didn’t sleep at all.”

Taylor will at least grab an hour’s sleep after his second stint this weekend in the No. 3 Corvette C8.R, the car he’s sharing with Antonio Garcia and Nicky Catsburg. But before Taylor starts snoring in the motorcoach, you’ll find him refueling at the boring buffet.

“As soon as you get out of the car, you want to get a meal in so it can digest before your next stint, constantly hydrating,” he said. “If you are sore in a spot, make sure you are getting treatment for it early on instead of later when it’s past the point of treatment. It’s being more experienced with the little things that will catch up with you at the end of the race.”

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