Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – DAYTONA BEACH, FL – It may still be three weeks until the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season-opening Daytona 500, but there is a distinct NASCAR presence at Daytona International Speedway this weekend for IMSA’s Rolex 24 endurance race (Saturday, 2 p.m. ET on NBCSN).
Dale Earnhardt Jr. will be working for the NBC Sports crew covering the Rolex 24, a race he competed in twice.
His newest NBC broadcast teammate A.J. Allmendinger will be pulling double duty at Daytona – working on television and racing in the No. 86 GTD Class Acura NSX GT3 for Meyer Shank Racing.
It is the 13th Rolex start for Allmendinger, a former Monster Energy Series race winner who recently stepped away from full-time NASCAR competition. He was a member of the 2012 overall winning Rolex team and he is co-driving with another NASCAR veteran this weekend, Justin Marks – a former NASCAR Xfinity Series race winner.
“For me, it’s an honor to be a part of NBC Sports and have this opportunity,’’ Allmendinger said.
“…I’ve still got a lot of work to put in (for television), but I’m learning from two of the best [in veteran sportscar broadcasters Leigh Diffey and Calvin Fish]. It’s unique this weekend, kinda running back and forth. Usually, before the race, you’re kinda standing around a lot, don’t have a lot of time before you get in the race car, but they’ve definitely got my schedule busy and I’m enjoying it. I have this unique challenge and I feel really fortunate.
“Looking at this Saturday and Sunday schedule, they didn’t write in anywhere that I’m sleeping, so trying to get as much sleep as I can on Wednesday and Thursday and tonight,’’ he said smiling. “It’s awesome though. The Rolex 24 is one of my favorite races I’ve ever been a part of.”
Joining Allmendinger and Marks on the grid is another former Cup driver, Juan Pablo Montoya, who now leads one of Acura Team Penske’s full-time IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championships efforts.
Austin Cindric, a 19-year old Team Penske Xfinity Series star, will co-drive a GTD class Lexus for the AIM Vasser Sullivan team in the Rolex 24. He warmed up with a fifth-place finish in Friday afternoon’s IMSA MICHELIN Pilot Challenge race, teaming with another NASCAR Xfinity Series driver, Chase Briscoe.
Last season’s Xfinity Series championship runner-up Cole Custer competed in Friday’s race, teaming with part-time NASCAR driver Ty Majeski and Scott Maxwell to earn a ninth-place finish. Another popular NASCAR driver, Kaz Grala, made his second start in the MICHELIN Pilot Challenge Race, but his Grand Sport (GS) class Audi had mechanical problems and he finished 39th in the 49-car field.
“This was definitely a wild one, an eventful weekend,’’ Grala said smiling. “I just like to come do this because it’s a total change of pace. There are very few similarities between the NASCAR garage and over here in IMSA.
“I love doing NASCAR and want to keep doing that, but this is a lot of fun to do every now and then to have a change of pace and see how they do things.’’
Although Grala was disappointed with Friday’s results in the Michelin Pilot Challenge, he said he leaves the track hopeful of good news soon and to announce plans to race in the upcoming Xfinity Series schedule.