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Rolex 24 at Daytona: Weekend Preview

by Chris Leone // Website // Twitter
Images via IMSA

The IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship kicks off its 50th anniversary season this weekend with the Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway. North America’s premier endurance racing event attracts top drivers from all walks of motorsport to join sports car racing regulars for a twice-around-the-clock assault on Daytona’s iconic road course.

From many of the top Prototype teams in the world to stellar GT teams in multiple classes, Daytona boasts one of the strongest sports car lineups in the world every year—and an assortment of throwback liveries to celebrate the history of the sport have only made it more exciting. Here’s a look at the top stories to watch out for over the weekend:

The Regulars

Daytona Prototype team Mazda Team Joest felled Daytona’s long-standing road course track record in qualifying on Thursday, with Oliver Jarvis topping PJ Jones’ former mark set 26 years ago; they’ll be followed to the line by both Acura Team Penske entries, the second Mazda, and defending IMSA champions Whelen Engineering Racing. But two of last year’s standout squads struggled in qualifying, as CORE autosport was outqualified by two LMP2 entries in its first race with a Nissan DPi and the defending winners at Mustang Sampling Racing did not post a qualifying time at all.

Porsche’s factory effort topped the GT Le Mans qualifying times with driver Nick Tandy, while four different manufacturers shared the top four spots in class qualifying. In the slower GT Daytona class, Via Italia Racing topped the class with driver Marcos Gomes wheeling its Ferrari just .067 seconds faster than regular title threat Ben Keating.

Don’t sleep on GT Daytona, though, as its offseason was one of the most interesting in the sport with multiple team changes. Longtime IndyCar owners James Sullivan and Jimmy Vasser have taken over the Lexus program, returning Jack Hawksworth from last year’s 3GT Racing squad but otherwise clearing house on drivers. In addition, 2018 Rolex 24 and class points runner-up Katherine Legge returns to Meyer-Shank Racing with Curb Agajanian, but with a twist: she’ll now be part of an all-female effort put together by veteran racer Jackie Heinricher.

The Ringers

Looking at the endurance specialist or Daytona-only drivers competing this weekend is like looking at a future motorsports hall of fame roster. For one, there’s Fernando Alonso, whose gradual shift toward more and more competition in America continues as he joins the two-time Rolex 24-winning squad at Wayne Taylor Racing. Top IndyCar stars like Alexander Rossi and Simon Pagenaud will also compete in DPi alongside Alonso, as will ex-Formula 1 star Rubens Barrichello and multiple 24 Hours of Le Mans and Pikes Peak International Hill Climb winner Romain Dumas.

GT Le Mans also has plenty of IndyCar flair, with both Scott Dixon and Sebastien Bourdais competing for Ford Chip Ganassi Racing and Colton Herta racing for BMW Team RLL. But it’s one man in the other BMW whose story transcends racing: Alex Zanardi, the two-time CART champion who lost his legs in a horrific crash in 2001, will make his Rolex 24 debut thanks to specially modified hand controls. Zanardi has competed in touring and sports car racing since his incident, and earned gold medals in multiple Paralympic Games earlier in the decade.

In GT Daytona, Legge is joined by one of the most impressive rosters of women drivers in history—one that includes fellow IndyCar veterans Ana Beatriz and Simona de Silvestro, as well as Christina Nielsen, IMSA’s first female class champion. Other familiar faces in the class include NASCAR veterans AJ Allmendinger, who continues his longstanding partnership with Michael Shank in the event, and Austin Cindric, who will run for AIM Vasser Sullivan in one of its Lexus entries.

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