A total of 58 cars began the 50th anniversary Rolex 24 at Daytona, but there could be only one winner.
After trying to win this race since 2004 and coming up empty eight times, team owner Michael Shank took his eponymous team to Victory Lane on the strength of a heroic three-hour final stint by NASCAR star AJ Allmendinger, who is also one of his partners in a new Indy car venture.
Allmendinger's driving partners were former CART teammate Justin Wilson, Ozz Negri and John Pew.
In a stirring drive, Allmendinger drove "the most fun three hours of racing I've ever done" to beat No. 8 Starworks polesitter Ryan Dalziel by 5.198 seconds.
The second Michael Shank Racing finished third. The top three finishers all drove Ford/Riley Daytona Prototype entries and were the only finishers to complete the 761-lap distance over the 3.560-mile Daytona International Speedway road/oval course.
The battle royal between Allmendinger and Dalziel, part of the 2010-winning team, was amazing to watch as they sliced through the mammoth GT field, banging side by side on occasion and splitting the maze of Porsches and Mazdas that made up most of the GT grouping. Daytona's banking allowed the drivers to go high, low, in between as they vied for the win. The third-place sister car to Allmendinger's couldn't stay with this duo, finishing almost 50 seconds back.
Allmendinger's battle with Dalziel was prefaced by one with the Scot's teammate and countryman, veteran Allan McNish.
"You know, I knew those last three hours I was going to go flat-out because of the No. 8 car, the 01 at that point were really fast. And McNish, I look at, he's one of the best sports car drivers ever," Allmendinger said. "He's got all the accolades when it comes to Daytona, Le Mans, everything that he's done. That was really fun. I was trying to give Shank a heart attack on the timing stand a little bit, but that was just fun. I mean, it was a good time out there."
Team owner Shank, from Columbus, Ohio, felt "like I have to prove myself every step because I came from nothing more or less. I've had great relationships with people like Ozz (Negri, co-driver) and John Pew, that have really taken our business to another level. I always feel like I tried to over-deliver for them in any way I could. Sometimes it worked out and sometimes it didn't, but for the most part I have a pretty good track record doing what I say I'm going to do."
Trouble struck the defending Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates No. 01 BMW/Riley Daytona Prototype with an hour and 15 minutes remaining, when Scott Pruett reported he had no first or second gears. That dropped the reigning Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series co-champion out of the running for the overall win as his team tried to effect repairs to get him to the finish.
Each lap in the pits was, of course costly; Pruett rejoined in sixth place, five laps behind leader AJ Allmendinger. He'd make up one lap on the leader but remained sixth at the close. The No. 02 BMW/Riley, with Juan Pablo Montoya at the controls finished fourth after having its own issues, the first car one lap down.
The No. 5 Action Express Corvette was the first of that breed to finish the race--itself a bit of a miracle as the team suffered electrical issues throughout the 24 hours, starting in the first hour with a misfire. Darren Law brought the car home fifth.
The balance of the top 10 were the No. 77 Ford/Dallara with Paul Tracy at the wheel for Doran Racing who completed 748 laps; Jan Magnussen in the Spirit of Daytona No. 90 Corvette DP, 746 laps; JC France in the No. 9 Action Express Corvette, 739 laps and Michael Valiante in the No. 2 Starworks Ford/Riley, 736 laps.
The No. 44 Porsche GT3 Cup of Magnus Racing with Richard Lietz at the wheel earned the Rolex watches for their victory in GT, finishing 11th overall and completing 727 laps. That podium was a Porsche sweep as Wolf Henzler brought the No. 67 TRG Porsche second and 12th overall, followed by Marc Lieb in Brumos Racing's Porsche in lucky 13th place.
Magnus Racing is a relatively new team led by John Potter and drivers Andy Lally, Lietz, Rene Rast and Potter. Lally realized "we had the potential to do this. The people assembled by John to start Magnus Racing just two years ago were top-notch guys and he took direction from some really well-seasoned vets. He steered the ship in the right direction and basically put together a really solid, strong effort."
The 50th anniversary Rolex 24 at Daytona was certainly a grand one from the standpoint of competition, racing excitement--and even the weather cooperated. It never became exceptionally cold overnight; there was minimal fog; no rain anywhere near the race track and sunny skies throughout both Saturday and Sunday.
The number of people in the infield was capacity for this contest and they certainly got their money's worth, watching grand battles throughout the field.