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No ordinary Rolex 24 practice session at night

The SportsXchange

NASCAR Wire Service

Distributed by The Sports Xchange

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- It is a new day for sports car racing in North America and for 90 minutes Saturday at Daytona International Speedway, it was a new night as well.

The "Roar Before the Rolex 24" test sessions, held in advance of the Rolex 24 At Daytona, annually feature a night practice that is typically interesting and sometimes precarious, offering a glimpse of what's to come when the Rolex 24 is run on Daytona's 3.56-mile road course.

Saturday night's glimpse served as an under-the-lights highlight of this weekend for the new IMSA TUDOR United SportsCar Championship, which opens its inaugural season with the Rolex 24 on Jan. 25-26. The TUDOR Championship is the result of the merger of the American Le Mans Series and the GRAND-AM Rolex Series.

In three weeks, approximately half of the Rolex 24 will be run between sundown and sunrise, which obviously makes night practice vital. That's especially true on Daytona's layout, which utilizes all four 31-degree banked turns in addition to the infield's twists and turns. On the upside, at least it's not as imposing as it was before the speedway installed lights in 1998.

Still, it is no easy task.

"Some of the drivers who are struggling during the day really freak out at night," said Sebastien Bourdais, co-driver of the No. 5 Action Express Corvette DP. "It's important to work with the traffic at night, because the (skill) level of driving is very different. It makes it hard because we're trying to race at the front. ... We have to stay on our toes and try to stay out of trouble."

Bourdais was fastest in the night session, held under clear skies with temperature in the 50s, with a lap of 1 minute, 39.223 seconds/129.164 mph.

Jamie McMurray, the former Daytona 500 champion who is part of an imposing all-star driver lineup fielded by car owner Chip Ganassi, had the day's best lap overall on Saturday afternoon -- 1:38.980/129.481 in the No. 01 Ford/Riley DP.

After two days of testing and six sessions, the best lap from Friday morning's first session still stands at the top -- 1:38.630/129.940 by Bourdais' teammate, Christian Fittipaldi.

The Roar wraps up Sunday with a 9 a.m.-3:30 p.m. EST schedule.

--Saturday also featured the announcement that the four-race Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup will be part of the inaugural TUDOR United Sports Car Championship, a special competition scored separately from the season-long championship battle. It involves the season's four longest races -- the Rolex 24 At Daytona on Jan. 25-26; the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Fueled by Fresh from Florida at Sebring International Raceway on March 15; the Sahlen's Six Hours of The Glen at Watkins Glen International on June 29; and the Petit Le Mans (a 10-hour/1,000-mile event) Powered by Mazda at Road Atlanta on Oct. 4.

This is an expanded version of the previous North American Endurance Championship that was part of the GRAND-AM Rolex Series seasons in 2011-12 and consisted of Daytona, Watkins Glen and the Brickyard Grand Prix at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup will award $100,000 to the Prototype and GT Le Mans champion teams and $50,000 to the Prototype Challenge and GT Daytona champion teams.
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