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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – As the Rolex 24 at Daytona ticked down to winning time over the final four hours, one NASCAR Cup Series champion remained hopeful of his first overall victory Sunday while another’s debut ignominiously ended with a mechanical failure.
The Action Express Racing No. 31 Cadillac, whose Rolex 24 lineup includes defending Cup Series champion Chase Elliott, headed to the Daytona International Speedway garage out of contention after the car was stuck in gear while pole-sitter Felipe Nasr was leaving Turn 6 and entering the transition to the oval banking.
“I lost the drive and could hear a loud bang on the gearbox, that was the fourth gear done,” Nasr told NBC Sports pit reporter Parker Kligerman while the team fixed the car. “I don’t know what to say. I feel terrible for everybody. We put in such a good work all weekend. Last weekend starting on pole. I don’t know what to say, man. We’ve got to come back with better luck next time.
HOW TO WATCH THE ROLEX 24: Full broadcast schedule on NBC Sports
“It’s the hardest race we go to, and that’s why it’s the biggest race of the year. … I had a great lineup of teammates. Not our turn.”
Elliott already had completed his time in the car after running a couple of stints, including an opening run that left him frustrated over what he considered his “terrible” pace. But the team elected to put him back in the car after completing repairs that left the car 22 laps down.
Running in the sister Action Express car, Johnson also was done after three stints in the No. 48 Ally Cadillac, which remained very much in the hunt for an overall victory with two-time defending Rolex 24 winner Kamui Kobayashi, Mike Rockenfeller and Simon Pagenaud.
Though Johnson lost time in his final stint, he led for a while during an early morning outing after starting the race and said he improved throughout behind the wheel. After two hours of sleep, he was up by 5 a.m. and at the pit stand more than an hour ahead of getting in the car.
“I was trying to get some rest but just having so much fun, so I was curious how the car is performing and what’s taking place,” Johnson said. “And with the caution flags, it just pushed my time in the car back later and later, and I was definitely there much earlier than I needed to be. It’s been an amazing experience. Now these guys are really stepping up and showing what they have, and I really appreciate every lap I have. I’m learning so much with each lap that I make.”
This marked Johnson’s eighth Rolex 24 start but first in a decade and in the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship Series’ DPi division. The seven-time Cup champion is using the high-downforce sports cars to help prepare for the part-time schedule he’ll run in the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series.
“Last night, being able to lead and manage traffic was really a good stint for me,” he said. “I had the right flow in traffic. I seemed to just catch the right breaks. This most recent outing, Rocky and I were just talking about how those things come and go, there’s just a flow to a certain stint, and this morning’s stint did not go as I had hoped with flow and traffic.
“It’s really been an eye-opening experience, and I knew the competition was going to be tough, but as I started looking at the names of the drivers on each of these teams, I just realized how competitive this DPi field is going to be, even when you look through GT and LMP divisions, there’s talent everywhere. The last time I ran this race, I don’t think the talent was as deep and consistent certainly in the top category. I’ve been losing times with ins and outs on cold tires and charging to the pit box, and just some of the small details I didn’t have to worry about in previous races here, because you weren’t at 10/10ths like they are now for a variety of reasons.”
He seemed to earn the respect of the other veterans, including three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves, whose path crossed with Johnson during Sunday morning Zoom news conferences.
“Big congrats, man,” Castroneves told Johnson. “For you to be doing those things, I want to be like you. Absolutely awesome.”
Castroneves had good reason to be in his typically chipper mood after completing his time in the No. 10 Acura of Wayne Taylor Racing, which was vying for its third consecutive Rolex 24 victory.
After lacking speed over the first several hours, the Acuras of WTR and Meyer Shank Racing came to life as the sun rose over the track.
Driving the No. 10 (which made the switch to Acura in the offseason after winning two of the past three Rolex 24s with a Cadillac), Alexander Rossi held the lead for long stretches of the morning, including a spirited battle between the 2016 Indy 500 winner and Formula One veteran Kevin Magnussen.
The lead eventually was wrested away by Magnussen, but the Chip Ganassi Racing driver, who was making his Rolex 24 debut, was forced to pit from first for a drive through penalty for wheel rotation while the car was jacked up during a pit stop.
Renger van der Zande, Magnussen’s Ganassi teammate, said the Acuras “obviously found some speed overnight,” erasing the edge that Cadillacs had in pulling away during the first half of the race.
“It’s tight, man,” van der Zande said. “It’s so tight. You make one mistake, and you lose the lead.
“There’s a lot of competitive cars who can do it at the end. We got lucky with the Bus Stop in traffic. Sometimes you’re stuck behind some GT or LMP3 car in the Bus Stop, and they just fly by you like sitting ducks. If that happens at the end of the race, man. That’s going to be the decision right there. The competition is high. Competition is big. Both, very competitive drivers, they know what to do, and I think also the teams, they run a very good program. it’s only seven cars, but all of them are doing very well.”
With four hours remaining in the season-opening sports car endurance classic, there were five DPi cars on the lead lap, led by Wayne Taylor Racing’s Filipe Albuquerque over Pagenaud in the No. 48 Chadillac.
In other classes, Corvette Racing held the top two spots in GTLM, the No. 18 of Era Motorsport was tops in LMP2, Riley Motorsports’ No. 74 led in LMP3, and the Winward Racing No. 57 Mercedes was first in GTD.
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