Rolex 24 Again Has NASCAR Flavor

Ganassi Racing

Jamie McMurray (R) and Juan Pablo Montoya (L) will wheel BMW-powered Riley chassis for team owner Chip Ganassi – who also owns their Sprint Cup Series Chevrolets. (Photo: Brian Cleary)

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Budweiser Speedweeks are still more than a month away, but a handful of NASCAR drivers won’t wait for February to get their 2013 season underway.

AJ Allmendinger is on the list of drivers with stock car ties who’ll be busy the weekend of Jan. 26-27, competing in the 51st Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway – the season opener for the GRAND-AM Rolex Sports Car Series.

Allmendinger, the former Penske Racing driver whose 2013 NASCAR plans are still unsettled, is seeking back-to-back victories in the twice-around-the-clock sports car classic. He was part of the winning Michael Shank Racing team that captured the 2012 Rolex 24 – sharing the top of the post-race podium with Ozz Negri, John Pew and Justin Wilson.

“Dinger” is heading back to “The World Center of Racing” this year and zeroing in on even more success.

“We’re all confident,” Allmendinger said during the recent “Roar Before the 24” test session around the 3.56-mile DIS road course. “The first one’s the hardest but once you learn how to win it, then it feels like it comes more naturally. Things kind of go your way and you don’t have in your mind, ‘What’s going to happen next to take us out of this race?’.”

Shank Racing’s No. 60 Ford-powered Riley was third-fastest in the Daytona Prototype class during the Daytona test with an altered driver lineup. Allmendinger, Pew and Wilson were back behind the wheel. Negri was not, recovering from an off-season foot injury suffered in a bicycle accident.

AJ AllmendingerHe has hopes of returning in time for the race in 2½ weeks. Marcos Ambrose drove the car in Negri’s absence during the three-day test session. (1/10 Update: Ambrose to Drive in Rolex 24)

‘The racecars that Michael Shank puts together have always been fast,” Allmendinger said. “As soon as I got in the car, after the first couple laps, I said, ‘This thing feels pretty good.’ When you can go out there right away, be fast and not even be pushing that hard – it’s a good feeling.”

But Allmendinger knows a lot can happen in the course of a 24-hour race … and usually does.

“Obviously, conditions are going to change,” Allmendinger acknowledges. “You’re going to have to stay up with the racetrack. It’s exciting to come back and be defending champions, but it also inspires us to go do it again because we know what a good feeling that was in Victory Lane.”

Jamie McMurray, Juan Pablo Montoya and Nelson Piquet Jr. also are among the 50 drivers on Daytona’s preliminary entry list for the DP class. McMurray and Montoya will wheel BMW-powered Riley chassis for team owner Chip Ganassi – who also owns their Sprint Cup Series Chevrolets.

The team finished fourth overall in last year’s “24.” Coming out of this past weekend’s test, McMurray said he was glad to be back behind the wheel.

“We had a good couple of days,” he said. “It’s always fun to get in these cars. It was a first for me to drive while it was raining, but I turned some quick laps and we ended up on top of the leaderboard for that session.”

Piquet – who finished seventh in the 2012 Camping World Truck Series standings – is expected to share seat time with Christian Fittipaldi and Felipe Nasr in the No. 5 Action Express Racing Corvette DP, which finished fifth in last year’s race.

And in GT competition, Clint Bowyer and Michael Waltrip – his Cup Series team owner – are entered with Rui Aguas and Robert Kauffman in the No. 55 Ferrari 458. They hope to improve on last year’s 22nd-place finish in class.

Bowyer was runner-up to Brad Keselowski in the 2012 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.

Motor Racing Network – launching its 44th year of broadcasting – will provide exclusive radio coverage of the 51st Rolex 24 at Daytona on Jan. 26-27 with live streaming at www.motorracingnetwork.com

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