The Rolex 24 at Daytona turned into a battle between defending champion AJ Allmendinger and two-time race winner Juan Pablo Montoya as Chip Ganassi’s chances to return to Victory Lane were down to one car down the stretch.
Montoya’s BMW Riley had the clear horsepower advantage over Allmendinger’s Ford, which came back from seven laps down twice in the 24-hour endurance race at Daytona International Speedway.
Ganassi made a slight change to his lineup this year after both his teams failed to make the podium last season, and the switch sent Montoya back to the No. 01 team he was with for victories in 2007 and 2008. The Colombian was positioned to close out the race against Michael Shank Racing workhorse Allmendinger, who drove the No. 60 to victory last year.
Out of the mix was Ganassi’s No. 02 ”star car,” which dropped out with a mechanical failure with roughly four hours remaining in the twice-round-the-clock race at Daytona International Speedway.
The car had fallen seven laps down when Daytona 500 winner Jamie McMurray hit the wall exiting pit road after an early morning driver change, but clawed back to only two laps down as the race headed into the final stretch. But with three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dario Franchitti behind the wheel, the car lost drive and came to a stop on the course.
It brought out a full-course yellow, and Ganassi used the caution period to change the brakes on the No. 01 car. Rival team owner Wayne Taylor, whose car was running in the top four and on the lead lap, then intimated Franchitti deliberately stopped on the track to aid his teammates.
Franchitti bristled at the accusation, and angrily suggested Taylor worry only about his own team.
”Tell Wayne to shut up,” the four-time IndyCar champion said. ”We were concentrating on getting our lap back.”
Montoya stood nearby, offering condolences to the drivers he teamed with the last three years at the Rolex. McMurray was admittedly ”deflated” over the mistake that put his team in such a big hole. His crash affected the car’s alignment, which could have played a part in the later mechanical failure.
”It’s hard. This is different than crashing in a regular event,” McMurray said. ”When it’s just you, it’s not the same as having three other teammates and the amount of people we’ve had down here for testing. It is very embarrassing, very humbling, very heartbreaking to be the guy that does that. You don’t want to be that guy.”
Meanwhile, the Shank team was celebrating being in position to race for the victory.
Allmendinger fell way behind in the first hour after breaking a left-front tie rod, and the time needed to repair the car dropped them seven laps off the pace. But cautions and strong driving from Allmendinger, NASCAR’s Marcos Ambrose, IndyCar driver Justin Wilson, and Grand-Am regulars John Pew and Ozz Negri, who had a cast removed last week on his broken right leg, put the defending champions in position for at least a podium finish.
Allmendinger vowed to go down swinging.
”I’m going to lay it all out on the line,” he said right before climbing into the car for his final drive. ”They’re gonna have to drag me out of this race car.”
Wilson, who turned a triple stint right before handing off to Ambrose, said the entire team was battling for team owner Shank.
”It’s funny to watch him, if something goes wrong you see it on his face and you don’t want to be the one to disappoint him,” Wilson said. ”He’s so emotional, and we just want to make him proud.”