Alonso drives past Castroneves to lead at Daytona

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              Fernando Alonso drives his Cadillac DPi during the evening hours of the IMSA 24-hour race at Daytona International Speedway, Saturday, Jan. 26, 2019, in Daytona Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — The Fernando Alonso retirement tour got off to a rousing start as he charged to the lead of the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Alonso powered past three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves to put his Cadillac DPi into the early lead in the twice-round-the-clock endurance race at Daytona International Speedway. Once he settled in, Alonso put Wayne Taylor Racing out front by nearly 15 seconds during a lengthy opening stint to his year.

Alonso retired from Formula One in November and is embarking on a season full of bucket list events, and the Rolex is his kickoff.

His turn in the Cadillac lasted nearly three hours and impressed the throng of flag-waving fans who lined up three hours early to meet him in Saturday’s autograph session.

“I feel comfortable. I like sports car racing,” he said. “The nature of the endurance races is quite fun to experience.”

The two-time F1 champion was quite matter-of-fact about a driving stint he rated “OK” before he headed off for a shower, some food and then a deep sleep. This is Alonso’s second year in the Rolex, last year was his sports car and endurance racing debut, and it was ultimately a test to see if he was up for the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Alonso made it to the big race in France and won in his debut, checking off a second box in racing’s unofficial Triple Crown. He’s won at Monaco in F1 and has only the Indianapolis 500, where he’ll return to race in May, remaining on his list.

Winning at Daytona is most definitely also a priority and Alonso this year joined the organization that won the Rolex two seasons ago. This year’s lineup is considerably different from 2017, when Jeff Gordon was the star driver. Gordon was moving toward a legitimate retirement from racing and his role in the Rolex victory was minor.

Alonso came to the Taylor team with Kamui Kobayashi, his teammate on the Le Mans victory, to create one of the strongest lineups in the field. Jordan Taylor and Renger van Der Zande are the full-time drivers and have been adapting to Alonso’s fame. Jordan Taylor noted he didn’t have much work to do in the prerace autograph session as the crowd was there to see Alonso.

He noted the stark differences between Alonso and Gordon, who had a system to keep the line moving and only allowed one item to be signed.

“Fans showed up for Alonso with like 25 things to be signed. After a while we had to say, ‘OK, you can have five things signed,'” Taylor said. “But it’s great because he brings all these people out to see him race. They never get a chance to see him or get his autograph.”

For Alonso there is also an opportunity to race some of the top drivers from other disciplines. He saw Castroneves on the starting grid, asked him when he was scheduled to drive, and looked forward to racing him head-to-head. When he caught Castroneves for the lead, he went hard for the pass.

Castroneves later noted that Alonso’s aggression was appropriate.

“I had a great battle with Fernando, it was very comfortable, he gave me room,” Castroneves said. “He won Le Mans, he knows you don’t win the race now. I was having fun.”

When his stint was over, Alonso had no plans to watch the race. He had a carefully detailed routine to adapt to a driving load far more extensive than what he did in F1. Those events are typically around two hours, and Alonso eclipsed that in his first stint in the car.

“The plan is to take a shower, relax a little bit, have some food and try to sleep,” Alonso said. “Not watching the race at any point, just the hour before you jump in the car. Maximum energy saving because even watching the television you are spending energy.”