Michael Shank Racing seeks 2nd Rolex after offseason changes

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) With an eye on the future, Michael Shank Racing made massive changes to its program that just might pay immediate dividends.

Shank changed his chassis, engine and driver lineup during the offseason, moves he believes will help him reach his goal of racing his team at Le Mans in 2016. The shake-up also could help the team owner win his second Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Ozz Negri put the No. 60 Ligier JS P2 Honda on the pole for the twice-round-the-clock endurance race that begins Saturday at Daytona International Speedway. Negri’s fast run continued a streak of domination the Shank team has had all week: In five on-track sessions, the team has led the speed chart.

It’s given the team a sense of hope that, barring reliability issues, the lineup of Negri, John Pew, AJ Allmendinger and 17-year-old newcomer Matt McMurry could collect brand new Rolex watches Sunday.

”When you look at opportunity, there’s been none better for us,” Shank said Friday. ”They’ve got to understand that opportunities like this don’t come along very often. We’ve had it twice in 11 years that I felt like we could really, really win.”

Shank didn’t know if he’d be in this position when he overhauled the program by leaving Ford and the DP Riley the organization had used since 2008.

He did it in anticipation of rule changes IMSA is expected to make for the sports car series in 2017, and because switching into a P2 from a Daytona Prototype put him in a car that meets Le Mans specifications.

”I needed to make a move for my business, this is all I do for a living, and I needed to try to figure out where we want to place ourselves the next five years,” Shank said. ”And, we needed a change. We were just not consistently competitive enough where we were.”

But the change was expensive, and Shank had to offset some of those costs by signing McMurry, a high school junior who made his Le Mans debut last year. The move came at the expense of IndyCar driver Justin Wilson, who was part of a lineup that had been unchanged since 2012 when Shank won his first Rolex 24.

The team owner said it ”crushes me” to not have Wilson participating. He even considered using Wilson as a fifth driver, but driver size differences and the adjustment to the Ligier made it too difficult.

The flipside is that McMurry made Shank commercially successful, and the car is sold out of sponsorship races for the Rolex and Sebring.

Allmendinger recognizes the team will have a speed drop-off from Wilson to McMurry, but the teenager who has to do homework between practice sessions only needs to race smart for the team to be successful.

”You just need to know your role, go out there and not make mistakes and keep the car on the race track and keep it out of trouble,” Allmendinger said.

The speed in the Shank entry has gotten the attention of the paddock, which considers the No. 60 one of the cars to beat.

Of course, the competition is stiff and Chip Ganassi’s two entries have been right behind Shank in every session.

For now, the No. 02 Ford EcoBoost BP entry commonly known as the ”star car” has been more consistent. Three-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon will open and close the race for that team, which includes Indianapolis 500 winner Tony Kanaan, Daytona 500 winner Jamie McMurray and Sprint Cup Series rookie of the year Kyle Larson.

”I was out to lunch last year,” said Larson, who was admittedly nervous about making mistakes before his Rolex debut and then made several in his first stint. ”I’m way faster than I was last year, a lot more consistent. We’ll see how the race goes, but I think I should be more competitive than I was last year.”

The No. 01 is headed by Scott Pruett, who will be seeking a record sixth win that will move him past Hurley Haywood’s record. He’s driving with new full-time teammate Joey Hand, and IndyCar drivers Charlie Kimball and Sage Karam. Pruett’s all-American team has won three Rolex’s since the Dixon-led No. 02 last won in 2006.

Also expected to be in the mix is defending race winner Action Express Racing, which also won in 2010, and returned last year’s winning lineup of Joao Barbosa, Christian Fittipaldi and IndyCar’s Sebastien Bourdais.

And, Wayne Taylor Racing is hoping to improve on consecutive runner-up finishes and earn its first win since 2005, when team owner Taylor was driving. The team now includes both of his sons, Jordan and Ricky, and longtime Taylor driver Max Angelelli.