Team Penske eyes first Rolex 24 win since return 3 years ago

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              FILE - In this Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020, file photo, safety personnel unload the wreckage of the Acura Team Penske car driven by Ricky Taylor, not pictured, during qualifying for the Rolex 24 hour auto race at the Daytona International Speedway, in Daytona Beach Fla. The Penske crew had it repaired in time to get back on track and ready for the Saturday start of the endurance race. (AP Photo/Reinhold Matay)
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — At the Team Penske annual preseason breakfast, Roger Penske took the unusual step to single out one specific aspect of his massive organization.

“He doesn’t normally point out an event, maybe the Indy 500 or the Daytona 500, but this year he said, ‘We have to be better at the Rolex 24,’” said Ricky Taylor, full-time driver of the No. 7 Acura Team Penske.

“We finished third last year, so it’s like, ‘We got a podium, we are getting there.’ And when he said we need to do better it is like, ‘No messing around this time.’”

No messing around, indeed.

“We won this race once (1969), the team has, a number of years ago, but it’s one that has got to be on our checklist,” Penske told The Associated Press. “We had some issues last year, we won the championship, we won some races. But now it’s time. We have no excuses.”

Penske, who turns 83 next month, plans to stay awake on the team pit stand for the entire race for the third consecutive year.

Unfortunately for Taylor, he fell victim to some new rumble strips placed in the bus stop along the Daytona International Speedway road course during Thursday qualifying and it sent his Acura hard into a tire barrier.

Taylor called it the hardest hit of his career and it nearly destroyed the race car, but the Penske crew had it repaired in time to get back on track and ready for the Saturday start of the endurance race.

The rumble strips have been enlarged since teams practiced at Daytona earlier this month and drivers complained IMSA gave them no warning of the higher, thicker blocks. They were problematic from the very first practice as the GT Daytona cars, which are lower to the ground, constantly ran over the strips and damaged the bottoms of their cars.

The contact actually caused enough problems to the AIM Vasser Sullivan entry that Kyle Busch is driving that the team made a precautionary engine change to avoid further issues.

There is for sure a high amount of interest in Busch running his first Rolex, even in the 18-car GTD class, the slowest in the field. He’s still acclimating to the car, the course and traffic and had a rough go when he got in the Lexus after the engine change.

“The first time I ran was last night and I was on older tires, I think 18-lap tires and they only go 29 laps, and I only ran 12 laps and I was (expletive) and elbows. It was ugly,” Busch said Friday. “I spun out once, I went off in Turn 1 once, I had to make a U-turn and come back. It was just ugly.”

He felt much better, though, when teammate Jack Hawksworth got in the car and confirmed it was not running well.

“Jack got in right after me and he was like ‘Oh my God, mate, this car is terrible,’” Busch said. “Jack was like ‘The car was not very good,’ and it made me feel a little bit better, but I really looked like a butt out there.”

Mazda Team Joest starts on the pole for the second consecutive year after Oliver Jarvis took the top qualifying spot, with reigning series champions Juan Pablo Montoya and Dane Cameron starting second.

The series title was nice, but the message from Penske to go collect some Rolex watches was clearly delivered to his six drivers. His lineup includes four Indianapolis 500 winners: Montoya, Helio Castroneves, Alexander Rossi and Simon Pagenaud.

“I think running for Roger and Acura, there is always pressure to win the race. It’s like going to Indy with Roger. If you do not win, you are disappointed,” Montoya said. “There is a no win situation, but it is great because it makes you bring your A game every time you are in the car. They expect that from you every week. You’ve got to deliver that. That is our job.”

Montoya got a boost earlier in the day when IMSA announced it was creating a car that will be eligible to race for the overall title at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2022. That race is considered part of motorsports’ unofficial Triple Crown along with the the Monaco Grand Prix and the Indianapolis 500. Montoya only needs a Le Mans victory to complete the feat, while Fernando Alonso for three years has been trying to close it out with an Indianapolis 500 victory.

“I think I’ve now got a better shot than he does,” Montoya said.

Alonso won the Rolex last year driving for defending race winners Wayne Taylor Racing, and is eyeing a return to Indy with Andretti Autosport in May. Montoya has two years to wait for his shot.

Meanwhile, the defending race winners qualified fifth with Ryan Briscoe behind the wheel. The team has a new look this year as full-time driver Jordan Taylor left his father’s organization to become a Corvette factory driver, so only Renger Van der Zande and Kamui Kobayashi returned to the winning endurance lineup.

Briscoe has replaced Jordan Taylor as the full-time driver for the season, while five-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon completes the endurance team lineup.

The field for this year’s race has just 38 entries — the smallest field in 58 runnings of the prestigious season kickoff. The smallest field previously was 42 starters in 1962, the second year of the race.

While the field does include an impressive 18 different manufacturers, there’s a glaring absence with Chip Ganassi sidelined after Ford ended its program after four seasons in the GT Le Mans class. Ganassi hopes to return to sports competition in 2021, potentially in the Daytona Prototype class, but his two sidelined entries have contributed to the low car count.

“I think the car count is kind of ebb and flow,” IMSA Chairman Jim France shrugged Friday.