In case you weren't aware (or if you were placed in a medically induced coma for the last 96 hours), the Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway happened this past weekend and it did not disappoint!
From the beginning - and I mean the very beginning - the Ganassi 02 Star Car played their ace as Scott Dixon overtook the pole sitting #60 of Michael Shank Racing on, essentially, the first turn. By the end of the first lap, the 02 Ford Ecoboost was ready to start clicking the ticker to a win.
The 02 Ganassi Star Car, as it was called, would go on to the lead the most laps and ultimately capture the checkered flag which, from a spectator's stand point, may not sound like an exciting race worth watching. But you'd be wrong.
Among all classes, the race began as an all out battle. We've already mentioned that Dixon wasted no time taking the fight to the pole sitter, and many were concerned that some of the lead cars in other classes, particularly the GTLM No. 51 Ferrari F458 and the No. 4 Corvette C7R, might be coming out of the gate far too fast for a race that would not conclude for another 23 hours and 55 minutes. These concerns did not pan out for the Corvettes. The Ferraris, however, might have been best to head the warning.
The #62 Ferrari 458 put some early and very exciting moves on the #3 Corvette (that ended up wining the GTLM class), though it was all for naught as an 11th hour failure saw it out of the race. And the same was true for the #51 Ferrari that opened the race with a spectacular battle against the #4 Corvette. But as we know, "it's always a Ferrari in endurance racing". The intensity got the best of them, while also roping the 007 Aston into the mix. (Video from the first link.)
BMW stepped up to the plate big time all throughout the race to compete with the Corvettes in spectacular fashion! How spectacular? Well, the driver of the #25 BMW Z4 GTE drove hell for leather while obviously ignoring the advice of his PR team to not "end up on Jalopnik."
Bruno Spangler decided that his GTLM Class BMW Z4 was made of too many parts, so he overcooked it through the turn, nicked a curb and ripped off his rear bumper, plowed through a Patron sign and then went for a nice mow through the wet infield grass on his way back to the track - a series of events called "rapid unintended disassembly*".
*This term was used on the Porsches, but the same sentiment applies here.
You'd think this was a horrible blow to such a competitive team. But BMW didn't quit and you race this race all out for all 24 hours. That same "rapidly disassembled" Z4 went on to finish 2nd in GTLM (less than 1 second behind the #3 Corvette) and a very respectable P6 overall. The bumper was apparently not needed to accomplish this feat.
There were many other incidents worth mentioning. The DeltaWing (in a curious vice versa paint scheme of the Ganassi cars...hmmm) failed to finish despite a very strong effort as it hunted in the Ganassi #02's shadow for quite some time.
Two Porsche factory cars collected each other in the night in spectacular fashion.
And of course, we cannot forget known vegan Andy Lally's unfortunate passenger, BoP (Ballast of Possum), who spent 4-5 hours in a Magnus Racing Porsche frunk purgatory before what I assume was a proper burial by his unwitting executioner. #AvengeBallast
But the real story, the one that made this race worth watching for 24 hours, would come at the absolute very end as the #02 Ganassi Ford Ecoboost DP and #10 Wayne Taylor Racing Corvette DP, in P1 and P2, were positioned to square off in an all sprint for the checkered flag. It was shaping up to be a decision based on tenths of SECONDS...after 24 HOURS of racing.
After NASCAR Rookie of the Year Kyle Larson - who was formidable in only his second sports car race - finished his second stint, Scott Dixon was installed for the remaining 3+ hours of the race. This is phenomenal amount of time for any driver, and is downright heroic after already racing a full stint the day before. Some wondered why Larson's time seemed to be cut short, and was the Ganassi 02 team making a mistake by putting Dixon in so early. But this was, of course, all part of the strategy. Dixon is, after all, a wizard of fuel conservation.
From the moment he took over from Larson, Dixon's job was to stretch laps out between stops to gain the very slightest advantage over an arguably better Wayne Taylor Corvette.
Had it come down to merely a head-to-head sprint with no concern of fuel, it's questionable whether even Dixon's driving skill and the Ecoboost's advantage on the straights would have been enough to overcome the formidable set-up that allowed the Corvette DP to dive very deep into the turns and gain ground bit by bit. With that in mind, though, Dixon seemed intent on stretching out his fuel and making sure there was simply too much ground for the Corvette to cover in the corners.
And it would appear that Dixon had accomplished this goal were it not for a very late caution caused by the #54 Prototype Challenge car with less than 20 left.
The caution meant that whatever advantage Dixon had gained over the last 3 hours was now completely lost as the field was again regrouped in preparation for a restart. Now, Dixon would only prevail by first winning the restart and then fending off the #10 for the remaining minutes of the race. As well as the Corvette had been attacking the turns, Dixon certainly had his work cut out for him as there was no way he could rely solely on speed.
But of course none of this would come to pass. Shrouded by the fog of exhaustion and lurking behind the mental debris of a 24 hour does of adrenaline was a very small fact that would undo the entire event for Wayne Taylor Racing.
When terrible moments play out in racing, they usually occur all at once and with a frightening fury. This time, the moment played out slowly and painfully as realization came to the Wayne Taylor team that with a capable car, a capable driver, an extremely fortuitous chain of events, and the perfect position to attack for a checkered flag, none of that would be happening.
Second by second, as the clock ticked passed 12 minutes left in a race, they learned that Jordan Taylor's allowed time in the car was expiring. The team was forced to pit under caution, which would lead to a drive-through penalty as well, and the team had no hope of a P1 or even P2 finish. 23 hours and 48 minutes of all out racing had come down to this.
We'll never know if Dixon could have held off Jordan Taylor, or even Ricky Taylor had the cards been played differently. But the win for Ganassi by no means suffers on account of their fiercest contender succumbing to their own mistake. Ganassi's strategy and Dixon's skill secured the team the P1 finish they deserves, and that #05 Corvette DP that did finish P2 was never enough to undo that. The win was and is one for the history books, and an enormous boost for a team of drivers that are about to start their own respective seasons in NASCAR and IndyCar.
Once again, a trip around the internet makes very clear how momentous such a win was for Ganassi...
...and especially Jamie McMurray.
Ganassi has made it a tradition of sorts to run the 01 car with his sports car drivers, and the 02 car with his non-sportscar drivers from Indy and NASCAR. This fact highlights one aspect of what makes Rolex 24 so special - it's situated on the calendar so that drivers from numerous other series (NASCAR, Indy, and DTM to name a few) have the chance to compete with and against their full-time IMSA/Tudor brethren. It makes the bragging rights that much more potent and special.
And it couldn't get much more special for Jamie McMurray as he joined the ranks of Mario Andretti and AJ Foyt as only the third driver to win both the Rolex 24 and the Daytona 500.
McMurray and Larson will return to Daytona on February 22nd to race the Daytona 500 where Larson will have the chance to add his own name to that list. And no one questions whether he has the talent to do so.
Winless in last year's Sprint Cup series, though not for a lack of skill or effort, Larson comes into this season as hungry and as talented as ever. If his gains in Sports Car racing, his gains over his NASCAR rookie season, or his very own admissions are any indication, it is certainly is amazing how much difference a year can make.
This is, after all, essentially a one-off race. Right? Perhaps. But it's not a one-off result. For racing fans it may mean something like this...
And for the consumer it definitely means this.
Because that Ford EcoBoost - the one that was, arguably, prematurely used in last year's Rolex 24 - has most certainly been flexed and tuned into a very reliable, very dense, and very fast power plant. With a freshly redesigned Ford GT, a now race-proven Ford Ecoboost power plant, and the 50th Anniversary of Ford's 1-2-3 podium sweep of Le Mans coming up in 2016, a return to Le Mans is well within the realm of reason.
Until then, there's plenty of racing to enjoy.