By Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The absence of a former teammate, the late Justin Wilson, weighed heavily on AJ Allmendinger and his teammates at Michael Shank Racing as the Rolex 24 at Daytona approached.
But the tragic loss of Wilson in a freak IndyCar accident last year at Pocono Raceway also provides a source of inspiration and motivation for Allmendinger, who teamed with Wilson, Oswaldo Negri and John Pew to win the 2012 Rolex 24.
“Yeah, it’s tough,” Allmendinger told the NASCAR Wire Service on Friday, roughly 24 hours before the start of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship’s season-opening race. “You can ask all of us—Mike (Shank) especially.
“We all have a little chip on our shoulder. He’s sitting up there watching us, and it would make all of us a little more proud to win this thing, because we all want to win it for him and Julia (Wilson’s widow) and the kids. It’s difficult. It’s strange being here without him.”
Allmendinger was particularly close to Wilson, an ebullient driver who was beloved throughout the garage.
“We shared a bond together,” Allmendinger said, the day after Negri qualified Shank’s No. 60 Honda-powered Ligier JS P2 in third position among the Prototypes for the start of the Rolex 24. “That was something that made it so fun coming to this race, the bond that Ozz and I and John and JWil had gotten to share.
“And even last year, when he wasn’t driving with us, he was still here. You could still joke around with him. We all knew that, when Justin was around the race track, he was smiling and having a good time—or he was at least faking it if he wasn’t driving, ‘cause we all hate being at a race track and not driving.”
Olivier Pla has joined Allmendinger, Negri and Pew on the Shank team, and Allmendinger thinks they have an excellent chance to return to the winner’s circle.
“Last year (the team’s first with the Ligier), I thought we had a pretty good shot at it, but with all the work they’ve put in (since then), the car’s a lot more developed. When Michael Shank Racing came here last year with the car, heck, Ozz and John had barely sat in the thing and ran a couple of laps, and we were going green.
“So, with a year of development on it and how the car feels, it’s a great shot, but it’s 24 hours… You’ve got to get to the end of a 24-hour race before you worry about winning it.”
Image: Todd Warshaw/NASCAR via Getty Images