Allmendinger still waiting to drive, but his car leads Rolex 24 at 5-hour mark

By Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The No. 60 Honda-powered Ligier JS P2 survived an early incident to hold the overall lead at the five-hour mark of the Rolex 24 at Daytona, the season-opening race of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.

Teamed with three members of Michael Shank Racing’s 2012 winning team—NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver AJ Allmendinger, Ozz Negri and John Pew—Frenchman Olivier Pla passed Jonathan Bomarito for the top spot early in the fifth hour of competition and was still out front after an exchange of pit stops on Laps 148 and 149.

Jonny Adam was second in the No. 31 Corvette DP, 33 seconds behind Pla, when the No. 38 Protoype Challenge entry stalled near the Bus Stop chicane to bring out the fourth full-course caution of the race.

That yellow, which occurred four hours, 57 minutes after the 2:40 p.m. green flag, was good news for teams—including defending winners Jamie McMurray, Kyle Larson, Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan of Ford Chip Ganassi Racing—who had been beset with issues from the outset.

In the factory GT Le Mans (GTLM) class, Mike Rockenfeller led at the caution in the Corvette C7.R he shares with Jan Magnussen and Antonio Garcia.

The early portion of the race was fraught with incidents. In the return of the Ford GT to competitive racing in the GTLM class, both the No. 66 (with Joey Hand behind the wheel) and the No. 67 (piloted by Ryan Briscoe in the opening stint) ultimately suffered gearbox problems.

The No. 66 also experienced a costly brake line issue and sudden loss of power. Both cars lost double-digit laps and plummeted down the running order.

“It’s one of those things,” Hand said of the GT’s first trip for Ford Chip Ganassi Racing. “We’ve got to get a 24 Hours under our belts just to learn what to look for.”

Scott Pruett’s bid for a record sixth overall win took a blow when Action Express teammate Joao Barbosa went off course in the infield and nosed gently into a tire barrier. The No. 5 Corvette DP lost nearly a minute to the leader and fell to 10th overall.

Two full-course yellows, however, brought the No. 5 back into the mix, and at the four-hour mark, Christian Fittipaldi had driven the car back to sixth place, less than seven seconds off the lead.

Shortly after a return to green following the second full-course caution of the race, minutes short of the two-hour mark, the No. 60 Ligier JS P2, then piloted by pro-am driver John Pew, plowed into the back of the No. 2 Ligier, which slowed suddenly in heavy traffic near the entrance to the Bus Stop, with Johannes van Overbeek at the controls.

But the 60 car sustained only minor damage and, with Olivier Pla behind the wheel—and Allmendinger still awaiting his first stint–drove to the front of the field in the fifth hour and quickly pulled away from the Mazda Prototype driven by Bomarito.

Mishaps, pit stops and driver changes put the No. 02 defending champion Ganassi Ford EcoBoost Riley DP out front with Dixon behind the wheel. The IndyCar star held the top spot until he pitted during the third hour to hand the car over to NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Jamie McMurray.

Dixon’s stop gave the lead back to the futuristic DeltaWing DWC13 driven by Katherine Legge for her second run at the front of the field. Legge stayed there until she brought the No. 0 to the pits and turned the car over to teammate Andy Meyrick.

Since its debut in 2013, reliability has been an issue for the DeltaWing, but Legge remained optimistic about her team’s chances in this year’s race.

“We’re more reliable than we’ve ever been, and we’ve changed all the components,” Legge said after her long open stint in the car. “It was the gear box failure that was our nemesis, and we’ve changed everything within that…

“But we haven’t done any 24-hour simulation tests or anything like that, so we are still crossing our fingers, too. It’s going to be luck. It’s going to be attrition. It’s going to be if anybody drives into us—the normal stuff—but we’re a lot closer to being there.”

Luck, however, wasn’t on the side of the DeltaWing. Meyrick pitted from the lead in the fourth hour but drew a penalty for spinning his wheels on pit road while the car was jacked up.

That put McMurray back on top with a lead of 20 seconds over the No. 10 Corvette DP, with Max Angelelli having taken the wheel from Jordan Taylor.

Things got worse for the DeltaWing. Chris Cumming stopped in the middle of the track in the No. 8 Prototype Challenge entry, unable to move. Meyrick rammed squarely into the stalled car, destroying the No. 0, which left the track on a wrecker.

Meyrick and Cumming both visited the infield care center. Meyrick was examined and released quickly. Cumming was treated and released but was not cleared to resume racing.

The accident brought out the third full-course yellow, and the fortunes of the defending champions worsened shortly thereafter. Seconds after the race returned to green, contact with the No. 4 GTLM Corvette C7.R of Tommy Milner sent McMurray spinning in the No. 02 Prototype, dropping him to ninth in the running order.

Kanaan took over for the 2010 Daytona 500 winner under the caution that crossed the cusp of the fifth hour. By then, McMurray had driven the car back to seventh.

“The car’s better than I thought it would be,” McMurray said optimistically, moments before Kanaan took the green to restart the race.

U.S. television coverage is available on FS2 until 10 p.m. ET on Saturday, Jan. 30. Coverage will continue on IMSA.tv overnight. International coverage is available throughout the race on IMSA.tv and the IMSA mobile app.

Image: IMSA

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