Rolex 24 at Daytona: Cadillac dominates early, IndyCar drivers have strong start

The Cadillac from Action Express Racing — the reigning IMSA championship team — started from the pole and pretty much controlled the first six hours of the race.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — A pair of Cadillacs dominated the first quarter of the Rolex 24 at Daytona, but after a Porsche from Team Penske took the lead seven hours into the twice-round-the-clock endurance race, reigning IMSA champion Pipo Derani seized it back for General Motors.

Matt Campbell had built a lead of more than 11 seconds Saturday night in the No. 7 Porsche 963 after both Cadillacs made driver changes. The Cadillac from Action Express Racing — the reigning IMSA championship team — started from the pole alongside the Cadillac from Chip Ganassi Racing and the two pretty much controlled the first six hours of the most prestigious endurance race in the United States.

When it was time for the Porsche to make a driver change the seat was turned over to Josef Newgarden, one of four Indianapolis 500 winners in the field, for his debut drive in IMSA’s top GTP class.

He immediately had to contend with pole-sitter Derani in a Cadillac V-Series.R and Derani closed the gap to under a second. Even so, Campbell was pleased with what Newgarden has brought to the Penske program, which has a pair of Porsche’s entered in the 10-car top class.

Roger Penske has won the overall title only once at Daytona, in 1969.

“He’s fit in perfectly with the team, he’s easy to get along with and obviously very experienced within the Penske organization,” Campbell said. “That makes it quite easy for him. It’s good having a guy like him, he brings a lot of experience in different ways. I know coming from IndyCar, it is quite different. But he’s brought some new ideas to the table.

“Having someone with his expertise in a different style of racing has really boosted us and he’s been able to adapt very well.”

All 10 of the GTP cars were on the lead lap in the seventh hour, but the Cadillacs are not teammates and aren’t working together as six other cars in the class have teamed on strategy decisions. Penske has two Porsche’s entered, Wayne Taylor Racing with Andretti has a pair of Acuras and BMW M Team RLL has two cars.

Those six have shared data, tried different pit strategies, and are plotting tire usage. For example, Felipe Nasr of Penske ran second for the first two hours before dropping back in the field so the team could focus on saving tires for later in the race.

Most competitors were running double and triple stints early to try to save tires, a strategy that failed for at least one of the Wayne Taylor cars. Ricky Taylor said the No. 10 Acura ARX-06 burned through its faster qualifying tires early and would not have them available for later in the race.

“I think the Cadillacs have been going really good throughout the race,” said six-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon of Ganassi. “That was tricky for me. We had to do two-and-a-half stints on the same set of tires, so that was definitely an eye-opener, and to actually hold on to the pace of the lead was showing the car is in good shape.

“I think as we build up on double-stinting tires, or even more than that, should help us on the back end of the race. Pretty crazy out there. Lots of interesting traffic, and just trying to keep the car on track and out of trouble.”

The Ganassi No. 01 led the majority of the first quarter of the race with the lineup of Dixon, regular IMSA drivers Sebastien Bourdais and Renger van der Zande, and two-time IndyCar champion Alex Palou.

“We knew we were going to have a fight, and we do,” Bourdais said. “I think the car shows that it’s got plenty of pace; I’ve never been in doubt of that. We knew we had the strong package as far as optimizing the performance level we have at our disposal, but it won’t be easy if it comes down to a drag race in the last 30 minutes.”

Action Express expects to be in contention for the win, as well.

“Obviously, we were good in qualifying already and the race is proving to be a similar situation with the field that we look to be good on pace,” said Jack Aitken, co-driver of the No. 31 with two-time defending Rolex winner Tom Blomqvist and Derani. “But the Porsches, especially, and the BMWs, are not far behind. And even when we get behind the Acuras, it’s not easy to pass.”

Colton Herta, brought in to drive for the Wayne Taylor Team, believes the No. 40 Acura is competitive.

“I’m not incredibly overjoyed, but we’re not doing terrible at the moment,” said Herta, part of a lineup that includes Jordan Taylor, Louis Deletraz, and 2009 Formula One champion Jenson Button. ”We should be able to fight. I was able to pass some of the guys that seemed to be struggling more than us.”

The day got off to a bizarre start when a safety car crashed while running demonstration laps hours before the green flag, and an emotional Devlin DeFrancesco tried to hold himself together during driver introductions after his five-month-old Golden Retriever puppy was struck by a car and killed in the motorhome lot.

Brad Pitt, meanwhile, could be seen in several areas along pit road filming scenes for the untitled Formula One movie he’s currently making with “Days of Thunder” producer Jerry Bruckheimer. Pitt is not actually driving in the Rolex but is wearing a firesuit and using a car that is identical to the Wright Motorsports Porsche 911 that is competing.

The Wright Motorsports car is being used for much of the on-track action, although Pitt has been on track late at night doing his own driving scenes when the track has been cleared of Rolex competition.

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