DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – What a difference a year makes.
One of the biggest storylines coming out of last year’s Rolex 24 at Daytona was the dreadful weather that forced the race to end short of its scheduled distance.
This year, thankfully, Mother Nature was only a storyline in that she provided perfect racing conditions for the twice-around-the-clock battle.
That opened a Pandora’s Box of so many more terrific storylines from an unforgettable IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season opener.
Starting at the top, as in the premier Daytona Prototype international (DPi) class, the No. 10 Konica Minolta Cadillac DPi-V.R squad of Renger van der Zande, Kamui Kobayashi, Ryan Briscoe and Scott Dixon made Wayne Taylor a four-time Rolex 24 winner as a team owner.
If the pair of Mazda Team Joest entries were the class of the field throughout the Roar Before the Rolex 24 three weeks ago and in Thursday’s qualifying session, the No. 10 Cadillac held that status for much of the race.
But as fast as the No. 10 was, the race wasn’t without significant drama for the team.
Shortly after sunrise, Briscoe ran the red light exiting the pits, earning a costly, stop-plus-60-seconds penalty. As a result, the Aussie dropped from the race lead to a lap down.
With full-course caution periods scarce, it appeared that the team’s hopes for victory could have been dashed at that point, but fortunately, Briscoe and the team kept their heads down.
When Christina Nielsen’s No. 19 Lamborghini rolled to a stop in Speedway turn three with just under five hours remaining, they were back in business.
Briscoe drove a monster final few stints and the No. 10 became the car to beat again in the final four hours.
“Yeah, that was a roller coaster,” said Briscoe.
Briscoe handed the car off to Kobayashi with just over two-and-a-half hours to go to bring it home. He did just that, taking the checkered flag more than a minute ahead of Oliver Jarvis in the No. 77 Mazda DPi with 833 laps completed, leading us to the next storyline.
They’ve been running 24-hour races here at Daytona almost every year since 1966.
Yet nobody’s ever traveled a farther distance in this race than the top three finishers, who all went a total of 2,965.48 miles, a product of just six full-course caution periods for a total of 28 laps.
If they were traveling on interstate highways instead of orbiting Daytona Int’l Speedway, they’d have gotten about 100 miles past San Francisco.
But there’s even more storylines – so many more – that made this year’s race compelling.
There was the scintillating battle between the No. 24 BMW Team RLL M8 GTE and the pair of Porsche GT Team 911 RSR that kept the GT Le Mans race in doubt right down to the final hour.
In the end, it was the BMW squad owned by Bobby Rahal, David Letterman and Mike Lanigan celebrating for the second consecutive year – this time with the team’s No. 24 car.
John Edwards, Jesse Krohn and another Aussie, Supercars star Chaz Mostert, left with their first Rolex Daytona Oyster Perpetual Cosmographs and Brazilian Augusto Farfus with his second-in-a-row.
A year ago, Farfus was a last-minute addition to the No. 25 BMW’s driver lineup when Tom Blomqvist couldn’t make the race. This year, he was placed in the No. 24 because he fit the seat in that cockpit better. So it seemed like destiny was calling.
There was intrigue in the LMP2 class, where the No. 52 PR1 Mathiasen Motorsports ORECA dominated from Saturday afternoon to Sunday morning before a lengthy stay on pit lane changed the game.
Instead of the No. 52, it was DragonSpeedUSA celebrating its second consecutive Rolex 24 win – with an entirely different quartet of drivers in Henrik Hedman, Ben Hanley, Colin Braun and Harrison Newey.
The GT Daytona class offered an abundance of storylines too. The pole-winning Plaid Porsche was fast early but went to the garage.
Two-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Busch nearly matched road-racing expert co-driver Jack Hawksworth’s pace in the No. 14 AIM Vasser Sullivan Lexus, although the car finished eight laps behind the winners.
And who were those winners?
That honor was held by one other than the No. 48 Paul Miller Racing Lamborghini Huracán GT3 co-driven by Bryan Sellers, Madison Snow, Corey Lewis and Andrea Caldarelli, who each earned their first Rolex watches and gave owner Paul Miller his first Daytona trophy.
It’s been a good few years for Miller, whose team has also won the WeatherTech Championship GTD title and earned victories at the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Presented by Advance Auto Parts and Motul Petit Le Mans, as well.
“We’re only missing Watkins Glen,” said Miller in victory lane.
You couldn’t ask for much more than what the 58th rendition of the Rolex 24 At Daytona delivered. It was a near-perfect kick-off for the 51st IMSA season and sets the stage for a truly fantastic WeatherTech Championship season in 2020.
Bring on Sebring.