INDYCAR drivers in good position for Rolex 24 success

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Each year, the lure of the Rolex 24 at Daytona is too much to resist for many drivers with INDYCAR ties, eager to get behind the wheel – any wheel – of a race car.

And due to the length of the 24-hour endurance sports car race, all teams need to bolster their usual two-driver lineup with the best help they can find. That typically includes a roster of Verizon IndyCar Series and Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires regulars and part-timers.

It’s worth noting, too, that three-time Indianapolis 500 winner and four-time Verizon IndyCar Series champion Dario Franchitti is grand marshal of the Rolex 24 and will bring the field to life Jan. 28 with the traditional “Gentlemen, start your engines” command.

So what INDYCAR drivers are in the race and, just as important, who has a shot at winning? Let’s take a look at each class.

PROTOTYPE: The fastest class and the one expected to win overall is essentially all new this season, as sanctioning body IMSA strives to make its top class closer to the P2 class that races at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

There are quite a few former Indy car racers in the Prototype class like Scott Sharp, Ryan Dalziel, Christian Fittipaldi and Neel Jani, who was the fastest in most of the sessions at last weekend’s Roar Before the 24 preseason test at Daytona International Speedway.

Two active Verizon IndyCar Series drivers are in the top class this year, both racing the Mazda DPi. Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ James Hinchcliffe is in the No. 70 and Spencer Pigot, who split his Verizon IndyCar Series rookie season in 2016 with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing and Ed Carpenter Racing, is in the No. 55. The Mazdas are brand new but very fast. Either car has a genuine shot at an overall victory – the No. 55 ended up as the second fastest in the Roar test.

PROTOTYPE CHALLENGE: This lame-duck class will be phased out at the end of the season.

Buddy Rice, the 2004 Indianapolis 500 winner and 2009 Rolex 24 overall winner, is in the No. 20 BAR1 entry, along with former Indy Lights driver Gustavo Yacaman.

Sebastian Saavedra, who has made 61 career Verizon IndyCar Series starts, is part of the No. 88 Starworks Motorsport entry with part-time Indy Lights driver Sean Rayhall in the sister No. 8 car. Pato O’Ward, the 17-year-old who took the 2016 Pro Mazda Championship presented by Mazda by storm, winning six of the first seven races before finishing second in the standings, is part of the No. 38 Performance Tech Motorsports lineup along with Indy Lights driver James French.

GT LE MANS: The class that enjoys the most factory backing is one of the most competitive. The Ford GT, which debuted at the Rolex last year and won its class in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, will be at Daytona with a four-car effort and favorites to win following the Roar test.

Four-time Verizon IndyCar Series champ Scott Dixon was a major part of the original testing of the Ford GT, so it wasn’t surprising that the Chip Ganassi Racing driver was second to fellow No. 67 Ford GT driver Ryan Briscoe, another INDYCAR alum, on the test speed chart.

Tony Kanaan, the 2004 Verizon IndyCar Series champ and 2013 Indianapolis 500 winner, is in the No. 69 Ford GT, which was the second fastest overall. Sebastien Bourdais, who drives for Dale Coyne Racing in the Verizon IndyCar Series, was part of the No. 66 team that won last year at Le Mans and is back in the car this year.

GT DAYTONA: By far the largest class, GT Daytona has some new factory-backed entries this year from Lexus and Acura that include drivers with INDYCAR ties.

Michael Shank Racing’s two-car Acura NSX team has Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Graham Rahal in the No. 93 car along with Katherine Legge and Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay in the No. 86. The new car had some teething problems at the Roar and will have to find more speed to contend.

Scott Pruett, who won a pair of Indy car races before turning his attention full-time to sports cars, is teamed with three-time Indy 500 starter Sage Karam in 3GT Racing’s No. 14 Lexus RCF. The sister No. 15 car features three-year Verizon IndyCar Series veteran Jack Hawksworth and Austin Cindric, the 18-year-old son of Team Penske president Tim Cindric.

Townsend Bell, an Indianapolis 500-only driver and NBCSN analyst on Verizon IndyCar Series broadcasts, is in the No. 23 Audi R8 for Alex Job Racing, which knows more about winning in this class than anyone. The car, which was new to the team, was fifth fastest at the Roar.

Tristan Vautier, the 2013 Verizon IndyCar Series rookie of the year, is in the SunEnergy1 Racing No. 75 Mercedes AMG. Other former Indy car drivers in the class are Nic Jonsson (No. 54 Porsche 911) and Jan Heylen (No. 991 Porsche 911).

Practice and qualifying for the 55th Rolex 24 at Daytona takes place on Jan. 26. The 24-hour race begins at 2:30 p.m. ET Jan. 28.

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