Daytona notebook: Ford GT has upper 'Hand' in qualifying

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Considering what it has accomplished in the past year with the help of several key INDYCAR players, it’s no surprise to see the Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT program atop the qualifying chart for the Rolex 24 At Daytona sports car race.

The No. 66 Ford GT – with the same driving trio of Joey Hand, Dirk Mueller and four-time Indy car champion Sebastien Bourdais that captured first in the GT Le Mans class at last year’s iconic 24 Hours of Le Mans – earned the GTLM pole position today for Saturday’s 55th running of the Rolex 24 endurance race on Daytona International Speedway’s 3.56-mile road course.

Hand was at the wheel for qualifying, with a best lap of 1 minute, 43.473 seconds. Teammate cars Nos. 67 and 68 finished second and third in the class qualifying.

“I’ve got a great team,” said Hand, the 37-year-old Californian. “It’s fun to be a part of Ford Chip Ganassi Racing, they really know how to do this race. You always come into this place with a big smile on your face when you drive for this program. You know you’ve got a chance to win.”

The current Ford GT made its debut at last year’s Rolex 24 and the cars suffered through teething issues, with the No. 66 the team’s top finisher at seventh in class and 32 laps behind the GTLM winner. By June and Le Mans, however, the issues were solved. Hand, Mueller and Bourdais won the class, with four-time Verizon IndyCar Series champ Scott Dixon, former INDYCAR driver Ryan Briscoe and Richard Westbrook taking third.

“Last year when we were here, it was the first race for the car,” Hand said. “We didn’t know what to expect and we were just trying to turn some laps and make the thing go the distance. Now we’ve got time on it, we’ve finished and won a 24-hour race. We know the car will go the distance and we’ve been able to spend time on performance, making the car go quicker.”

Hand was also quick to credit the input from Bourdais, a seasoned sports car driver as well as in Indy cars and Formula One. The 35-time Indy car race winner left straight from a two-day INDYCAR test with Dale Coyne Racing at Sebring International Raceway on Tuesday and Wednesday to join the sports car effort in Daytona today.

“He was just testing an Indy car yesterday, so he’s going to take a little time to get back and acclimated to the (sports) car,” Hand said. “But he sits in and goes quick. I’ve raced against him and I’ve now driven with him, and he always gets in the car and goes quick. He has good feedback and it’s worked out because he’s on the same page with Dirk and I as far as the style and how we drive the cars.

“I think that’s why we’ve been very successful together.”

Rolex qualifying was led overall by Joao Barbosa in the No. 5 Cadillac DPi with a best lap of 1:36.903. Former Indy car driver Christian Fittipaldi is among the No. 5 drivers.

Former Indy Lights driver James French earned the Prototype Challenge pole in the No. 38 Performance Tech Motorsports ORECA FLM09, with a lap of 1:42.559. Alessandro Pier Guidi set the pace in GT Daytona with a lap of 1:47.099 in the No. 51 Spirit of Race Ferrari 488 GT3.

Following a 90-minute practice tonight, only a final one-hour practice remains at 10 a.m. ET Friday. The race begins at 2:30 p.m. ET Saturday, with live coverage starting at 2 p.m. on FOX before transitioning to FS2 and FS1 through its Sunday completion.

The 17-race Verizon IndyCar Series season begins with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 12.

Daly added as last-minute Rolex driver

New A.J. Foyt Racing driver Conor Daly was literally sitting in his Indy car at the Sebring test on Wednesday when he was beckoned to race at the Rolex 24. Daly is now part of the No. 88 Starworks Motorsport entry in Prototype Challenge and becomes the eighth current Verizon IndyCar Series driver to join the event along with Bourdais, Dixon, Tony Kanaan, James Hinchcliffe, Spencer Pigot, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Graham Rahal.

“I had heard something might happen so to keep my phone close,” Daly said today from Daytona’s pit lane. “I figured it was Wednesday (and he had not heard anything), so it was already too late.

“I just asked for my phone between damper changes (at the Sebring test) because it was like 20, 30 minutes down (to make the car changes) and I was just sitting in the car. I saw (Starworks team principal) Peter Baron’s number and a couple text messages and a missed call. I was like, ‘I should probably look into this.’ He said if I can make it to Daytona, I can drive, so here we are.”

Daly was able to log about 10 laps in the morning practice today and expected more tonight, though the team is battling engine issues. No worries for the 25-year-old American.

“I’m good,” Daly said. “I got to do most of the season in one of these cars in ’15, so it’s not too different. Just going to enjoy it.”

Former Indy car driver Pruett added to Motorsports Hall

Scott Pruett, who drove Indy cars for a decade and won two races before moving on to sports cars and making a lasting impression, was one of seven people named today as 2017 inductees to the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America.

Scott PruettPruett, whose Indy car wins came in 1995 at Michigan International Speedway and ’97 on the street course in Surfers Paradise, Australia, was inducted in the sports car category on the basis of 11 major titles in GTO, Trans Am and Daytona Prototype. He collected 41 Rolex Sports Car Series wins in 132 starts and has a record-tying five Rolex 24 victories.

Pruett is the lead driver this weekend for the new Lexus RCF program in the GT Daytona class, tutoring young talent on the team the likes of INDYCAR drivers Sage Karam and Jack Hawksworth.

“I get to work with the young guys, helping in that and mentoring them,” Pruett said. “There’s nothing like doing that from inside a race car – setup-wise and philosophy of going racing.

“Whether it’s this race or Sebring, I’ve raced all these incredible racetracks and been part of all these incredible events. Sometimes for a lot of the guys I’m working with, they haven’t been. To bring all that and bring the experience of what we’re looking for in the race cars and that development on the Lexus side, I’m excited, glad to be a part of it and still having just a great time.”

Other 2017 inductees include: open-wheel driver Steve Kinser, the legendary World of Outlaws and sprint car driver who also drove in the 1997 Indianapolis 500; and stock car driver Terry Labonte, a two-time NASCAR Cup champion.

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