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click image to zoomDAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The Rolex 24 at Daytona, a long-running good thing, is destined to become even better.

That fact was underscored Friday both on and off the track during the first day of the annual "Roar Before the Rolex 24" test sessions at Daytona International Speedway.

This year marks the 52nd running of the Rolex 24, which for years opened the IMSA season. That ended with a split of the North American sports car pie between the ALMS and GRAND-AM that lasted 14 years, with IMSA sanctioning aligning with the ALMS. With the merger, IMSA and Daytona are together again.

Friday showcased star power in terms of machinery and men, providing ample preseason boost to already burgeoning anticipation about the 52nd running of the Rolex 24, which will open the inaugural IMSA TUDOR United SportsCar Championship season on Jan. 25-26. The TUDOR Championship is the product of the merger of the American Le Mans Series and the GRAND-AM Rolex Series.

The long-awaited combination of prototypes from the two former series, resulting in the new headlining Prototype class, was on display in the form of 15 exotic pieces. At day's end, the fast lap around the 3.56-mile DIS road course belonged to the No. 5 Action Express Racing Corvette DP of Christian Fittipaldi, Joao Barbosa and Sebastien Bourdais – 1 minute, 38.630 seconds (129.940 mph).

Complementing the on-track action was the announcement of another all-star, two-car Prototype lineup from Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates, combining drivers from sports cars, stock cars and open-wheel. Ganassi's organization has dominated the Rolex 24 in recent years, winning the endurance classic five times: 2006-08, 2011 and 2013.

In the team's No. 01 Ford EcoBoost/Riley, five-time Rolex 24 winner Scott Pruett and three-time winner Memo Rojas were joined by former Daytona 500 champion Jamie McMurray and reigning Indy Lights champion Sage Karam. In Ganassi's No. 02 entry, former Indianapolis 500 champion Scott Dixon and reigning Indy 500 champion Tony Kanaan were joined by sports car prototype ace Marino Franchitti and young NASCAR star Kyle Larson, last year's Sunoco Rookie of the Year in the NASCAR Nationwide Series who is moving up to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series this year with Ganassi.

"When you make it to Victory Lane in [the Rolex 24], you know you have accomplished something really special," Ganassi said. "In addition, it isn't often when we can bring such a diverse group of drivers from NASCAR, IndyCar and IMSA together to compete in one race. It is a great kickoff to our racing season."

The TUDOR Championship consists of four classes: Prototype, Prototype Challenge, GT Le Mans and GT Daytona. In addition to the Prototype class, Friday's other three classleading times:

• In Prototype Challenge, the No. 54 CORE Autosport ORECA FLM09 of Colin Braun, Jon Bennett and Mark Wilkins led the way at 1:42.468 (125.073);

• In GT Le Mans, the No. 911 Porsche North America 911 RSR driven by Nick Tandy, Richard Lietz and Patrick Pilet was clocked at 1:45.564 (121.405);

• In GT Daytona, the No. 45 Flying Lizard Motorsports Audi R8, driven by Nelson Canache Jr., Tim Pappas and Spencer Pumpelly ran a fast lap of 1:47.981 (118.688).

Testing continued Saturday with a 9 a.m.-5 p.m. (ET) session followed by the traditional Roar night practice set for 6:30-8 p.m. under the lights.

Night Moves On The High Banks: No Ordinary Rolex 24 Practice Session

It's a new day for sports car racing in North America and for 90 minutes Saturday at Daytona International Speedway, it was a new night as well.

The "Roar Before the Rolex 24" test sessions, held in advance of the Rolex 24 At Daytona, annually feature a night practice that is typically interesting and sometimes precarious, offering a glimpse of what's to come when the Rolex 24 is run on Daytona's 3.56-mile road course.

Saturday night's glimpse served as an under-the-lights highlight of this weekend for the new IMSA TUDOR United SportsCar Championship.

In three weeks, approximately half of the Rolex 24 will be run between sundown and sunrise, which obviously makes night practice vital. That's especially true on Daytona's layout, which utilizes all four 31-degree banked turns in addition to the infield's twists and turns. On the upside, at least it's not as imposing as it was before the speedway installed lights in 1998.

Still, it's no easy task.

"Some of the drivers who are struggling during the day really freak out at night," said Sebastien Bourdais, co-driver of the No. 5 Action Express Corvette DP. "It's important to work with the traffic at night, because the [skill] level of driving is very different. It makes it hard because we're trying to race at the front. … We have to stay on our toes and try to stay out of trouble."

Bourdais was fastest in the night session, held under clear skies with temperature in the 50s, with a lap of 1 minute, 39.223 seconds/129.164 mph.

Jamie McMurray, the former Daytona 500 champion who is part of an imposing all-star driver lineup fielded by car owner Chip Ganassi, had the day's best lap overall on Saturday afternoon – 1:38.980/129.481 in the No. 01 Ford/Riley DP.

After two days of testing and six sessions, the best lap from Friday morning's first session still stands at the top – 1:38.630/129.940 by Bourdais' teammate, Christian Fittipaldi.

The Roar wraps up Sunday with a 9 a.m.-3:30 p.m. schedule.

Saturday also featured the announcement that the fourrace Tequila Patrón North American Endurance Cup will be part of the inaugural TUDOR United Sports Car Championship, a special competition scored separately from the season- long championship battle. It involves the season's four longest races -- the Rolex 24 At Daytona on Jan. 25-26; the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Fueled by Fresh from Florida at Sebring International Raceway on March 15; the Sahlen's Six Hours of The Glen at Watkins Glen International on June 29; and the Petit Le Mans (a 10-hour/1,000- mile event) Powered by Mazda at Road Atlanta on Oct. 4.

This is an expanded version of the previous North American Endurance Championship that was part of the GRANDAM Rolex Series seasons in 2011-12 and consisted of Daytona, Watkins Glen and the Brickyard Grand Prix at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The Tequila Patrón North American Endurance Cup will award $100,000 to the Prototype and GT Le Mans champion teams and $50,000 to the Prototype Challenge and GT Daytona champion teams

Rolex 24 testing complete with Fittipaldi holding fastest lap

Three days of "Roar Before the Rolex 24" test sessions wrapped up Sunday at Daytona International Speedway with a somewhat odd result. The fastest lap came from the very first session, withstanding seven subsequent sessions and a total track time of 12 hours, 45 minutes over a three-day period,

A disclaimer: This was a test – and only a test. Nonetheless, Christian Fittipaldi and his Action Express Racing teammates left the speedway feeling good about their chances of winning the 52nd Rolex 24 At Daytona, set for Jan. 25-26, the season-opening race for the new TUDOR United SportsCar Championship.

Fittipaldi put down the quick time – both overall and in the headlining Prototype class – Friday morning in the No. 5 Corvette DP: 1 minute, 38.630 seconds/129.940 mph on the Daytona 3.56-mile road course.

The weekend's other top times by class:

• Prototype Challenge -- 1:42.010/125.635 by Sam Bird (No. 8 ORECA FLM09), in the Roar's third session on Saturday;

• GT Le Mans -- 1:45.564/121.405 by Nick Tandy (No. 911 Porsche 911), in the second session on Friday;

• GT Daytona -- 1:47.981/118.688 by Spencer Pumpelly (No. 45 Audi R8), also in the second session on Friday.

IMSA Vice President of Competition and Technical Regulations Scot Elkins called the "Roar" a success, saying, "We still have a little bit of work to do [on competition] before the Rolex 24 but we made the gains we expected to make [since a test in November]. We also got the new rule book out to the teams during the test. We feel like we're in a good position. There's a feeling of optimism in the garage."

Testing, of course, is about more than posting fast laps. It is sometimes about revealing potential problems that could derail the actual race effort. The Ford/Riley Prototype teams fielded by Chip Ganassi Racing and Michael Shank Racing were dealing with that sort of situation; after posting some impressive times Friday and Saturday, potential exhaust system issues resulted in both teams waving off Sunday's final practice sessions to head back to their shops and go to work.

After all, time does grow short.

Only three weeks to go, until the Rolex 24.




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