Allmendinger leads Michael Shank Racing to win

January 29, 2012 - 5:55 PM
Grand Am Daytona 24 Auto Racing

The Gainsco Corvette DP (99) leads the Ganassi Racing BMW Riley (02) through a turn during the Grand-Am Rolex 24 auto race at Daytona International Speedway, Saturday, Jan. 28, 2012, in Daytona Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/David Graham)

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — The little team with no pedigree knocked off the big boys with all those championships.

Michael Shank Racing did it with a pair of drivers hoping Sunday's victory in the Rolex 24 at Daytona is the kickoff to their career comebacks.

NASCAR driver AJ Allmendinger closed out the twice-around-the-clock win by piloting the No. 60 Ford Riley for the final stint, a nearly three-hour drive that included some door-to-door banging with Allan McNish for the lead.

It was Allmendinger's first win in a major series in almost six years, and comes about a month after he landed the job of a lifetime with Roger Penske's NASCAR team.

"I feel very fortunate," Allmendinger said. "This is one of the reasons why I love this race, because it really kicks off SpeedWeeks. It's such a prestigious race. It's one of those races you want on your résumé and you want to say that you were part of a victory.

"It's amazing. I'm going to cherish this."

IndyCar Series driver Justin Wilson, meanwhile, turned in his own strong performance with a three-hour drive during the morning hours that proved he's healthy — but more importantly, he's still fast — after a six-month layoff because of a broken bone in his back. Wilson announced recently he's reuniting with Dale Coyne Racing for the upcoming IndyCar season.

"Hopefully this is the start of a good season," Wilson said. "We just have to work it out. I think it's going to be an exciting year. I'm really looking forward to it."

Allmendinger was suffering from severe leg cramps at the end of the race, and had to be helped from the car in Victory Lane. While waiting to start the post-race news conference, he rested his head on a chair with his eyes closed.

The two paired with Grand-Am regulars Ozz Negri Jr. and John Pew to give Shank its first win in one of the most prestigious sports car races in the world. Shank, who had a second entry that finished third, was nearly in tears in Daytona's storied Victory Lane.

"I am just grateful," he said of winning the 50th running of the 24-hour race. It was Shank's ninth attempt to win Daytona.

Allmendinger was suffering from severe leg cramps at the end of the race, and had to be helped from the car in Victory Lane. While waiting to start the post-race news conference, he rested his head on a chair with his eyes closed.

"I'm beat. I'm cramping all over," he said nearly two hours after the race ended. "I've never felt anything like this. But it's a good feeling."

Wilson said he had cramping in his legs and lower back, but said it was unrelated to the broken vertebrae he suffered in an August accident at Mid-Ohio. He had to wear a protective shell for almost three months after the accident.

Ryan Dalziel was at the wheel for Starworks Motorsport's second-place finish, and Felipe Nasr was driving for Shank when he crossed the line in third. Ford swept the top three spots of the Daytona Prototype class, and won the race for the first time since 1999.

It required holding off the vaunted teams from Chip Ganassi Racing, which finished fourth and sixth after both cars had mechanical issues.

IndyCar driver Scott Dixon was driving during the middle of the night when the shifter broke in the No. 02 BMW Riley. It put that car four laps down during the repair time, and long green flag runs prevented the team from making up the laps fast enough to get back into contention.

NASCAR driver Juan Pablo Montoya was behind the wheel when the "star car" — the lineup also included IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti and NASCAR driver Jamie McMurray — crossed the finish line one lap down, in fourth.

Meanwhile, the defending race winner group of Grand-Am champions Scott Pruett, Memo Rojas, IndyCar driver Graham Rahal and sports car standout Joey Hand finished sixth, down four laps. Pruett was running inside the top three headed into the final hour, but a late gearbox issue took the defending champions out of contention.

"It was an epic race," Ganassi said. "We just weren't a part of it. We struggled the whole 24 hours to keep pace with the Fords. It was a stretch for us to do it."

The Ganassi drivers noted many times the Ford were far superior in horsepower, and it was obvious in how the competition drove away from a Ganassi car every time a battle for position reached the oval portion of Daytona's course.

"All you have to do is have a pair of eyes and see what's going on. We had a pretty big deficit in power," Pruett said. "We kind of knew where we were at a third, halfway into the race. They could have us. We couldn't match their pace. They were running a half mph faster than we were easily."

Andy Lally, NASCAR's rookie of the year last season in the elite Sprint Cup Series, marked his return to sports car racing with a victory in the Grand Touring class for Magnus Racing.

Lally struggled through his NASCAR season, but loved every minute of racing stock cars, even though he's now back in sports cars this year.

"Knowing how tough it was going to be, I'd do it all over again," Lally said. "As tough as it was and as humbling as it was and as much of an underdog as you could be, we were, but it was still a blast. And to come back and drive with talents like (this) ... is cool trying to transition back into it and get back in the swing of things right off the bat."

The race marked the debut of the Corvette in Prototypes, and the Ferrari and Audi in GT. The highest finishing Corvette was Action Express Racing, which wound up fifth.

The top finishing Ferrari was from Risi Competizione, at fifth in GT. The highest Audi was APR, at 31st in GT.

The Corvettes suffered a huge blow less than an hour into the race when the SunTrust Racing entry blew its engine.

"It's really disappointing but at the same time this is what happens in this game," team owner Wayne Taylor said.

IndyCar driver Marco Andretti was a last-minute addition to the Starworks Motorsport team, and arrived at Daytona after a two-day test session for IndyCar at Palm Beach International Raceway. He had to be treated for dehydration after his final stint in the car.