Joao Barbosa, Action Express win Rolex 24 as Corvettes dominate Prototype class

By Reid Spencer NASCAR Wire Service

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – It's a given in the Rolex 24 at Daytona that the winning team has to survive a day-long grind that tests the mettle of man and machine.

But Joao Barbosa, Christian Fittipaldi and Sebastien Bourdais had to overcome much more than that to put their No. 5 Action Express Corvette DP into Victory Lane in the 52nd running of the Rolex 24 – and the first as part of the new TUDOR United SportsCar Championship.

On Saturday night, Bourdais and John Martin, who was  driving the third-place finishing No. 9 Action Express team car, narrowly avoided contact in the "Bus Stop" chicane near the end of the backstretch of Daytona International Speedway's 3.56-mile road course, when Martin closed the door on his fellow Corvette driver.

Early Sunday morning, a 70-second penalty to Barbosa for overly aggressive driving after a restart further impeded the No. 5's progress.

And finally, the 16th caution of the race with 21 minutes left – ill-timed from the Action Express perspective – forced Barbosa to outrun the second-place No. 10 Wayne Taylor Racing Corvette DP driven by Max Angelelli in a nine-minute shootout to the finish.

"I was really surprised by that caution, but it's racing, and we just had to deal with it," said Barbosa, who won the overall Rolex 24 title for the second time (the first in 2010). "When they did the wave-by, I saw that there was a car between me and Max [for the restart].

"I saw that there was quite a bit of opportunity, considering how the rules are at this point, that I could have an advantage there, and I took it. I was able to build enough cushion – I don't say [I knew] it was going to be easy – but at least I had enough margin to maneuver, so I had quite a comfortable gap at the end."

In the first race since the merger of the GRAND-AM Rolex Series and the American Le Mans Series produced the TUDOR Championship, Corvette DP entries swept the top four spots overall, but the winning team had to overcome yet another obstacle: pressure from car owner Bob Johnson, who told his drivers at a pre-race dinner that he expected to win. 

"Bob was convincingly, absolutely dead sure that we were going to win it, and I was scared to death," Bourdais said, "because we had the team dinner on Wednesday night, and he shows up, and he's like, 'We're going to win this thing.'

"And I'm like, 'Oh, my God, here he goes.' Last time he did that we probably didn't make first hour. I was like, 'This is like bad, bad, bad – but he was right. The guys were prepared. Everybody was on top of things. Everybody knew exactly what to do and how to do it, and the execution was perfect."

Angelelli thought he would have a chance to challenge for the victory in the final four laps, but Barbosa pulled away and crossed the finish line 1.461 seconds ahead of the No. 10, disappointing owner Wayne Taylor, who came out of a four-year retirement to run the race with Angelelli and sons Ricky Taylor and Jordan Taylor.

 "I can tell you, I tried everything, adjust all I had in the car, to settle the car, to find a good balance, a good run," Angelelli said. "...But I did not have enough for him."

The late caution also tightened the battle for the win in the factory-backed professional GT Le Mans class, with Patrick Pilet taking the checkered flag for a Porsche 911 RSR team that included Richard Lietz and Nick Tandy.

Pilet, who recorded Porsche's 76th win in the Rolex 24, withstood a late charge from runner-up Joey Hand, driving for a No. 55 BMW Z4 GTE team that included Bill Auberlen, Andy Priaulx and Maxime Martin.

A last-lap judgment call by International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) officials ostensibly made winners of Audi drivers Spencer Pumpelly, Markus Winkelhock, Nelson Canache Jr. and Tim Pappas in the GT Daytona class.

Winkelhock appeared to have been forced off the track in the infield by No. 555 Ferrari F458 Italia driver Alessandro Pier Guidi as the cars streaked through the infield. Though the Ferrari was first to the checkered flag, IMSA initially imposed a stop-plus-75-second penalty on the No. 555, enough to give the victory to the No. 45 Audi.

But after further review, IMSA reversed the ruling and awarded the win to the Ferrari team, which also included Scott Tucker, Jeff Segal, Townsend Bell and Bill Sweedler. The Audi team was relegated to second place.

Scot Elkins, IMSA’s vice president of competition and technical regulations, provided the following statement regarding the decision.

"A full post-race review of the incident on the last lap of the 52nd Rolex 24 At Daytona was completed by IMSA Supervisory Officials. The decision has been made to reverse the decision by the race director, rescind the penalty against the No. 555 Level 5 Motorsports Ferrari 458 Italia team, and reinstate drivers Scott Tucker, Bill Sweedler, Townsend Bell, Jeff Segal and Alessandro Pier Guidi as the GT Daytona class winners. We regret the confusion following the race, and appreciate the patience by our fans, drivers, teams and the media so we could properly review and subsequently report this decision."

Former NASCAR driver Colin Braun led the No. 54 team (with Jon Bennett, James Gue and Mark Wilkins) to a win from the pole in the Prototype Challenge class.

Scott Pruett's bid for a record sixth overall Rolex 24 trophy unraveled during the night. With Pruett behind the wheel shortly after midnight, the No. 01 Chip Ganassi Racing Ford EcoBoost/Riley snapped loose unexpectedly in the Bus Stop and smacked the wall, costing the defending race winners more than 30 laps in the garage to effect repairs.

Ultimately, the No. 01 retired in the 23rd hour because of an engine issue and finished 43rd overall. The No. 02 Ganassi Ford fell out in the final hour.

Though he was mystified as to the cause of the spin in the chicane, Pruett took responsibility for the mishap.

"We were coming through there, punched out of there and all of a sudden the car was sideways and in the fence," Pruett said. "From a driver's standpoint, you just cannot imagine the weight that is on you from doing something like that.

"I think I may have had one crash this race. I don't know what happened. There's a saying you have in racing: where you hit the fence and you're going 'Dang, I just can't put it together what happened.'...

"Again, I take responsibility, and I just feel real bad for the team and the guys and my teammates."

 One of the most violent crashes in recent Rolex 24 history interrupted the race before nightfall on Saturday. The No. 62 GTLM Ferrari driven by Matteo Malucelli slowed dramatically in the "kink" following the "International Horseshoe" in the infield portion of the course.

Memo Gidley, driving the pole-winning No. 99 GAINSCO Corvette DP, pulled out to pass a slower car and collided with Malucelli's car, knocking he Ferrari into the guard rail and leaving the crippled Corvette in the middle of the track.

Both drivers were transported to Halifax Health Medical Center, where Gidley underwent surgery on his left arm and leg. A bulletin Sunday morning also noted an unstable fracture in Gidley's back that will require surgery before he can be released.

Malucelli has been released from Halifax Health.


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