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Ambrose, Allmendinger on top friday at Rolex 24 test

January 04, 2013, Holly Cain, NASCAR.com

Roar before 24

Allmendinger, Ambrose among big names at annual three-day tune-up

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Defending Rolex 24 race winner AJ Allmendinger posted the fastest lap in Friday’s Roar before the Rolex 24 test at Daytona International Speedway with Juan Pablo Montoya and Marcos Ambrose also leading a contingent of NASCAR Sprint Cup stars ringing in the new season this weekend in the annual three-day tune-up.

Ambrose sat atop the speed chart for much of the foggy, chilly first day of preparation for auto racing’s traditional season opening endurance race on Jan. 26-27.

It was an impressive effort from Ambrose, who was turning his first-ever laps in a GRAND-AM Rolex Series Daytona Prototype. Ambrose was a late addition to the Michael Shank Racing team -- on hand to potentially fill in for Oswaldo Negri, who is recovering from an ankle injury.

Allmendinger’s performance around the 3.56-mile road course was less surprising, considering he led the Shank team to a dramatic victory last year over favorites like Chip Ganassi Racing’s two-car entry and all-star driver lineup.

"It’s a fun event for me, less pressure because you’re just a part of it, you’re not all of it."

--Marcos Ambrose

“Obviously, the weather was a big thing today,” Allmendinger said. “But even in the damp conditions the car was solid and I was just getting back in the flow of not having driven this car for the past year.  A lot of the credit goes to (co-drivers) Oz (Oswaldo Negri) and John (Pew) for developing the car. It’s still early, but it was a good, solid day.”

As is typical of recent years, the Rolex 24 will feature a number of NASCAR drivers among its grid of sports car and open-wheel best.

Former Daytona 500 winner Jamie McMurray will co-drive a second Ganassi car. Two-time Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip announced Thursday that he and Sprint Cup championship runner-up Clint Bowyer will co-drive a Ferrari in the GT class, which was paced Friday by former Cup Rookie of the Year, Andy Lally.

Camping World Truck Series’ 2012 “Most Popular Driver” Nelson Piquet was on hand preparing for his Rolex 24 debut, too.

“I walked down the garage area and bumped into four or five guys I haven’t seen in 10 or 12 years,” Ambrose said. “We’ve all gone different paths in racing, and it’s events like this we all migrate back to and can catch up.

“It’s a fun event for me, less pressure because you’re just a part of it, you’re not all of it.”

Despite a paddock filled with many of racing’s biggest names, Ambrose joked that he remained keenly aware of NASCAR bragging rights.

“I just want to stomp their butts on the ground and get after it,” he joked about his fellow NASCAR drivers.
“No, we’re all competitive, but this is a team event and not about individuals. I’m very mindful that I need to be a good team player for these guys, so I’ll save all my grudge matches for the ovals.”

Even as drivers of all racing disciplines gathered for the legendary event, it was an especially significant day for American sports car racing, which will race under one sanctioning body in 2014.

Officials from GRAND-AM Road Racing and the American LeMans Series announced a significant step in their merger Friday with the initial formation of its class structure.

The exact names of the classes haven’t been decided upon yet -- neither has the new series’ name -- but the structure of the classes will include two prototype classes (one for the current GRAND-AM’s Daytona Prototypes and the ALMS P2 class and another for the ALMS Prototype Challenge class for spec prototypes).

It will also feature at least two GT classes -- one for the current GRAND-AM GT class and another for the current ALMS GTC class. There is a possibility of running the GRAND-AM GX class as a fifth overall division.

It marked great progress in the merger between the two sanctioning bodies, so despite the gloomy weather, there was a real sense of unity and opportunity in the garage area.

It was exactly the kind of hope and opportunity being felt by Friday’s fastest man.

Allmendinger, who drove for Penske Racing in 2012 before being suspended -- and later reinstated -- for a positive drug test, said he doesn’t have a full-time ride for this year. But he is hopeful something will work out, perhaps with Phoenix Racing, which hired him to compete in four races after he successfully completed NASCAR’s Road to Recovery program last summer.

“Right now, I’m just focusing on this race,” a smiling Allmendinger said. “I’m excited to be back here at this race and be with Michael Shank, who has been like a best friend to me.

“I definitely want to be back in (Sprint) Cup. I have a lot of unfinished business, but I’m open to all options. I’ve learned anything can happen in this world.”