Story lines heading into Rolex 24 at Daytona

DAYTONA BEACH, Florida — When the green flag falls on the 54th running of the Rolex 24 at Daytona Saturday, history will be made on multiple fronts. The twice-around-the-clock sports car endurance race is the first major event to take place in the newly reimagined Daytona International Speedway, where a $400 million DAYTONA Rising makeover debuts this weekend.

Multiple escalator-fed “injectors” plus a bevy of elevators mean that even if your seats are on the very top row of the stadium, you won’t have to take more than 20 stair-steps to get to your seat. “We can’t wait to show off what we’ve done,” said Joie Chitwood III, track president. “I think our fans will be amazed.”

FORD GT MAKES HISTORIC RETURN: As the legend goes, Henry Ford II was so angry at Enzo Ferrari, who had rudely rebuffed Ford’s attempt to buy his company, that Ford swore on the spot that he’d build a car that would trounce Ferrari at its favorite playground, the 24 Hours of Le Mans. And, with the help of the legendary Carroll Shelby, that’s what happened.

That was 50 years ago, and Ford is returning to Le Mans this year with a brand-new Ford GT, based on the street car that debuted at the Detroit auto show in 2015. That road to Le Mans starts this weekend at Daytona, as two Ford GTs, fielded by Chip Ganassi Racing, will make their first-ever laps in competition. And that competition is tough, with Ferrari, BMW, Porsche and the Chevrolet Corvette hoping to spoil the party.

The Ford GT drivers are top-tier, with Joey Hand, Dirk Muller and Sebastien Bourdais in one car, Ryan Briscoe, Richard Westbrook and Stefan Mucke in other. Hand and Bourdais are both previous overall winners of the Rolex 24.

STAR CAR: While Chip Ganassi Racing has its hands full with the new GT Le Mans Ford GT effort, the overall winning team from the 2015 race returns in the Prototype class with a two-car team to defend its crown.

Typically one Ganassi car has sports car veterans, while the other, often referred to as the “star car,” has stars from other series who drive for Ganassi teams in IndyCar and NASCAR. And that’s no different this year.

Indianapolis 500 winners and IndyCar Series champions Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan share the Ford EcoBoost-Riley they drove to victory a year ago along with NASCAR Sprint Cup Series stars Jamie McMurray and Kyle Larson. The six-time Rolex 24 winning team also will field a Ford-Riley Daytona Prototype for Alex Wurz, Brendon Hartley, Andy Priaulx and Lance Stroll, sports car pros in their own right.

WHERE’S SCOTT PRUETT? It has been years since veteran Scott Pruett has driven anything but Ganassi cars, and most recently Fords, but for 2016’s Rolex 24, he’s part of a Chevrolet-powered Prototype team. Pruett teams up with Action Express Racing in a bid for an unprecedented sixth overall win, and he definitely chose a contending team, with defending and two-time WeatherTech Championship Prototype champions Joao Barbosa and Christian Fittipaldi in the No. 5 Mustang Sampling Corvette DP, as well as 2013 Rolex 24 GT winner Felix Albuquerque.

For the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring, the next round of the WeatherTech Championship on March 19, Pruett will move to Action Express’ No. 31 Corvette DP, co-driving with Dane Cameron and Eric Curran.

ALL-NEW GT DAYTONA FIELD: The Rolex 24 sanctioning body, the International Motor Sports Association (IMSA), changed the rules during the off-season in the largest of the four classes of cars, GT Daytona, making the production car-based class subject to global GT3 technical specifications. The cars will race in the entire IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season, which kicks off at Daytona.

GT3-specification cars are raced all over the world, which makes manufacturers more eager to build the cars, given the massive market. That means an all-new look for most of the 22 cars in the GT Daytona class this year, plus some new competitors.

The field goes, for instance, from zero Lamborghinis in 2015 to five this year. Four teams will field a total of five Lamborghini Huracán GT3s, led by defending GTD class champions Townsend Bell and Bill Sweedler, who move over from Ferrari.

Porsche also has a five-car entry among four teams. Andy Pilgrim, a three-time Rolex 24 class winner, makes his return to the WeatherTech Championship with Patrick Long, Timothy Pappas and Nicky Catsburg in the No. 540 Black Swan Racing Porsche entry.

Three teams have chosen Audi for the debut of the R8 LMS GT3. Stevenson Motorsports will field a pair of Audis, and Magnus Racing moves to Audi with Andy Lally, John Potter and Rene Rast from its 2012 Rolex 24 class-winning lineup in the No. 44 car. Flying Lizard Motorsports also will field an Audi R8.

Turner Motorsport debuts a pair of brand-new BMW M6 GT3s. Scuderia Corsa, the 2015 GTD team champion, sticks with Ferrari but has a new lineup with Christina Nielsen, Alessandro Balzan, Jeff Segal and Robert Renauer driving the No. 63 Ferrari 458 GT3. They are joined by Spirit of Race, with the No. 51 Hublot/Global Jet entry.

Riley Motorsports returns with the Dodge Viper that captured GTD honors in the 2015 Rolex 24 with two entries. And Aston Martin returns with two cars, one from TRG-AMR, one from Aston Martin Racing.

The 54th Rolex 24 At Daytona is the start of the 2016 IMSA season. U.S. television coverage begins on FS1 at 2 p.m. ET on Saturday, Jan. 30. International coverage is available throughout the race on and the IMSA mobile app.