Fernando Alonso headlines star-studded Rolex 24 at Daytona

Sebastien Bourdais, of France, talks with a reporter in his garage during a practice session for the IMSA 24-hour auto race at Daytona International Speedway, Friday, Jan. 26, 2018, in Daytona Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

The Rolex 24 at Daytona didn't need Fernando Alonso to make it a world class event

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The Rolex 24 at Daytona didn't need Fernando Alonso to make it a world-class event. The sports car race already ranks among the most prestigious on the motorsports calendar.

It doesn't hurt to have a two-time Formula One world champion in the lineup, though IMSA wasn't exactly struggling to draw a crowd to the twice-round-the-clock endurance race that begins Saturday at Daytona International Speedway because it is already a star-studded affair:

— It's the final Rolex for Scott Pruett , the winningest driver in American sports car history who is retiring after the race . He has won it a record-tying five times.

— Team Penske will make its debut in a new Acura prototype program that has assembled Helio Castroneves , Ricky Taylor and Graham Rahal on one team, and Juan Pablo Montoya, Dane Cameron and Simon Pagenaud on the other. That's five Indianapolis 500 victories, two former Rolex winners, two former IMSA champions, and two series champions from Indy cars.

— Wayne Taylor Racing is trying to defend its Rolex victory from a year ago with a totally new lineup. Only Jordan Taylor is back, and Renger van der Zande replaced Ricky Taylor when he left for Team Penske. They've got their Cadillac on the pole, next to Team Penske, after van der Zande bumped Castroneves in qualifying. Ricky Taylor would have gone head-to-head against his former team , owned by his father, but he was fighting the flu on qualifying day.

— Chip Ganassi Racing will try for its eighth Rolex victory. The team has six overall wins, and its seventh came last year in the GT Le Mans class. Its entries this year are Joey Hand, Dirk Mueller and Sebastien Bourdais in one Ford GT, and Ryan Briscoe, Richard Westbrook and Scott Dixon in the other.

— Cadillac teams still seem to have the upper hand in the prototype division and qualified four cars in the top seven. IMSA has made rules changes to try to close the competition , but the program still appears to be superior.

— Corvette Racing is celebrating its 20th anniversary and will do so with Jan Magnussen leading the GTLM class at the start.

"Since I started racing in Daytona, I've never seen a field with this many talented drivers and teams," said Joao Barbosa, part of the Action Express Racing team that will start third. "There's 10 to 15 cars with a real shot at winning. The interest in this race is huge, Formula One drivers want to do this race, and I think IMSA really hit a big home run this year."

Part of the lure is Alonso, who is competing in the top races in the world one by one in his quest to prove he's the most versatile driver in motorsports. The Spaniard got a break from McLaren F1 boss Zak Brown last year when he was allowed to race the Indianapolis 500.

Brown owns the United Autosports team that Alonso is anchoring, and the Rolex is an entry point for Alonso to eventually make an appearance in the 24 Hours of Le Mans . The team doesn't think a win is within reach , but if there's enough attrition over 24 hours, it could make the podium.

"I knew before coming here that the package we had, it was not the quickest," Alonso said of the Ligier LMP2. "But it's a race that is long enough that you can recover the lack of performance that you may have.

"In a way, it's a learning experience, a learning race, a preparation, also," he said. "If one day I attempt 24 Hour LeMans, I need to respect that race. I need to respect also this race and know that there are a lot of guys with more experience than me and more prepared than me. So if I want to be as prepared as them and to have the experience, I think this weekend is a perfect opportunity."

There will also be a ton of attention on the Team Penske effort. Roger Penske's group appears to be as buttoned-up as expected, and its armada of personnel and attention to detail has left some teams in awe.

"They are impressive," conceded Dixon, who as a Ganassi driver is rivals with the Penske group in IndyCar.

But the Acuras have not had the same pace as others, and Castroneves' qualifying lap was a surprise gain of speed for the team. With Taylor battling an illness, that entry could be handcuffed with a short lineup, but no one doubts Penske will contend.

"I raced against Penske, I watched Penske, I wanted to figure out how to get inside Penske," said Pagenaud. "Once inside, you see that the resources are so top-notch and the organization gives us every opportunity to win."

___

More AP Auto Racing: https://racing.ap.org/

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