Penske returns to Rolex with its own version of star cars

In this Friday, Jan. 5, 2018 photo, Graham Rahal stands outside his pit stall during testing for the IMSA 24 hour auto race at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Roger Penske has brought his organization back to sports car racing and he'll field two stacked lineups in the Rolex 24 at Daytona later this month

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — At first glance, it appeared the days of the "star car" at the Rolex 24 at Daytona were over.

Then Roger Penske showed up.

Penske has brought his organization back to sports car racing and he'll field two stacked lineups in the Rolex 24 at Daytona later this month. Juan Pablo Montoya, Dane Cameron and Simon Pagenaud are in one car, with Helio Castroneves, Ricky Taylor and Graham Rahal in the other.

The Team Penske lineups are stout — perhaps even eclipsing the talent Chip Ganassi used to assemble each year for the entry affectionately dubbed the "star car" of the Rolex field. But Ganassi exited the Prototype division, leaving a void for an assembled team of experienced veterans to compete for the overall victory in the opening race of the 2018 motorsports season.

The Team Penske entries are, without a doubt, both filled with stars as The Captain makes his return to sports car racing. Penske's first race as a team was the 1966 Rolex, when the organization ran Corvettes. His teams have won the GT class at both Daytona and Sebring, and he won class championships in the American Le Mans Series between 2006 and 2008.

Penske's last full season with a sports car entry was 2009 in the Grand-AM Series.

After a break, Team Penske is back in the restructured and stable IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, at the highest class level, looking to carry on Penske's winning tradition. The effort is with Acura Motorsports, and Team Penske is fielding a pair of new Acura ARX-05 Daytona Prototype International entries. They are powered by Honda.

"Sports car racing has been an integral part of Team Penske's heritage," Penske said. "Reviving a Team Penske sports car program has always been a goal for us."

Penske's reputation for excellence led to this lineup. He took longtime company man Castroneves, a three-time Indianapolis 500 winner, out of IndyCar to anchor the program. Castroneves was teamed him with Taylor, who left his father's race team after a championship season to drive for the gold standard team of auto racing.

Montoya, who won one of his two Indy 500s driving for Penske, has the star role in the second car. Cameron is no slouch. He's the 2016 Prototype co-champion, and like Taylor, jumped at the chance to join a Penske-fielded team.

Pagenaud won the 2016 IndyCar title for Penske and will drive the IMSA endurance races. Same with Rahal, an IndyCar star who won a Rolex in 2011 driving for Ganassi.

"Our intention is to put together the best lineup we can. The experience that these guys have is kind of unquestioned," said Tim Cindric, President of Team Penske.

This team, with its legacy and the status of the drivers, also has unquestionable expectations. Penske cars have more than 470 wins in various series, 16 Indianapolis 500 victories, two Daytona 500 wins and a Formula 1 win. Penske has back-to-back IndyCar titles, and the organization's recent foray into the Virgin Australia Supercars Championship led to 15 wins, 31 podium finishes and a championship. The title was the 32nd for Penske across all series.

To get a jump on the sports car effort, Penske entered Castroneves, Montoya and Pagenaud at last year's Petit Le Mans. The trio won the pole and finished third in sports car program debut.

"The reason Acura came to Team Penske is because Team Penske delivers," Montoya said. "Everything they get involved with, they figure out how to win. We expect to be up front every race."

Castroneves noted that Penske's recent absence from sports car was because the owner only wants to be involved if he's got a quality effort that is capable of winning. In the Acura deal, with this lineup, he had a reason to return.

"One of the reasons Team Penske hasn't been in sports cars for a while is because they want to make sure they have a good partner," Castroneves said. "We feel that when Team Penske rolls in, it doesn't go in and just pull the number. We want to be there, we expect to be in front and we're going to fight for it."

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

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