DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Roger Penske snapped a 54-year losing streak at the Rolex 24 at Daytona on Sunday when Felipe Nasr held off two-time defending race winner Tom Blomqvist in the final 45 minutes of the most prestigious endurance race in the United States.
The win for Team Penske at Daytona International Speedway was its first since “The Captain” restarted his sports car program in 2018, first with Acura and then last season as a two-car Porsche factory team. Penske’s only other overall win at the Rolex came in 1969 with a lineup of Mark Donohue and Chuck Parsons, who was flown in the day before the race because regular driver Ronnie Bucknum fractured his finger in a motorcycle accident.
Team Penske also won the GT class in 1966, but he has chased the overall Rolex victory since ’69.
“To come back here and have both cars run for 24 hours, and then win the race, it’s hard for me to believe,” Penske said. “This goes down as one of the biggest wins we’ve had.”
He lauded the crowd — the largest in recent history for the Rolex — and praised IMSA for staging such a competitive race. Five of the 10 cars in the top GTP class finished on the lead lap and Nasr’s margin of victory was .0861 seconds.
“When we won in 1969 with a Lola, it was a lot different in those days,” Penske said. “But to think about today, the biggest crowd they’ve had here for a sports car race, just to see the competitiveness, a win by (eight-) tenths of a second, that’s unbelievable. That’s what I’ll say.”
The winning lineup consisted of Nasr, Dane Cameron, Matt Campbell and Indianapolis 500 winner Josef Newgarden, who would like to believe his win at Indy last May is what earned him a seat in the No. 7 Porsche 963. Newgarden is the 16th driver in history to win both the Indy 500 and the Rolex.
“I just showed up, that’s all I did. Porsche and Team Penske delivered the result,” Newgarden said. “I was just happy to be here. You gotta talk to RP, though, I think he was crying up there on the pit stand.”
The second Penske Porsche finished fourth.
It was a fight to the very end, especially the final 30 minutes, when Nasr found himself trading the lead with Blomqvist, who was driving for reigning IMSA champions Action Express Racing. Blomqvist was part of the last two Rolex wins with Meyer Shank Racing, but that team shuttered at the end of last season when it lost its factory support in part because of a cheating controversy in last January’s win.
The No. 31 Cadillac, which had dominated much of the race with the Cadillac from Chip Ganassi Racing, needed Blomqvist to close the race because, with only a three-driver lineup, regular Pipo Derani had driven more than eight hours and was exhausted.
Blomqvist pitted three laps earlier than Nasr with about 75 minutes remaining and was able to pass Nasr for the lead after Nasr made his own pit stop. But Nasr got it back under caution on the final pit stop with 44 minutes remaining when he beat Blomqvist off pit road.
Nasr pulled away on the restart with 31 minutes to go, and even though Blomqvist turned the fastest lap of the race 10 minutes later, he couldn’t catch Nasr as the 86-year-old Penske watched from the pit stand. Penske is known for staying up the entire 24 hours of the race.
The win capped a remarkable 246-day stretch for Penske, the most decorated team owner in motor sports history. In the last eight months, he won a record-extending 19th Indy 500 with Newgarden’s victory, claimed back-to-back NASCAR Cup titles when Ryan Blaney won in November and celebrated the achievements at industry events in early December and this week. He and Newgarden were feted at the Henry Ford Museum in Michigan on Tuesday when they were presented with their own replica Indy 500 trophies.
Cadillac dominated most of the race, but the Ganassi car was eliminated with an engine failure during the overnight stints, and Penske took the lead with just under six hours remaining. Nasr passed Jack Aitken on track to take the lead and built a lead of more than four seconds.
Newgarden had been asking Penske for years to drive Team Penske cars in other racing series, and he wasn’t certain the Indy 500 victory was enough to earn him a Rolex seat. But he was serious about not being a hinderance to a lineup that includes Nasr, Cameron and Campbell.
“He’s fit in perfectly with the team, he’s easy to get along with and obviously very experienced within the Penske organization,” Campbell said. “That makes it quite easy for him. It’s good having a guy like him, he brings a lot of experience in different ways. I know coming from IndyCar, it is quite different. But he’s brought some new ideas to the table.
“Having someone with his expertise in a different style of racing has really boosted us, and he’s been able to adapt very well.”
Newgarden said his only goal was to be a positive addition to the Porsche team.
“When I come to work with guys like Matt or Felipe or Dane, I’m learning something new and I’m seeing a new perspective that I’ve never seen before,” Newgarden said. “I haven’t run sports cars that often, definitely not as much as these guys. So they have a way of looking at things or approaching situations much differently than we do.
“I think that can be really positive. When I say be an additive, it doesn’t mean have 100 good ideas and they are going to take all of them. But if you have 100 good ideas, there might be 10 that are applicable, and that would be an additive. I’ve got that fresh perspective.”
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