A pair of Michael Shank Racing Ford Rileys swept the front row Thursday during qualifying for the 46th Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway, with series stalwart Oswaldo Negri, Jr. outpacing stock car driver A.J. Allmendinger to take his second career Rolex Sports Car Series pole. The diminutive Negri lapped the 3.56-mile, 14-turn road course in 1:40.793, obliterating Alex Gurney's previous Daytona Prototype track record by more than two and a half seconds.
"It's a fantastic way to start a relationship with Ford," said Negri, who attributed his speed to new Ford power, sticky Pirelli tires, and revised Riley bodywork. "I'm pretty sure that it's as important for them as it is for us. We did a lot work since the last race of 2007. We had a good car, but we were always looking for something better. The Pirelli's were like a huge plus for us. It suits my driving style very much. Since we made the change, I can get what I want out of the car easier."
Although the nature of a 24-hour race tends to diminish the importance of qualifying, Negri said that starting from the pole has its advantages. "It's important because you start at the front of the pack and it keeps you a little bit out of trouble. We've been working hard on the car for race mode. I'm glad we're on pole but I think we have a strong race car.
"We were with Lexus for many years, but we decided we needed some fresh air. It's a good situation for us. This is going to give us some bragging rights for now. But it's one-tenth of what we need to do to win this race. It's a long race, but I am honored and happy to be here."
Negri will share the driving duties in the race with Mark Patterson, Graham Rahal, and Justin Wilson, while second place qualifier Allmendinger will team with Burt Frisselle, Ian James, and John Pew.
"Mike puts together a great program," said Allmendinger. "Everybody on the team works hard . . . and I love driving for Mike because he's a pure racer. It's a great place to be around."
The No. 91 Riley-Mathews Pontiac Riley of Marc Goossens was third fastest, followed by Max Angelelli in the SunTrust Racing Pontiac Riley and Mark Wilkins in the AIM Autosport Ford Riley.
"We had a very good package at the end of last year," said Goossens, who won the last race of 2007 at Miller Motorsports Park. "We worked hard all year. It's hard to improve from that point but we kept on working on the car and Riley [has] come out with new bodywork and all of the top-three have that new bodywork. We've been having some issues with the handling of our car this weekend, but we improved it right before qualifying. I think we have a good lineup and a good strong car for the race."
Twenty Daytona Prototypes broke the Rolex Series track record at Daytona. One of those cars was last year's championship team, Gainsco Bob Stallings Racing, which qualified eleventh in the hands of Gurney. The No. 01 Ganassi Racing Lexus Riley of Scott Pruett was sixth quickest. The second Ganassi entry of IndyCar driver Scott Dixon was sixth quickest.
Ganassi cars have won the past two Rolex 24 races and are expected to contend for a record-setting third consecutive win with a stout lineup of international super stars that includes Pruett, Juan Pablo Montoya, Dario Franchitti, and Memo Rojas in one car and Dixon, Dan Wheldon, Alex Lloyd, and Salvador Duran in the other car.
In the GT class, the No. 70 SpeedSource Mazda RX-8 of Sylvain Tremblay set the fastest lap of the day, in a time of 1:50.758. Christian Montanari qualified second in class in the No. 56 Mastercar Ferrari F430, followed by Spencer Pumpelly in the No. 67 TRG Porsche. All three drivers broke the GT class track record.
"We have been working a while to get here," explained Tremblay. "So we're so proud and fortunate to be here and starting first. But there is a lot more to do."
Today's top 30 qualifiers in both the Daytona Prototype and the GT class are locked into the race on Saturday. If a GT team opts to requalify on Friday, it will lose its qualifying time from today. The official grid for the Rolex 24 will be released after Friday's final qualifying session.
Saturday's race will begin at 1:30 p.m. E.T. and be broadcast live on Fox and Speed.