While the nail-biting finish in the Daytona Prototype category will likely steal all the headlines, the Grand Touring division had a fierce battle of its own at the 47th Rolex 24 at Daytona, and endurance specialists TRG came out on top. The Kevin Buckler-led squad claimed a historic 1-2 result, with the No. 67 Porsche 911 GT3 Cup car of Andy Lally, Justin Marks, Jorg Bergmeister, Patrick Long and RJ Valentine taking the win.
With the rival Porsche squad out contention, it left TRG out front in with a comfortable margin. Buckler then elected to shift both cars into a more conservative pace, freezing the running order under a pre-determined agreement between the two cars. While the No. 66 entry had been out front during that time, the No. 67 entry instead inherited the lead because of pit stop sequence.
"It was the right thing to do," said Buckler, who fielded five Porsche in the twice-around-the-clock marathon. "We had cars that we've been beating the crap out of for 24 hours and racing each other. Having both of them break and have someone else cruise to the victory would be silly. It was a tough decision. Someone's not going to be happy, but it was fair and it was right and sometimes you just have to do that. Either one of those cars could have won."
The win was TRG's third Rolex 24 crown and first since its overall triumph in 2003. All of those wins, ironically, have come with Porsche factory ace Bergmeister behind the wheel. Could the tall German be Buckler's lucky charm?
"It's definitely been a while since 2003!" Bergmeister said with a smile. "Winning again is just awesome. Kevin put together a great program with a great driver line-up. I'm just excited to have another watch!"
Lally, who becomes a two-time Rolex 24 winner after his SRPII class victory in 2001, got his season-long run off to a great start, as he and Marks will make a bid for the GT drivers' championship co-driving the No. 67 machine.
"I've been fortunate enough to be part of TRG for five years and be a small part of an awesome program," Lally said. "It's an honor. Daytona for me is the pinnacle of endurance racing. A lot of people look at Le Mans, but this place holds a special spot in my heart."
For Long, the American Porsche factory driver finally bags a Rolex watch after five missed attempts at the 24-hour marathon. The 27-year-old has already racked up class wins at Le Mans, Sebring and the Petit Le Mans and now can say he's won all four of the prestigious endurance events.
"I've said it time and time again that I thought this was going to be the one race that was going to elude me through my whole career," Long said. "Having some early success, thanks to Porsche in many other big endurance races, this Rolex has slipped away from me a few times. So personally this is really sweet."
The second-place TRG No. 66 entry of Ted Ballou, Spencer Pumpelly, Tim George Jr., Emmanuel Collard and Richard Lietz also had a trouble-free race but ended up on the unlucky side of the spectrum. Pumpelly, who was behind the wheel of the car at the time of the No. 86 car's problems in the 19th hour, admits that freezing the running order was a decision Buckler had to make to preserve the team win.
"It's tough being in that situation knowing that when we pitted, they took the lead and they retook the lead," Pumpelly said. "It was a 50/50 shot that it happened. We just kind of came out on the unlucky side of the deal."
The Wright Motorsports Porsche of Phillip Martien, BJ Zacharias and Porsche factory drivers Sascha Maassen and Patrick Pilet finished third, four laps behind the class-winning car. Martien, who celebrated his 50th birthday by entering his first Rolex 24, is rewarded with a podium finish in what was a strong race for the John Wright-led team.
Banner Racing's Pontiac GXP.R of Paul Edwards, Kelly Collins and Jan Magnussen flexed its muscle in the opening hours, but the car was delayed by a nighttime pit lane collision and late-race exhaust problems, finishing fourth.
The No. 86 Farnbacher Loles Porsche recovered from its axle failure to finish the highest of the six-car squad in fifth. It also set the race's fastest lap, in the hands of Dominik Farnbacher.
Race favorites SpeedSource suffered cruel luck in the opening hours, as the pole-sitting No. 70 Mazda RX-8 of Sylvan Tremblay lost over 40 laps to replace a broken fuel pump and punctured fuel cell. The team's sister No. 69 entry had an early race collision and wasn't able to make up lost ground either.
After a grueling 24-hour marathon, the Rolex Series will go on a three-month break before heading to Virginia International Raceway on April 24-25 for round two of the 12-race season.