DAYTONA BEACH — After days of testing and tuning, the laps will finally start to count.
The clock for the 59th running of the Rolex 24 will start at 3:40 p.m. Saturday, as 49 cars from five different classes will battle not only each other, but Daytona’s 3.56-mile Road Course for a chance to win the coveted Rolex watch.
“I’ve knocked on the door a couple times in this race,” said Felipe Nasr, whose No. 31 Whelen Engineering Cadillac will lead the field to green. “We expect to go for the win … I think we proved that last weekend.”
The annual twice-around-the-clock race will be run with a limited crowd due to COVID-19 restrictions, and while the pre-race pomp and pageantry may be toned down, the actual racing could be the most competitive in Rolex 24 history.
“This field is so stacked,” said seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson, who will drive the opening stint in the No. 48 Cadillac DPi. “It’s been a great journey to get to this point.”
Johnson and defending Cup Series champion Chase Elliott, who will co-drive the No. 31 machine, are just two of racing’s superstars who will make up this year’s field.
Former Indianapolis 500 winners Scott Dixon, Alexander Rossi, Helio Castroneves, Juan Pablo Montoya and Simon Pagenaud will all be in cars more than capable of winning, as will longtime NASCAR and Rolex 24 Road Course ringer AJ Allmendinger.
“It’s impressive to see the talent, impressive to see level of this field,” said Pagenaud, who will drive the No. 48 Cadillac with Johnson, two-time defending Rolex 24 winner Kamui Kobayashi and longtime sports-car ace Mike Rockenfeller.
“In the DPi class, it feels like an IndyCar race for 24 hours. The GT class is the same. It’s just all very impressive.”
See the entry list:2021 Rolex 24 At Daytona starting grid
Cadillac has dominated this race of late, winning four in a row. The Chip Ganassi Racing No. 01 Cadillac led a pair of practices on Thursday, and was second on the speed charts Friday. That car will start seventh in Ganassi’s return to IMSA after a year away.
“I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for this race, I love coming down here,” said Ganassi, who is back in the Prototype class this season after fielding a Ford in the GT program from 2016-19. “This race is a good harbinger of spring … it kicks off the racing season for us.”
It’s the official start of Daytona’s racing season as well.
This weekend kicks off a hectic five weeks at the Speedway, including back-to-back NASCAR weekends, the Daytona 500 and Daytona Supercross.
For now, however, all eyes are on the sports-cars, which take center stage Saturday afternoon. Of course, that’s just the first step.
“It’s going to be interesting to see how it goes when we get into the night,” Pagenaud said with a smile. “That’s where we’ll have some action, as usual. It’s hard to imagine which way this thing is going to go.”