Who's worth watching if it's wet?
There hasn't been rain in this race for the past two years, and the forecast is telling us there's only a 10 percent chance of it this weekend. However, in the event of any precipitation, expect strong performances from sports car aces such as Pruett, Dalziel, McNish or Barbosa or any of the IndyCar stars such as Dixon, Franchitti, Wilson, Pagenaud or Hunter-Reay.
Should we expect another Porsche win in GT?
Likely, yes. Recent history suggests beating Porsche at Daytona is an improbable and unlikely proposition – the manufacturer has secured 10 of the last 12 GT podium positions at the Rolex 24 and hasn't lost in class since 2008, when SpeedSource's Mazda RX-8 prevailed. Defending champions Magnus return largely intact, with Frenchman Nicolas Armindo replacing Rene Rast alongside Andy Lally, John Potter and Richard Lietz. A star in Europe, this marks Armindo's first true top-flight GT opportunity in America. The team fields a second car run in partnership with Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge squad Fall-Line Motorsports.
Fellow 2012 podium finishers TRG and Brumos are always tough to bet against. TRG's scaled-down Daytona effort, with only three cars instead of its usual five, prior to its new partnership with Aston Martin, still features a driver lineup that includes Dominik Farnbacher, Jorg Bergmeister, Kuno Wittmer, Emmanuel Collard, Romain Dumas and Nic Jonsson split between the team's No. 66 and 67 cars. Hurley Haywood's latest and likely final retirement – he's this year's grand marshal – sees Bryan Sellers replace him in the iconic No. 59 Brumos Porsche. The Falken Tire development ace on the American Le Mans Series side joins the team's regulars Leh Keen, Andrew Davis and Marc Lieb in a car that had a rare engine failure at the Roar test.
Elsewhere, Alex Job's traditional No. 23 features a stellar quartet in Jeroen Bleekemolen, Damien Faulkner, Marco Holzer and Cooper MacNeil, NGT's No. 30 enters under the radar with Sean Edwards, Patrick Pilet, Kuba Giermaziak and Henrique Cisneros, and the renamed Park Place Motorsports (formerly Horton Autosport) boasts Patrick Long and Spencer Pumpelly among its No. 73 entry, one of two cars for the Texas-based team.
There are two other Porsches with intriguing lineups, as Snow Racing with Wright Motorsports sees Daytona's first mother-son entry of Melanie and Madison Snow, and Dener Motorsport competes with Rubens Barrichello, Tony Kanaan and Felipe Giaffone in its No. 21 GT3 Cup. A top-10 in class would be an achievement for either.
Do Ferrari, Audi, Chevrolet, BMW, or others stand a chance?
If Porsche does get dethroned, there's a strong chance it will be by one of the newest cars – a Ferrari 458 or Audi R8. Both have made substantial improvements to their lineups and have a year's worth of data to use for this year's Rolex 24. Defending series champions AIM Autosport expands to two cars and has arguably the class's strongest lineup in its No. 61 458, with Jeff Segal joined by Max Papis, Toni Vilander and Giancarlo Fisichella. The team's sister No. 69 has Guy Cosmo and Anthony Lazzaro aboard but having two pro-ams alongside will make it tough for them to keep up.
Among the five other 458s (two AF Waltrip, two Scuderia Corsa and Extreme Speed Motorsports), there are several drivers worth watching, notably Clint Bowyer in his Rolex 24 debut for AF Waltrip and also Johannes van Overbeek (No. 03), Olivier Beretta (No. 63) and Rafa Matos (No. 64).
Audi has made perhaps the biggest upgrade from 2012. Four customer cars (two APR, one Job, one Rum Bum) feature some big international stars among their lineups. To boot: Frank Biela, Christopher Haasse, Markus Winkelhock (No. 13 Rum Bum), Filipe Albuquerque, Oliver Jarvis, Edoardo Mortara (No. 24 AJR), Marc Basseng, Frank Stippler and Rene Rast (No. 52 APR). None are U.S. household names but these are some seriously talented drivers who could lead the R8 to a class win.
The front-engined Camaros and BMWs may lack the outright pace by comparison but full-season entrants Stevenson Motorsports and Turner Motorsport should not be discounted. Stevenson's No. 57 Camaro features a solid group of John Edwards, Robin Liddell, Jan Magnussen and Tommy Milner with Turner's pair of M3s locked and loaded with a core group of BMW veterans. Marsh Racing also makes its Daytona debut with its Corvette.
Mazda's main focus shifts to its new 6 in GX but a privateer RX-8 rotary screamer remains with an all-Mexican driving lineup for Racers Edge Motorsports, while Vehicle Technologies enters a Dodge Viper Comp Coupe. They're probably the two longest shots in class.
What's on offer from the new GX class?
Daytona's first new class since 2004 features three Mazda 6 and three Porsche Caymans. Minor modifications to the Cayman see that car classified as a Prep 1 unibody car while the Mazda is a tube-framed Prep 2, the RX-8 chassis rebodied and running the new SKYACTIV-D diesel engine.
Either of the Napleton Caymans (No. 16, Shane Lewis and David Donohue among the lineup) or BGB (No. 38, Ryan Eversley and Eric Foss among its) are likely pace-setters in the category. The lone Mazda at the test struggled to put together a competitive lap time due to engine issues, and the SpeedSource crew has been working to get it sorted. Should it claw back the gap, the factory-backed No. 70 SpeedSource entry boasts the manufacturer's strongest lineup (Jonathan Bomarito, Sylvain Tremblay, Marino Franchitti and James Hinchcliffe). Two other Mazdas are entered, one featuring a quartet of talented youngsters in Tristan Nunez, Tristan Vautier, Joel Miller and Spencer Pigot with Mazda veteran Yojiro Terada. Bullet Racing, a late entry, completes the six-car grid with another Cayman.
Expect the GX cars to lap in the 1min55sec-range, so about six or seven seconds slower than the fastest GT cars, only two to three seconds off the slower GTs.
And the king of the rookies?
We'll start with Nelson Piquet Jr., who should be fascinating to watch in his stints aboard the No. 5 Action Express Corvette DP. Anyone who's seen him in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series the last couple years has seen a driver always on the edge of control, somehow corralling a truck no matter its handling. He already has Daytona experience to boot, albeit on the 2.5-mile oval rather than the 3.56-mile road course. Simon Pagenaud – one of the most versatile drivers of this era – makes his DP debut in the Team Sahlen's No. 42 Riley BMW. Fellow IndyCar driver Charlie Kimball also makes his Daytona debut in Ganassi's lead No. 01, his first professional race in a car with a roof! Ambrose will have a hands-on role in Shank's No. 60 and Starworks' No. 8 has a trio of rookies who could surprise in Charouz, Hartley and Bellarosa.
In GT, rookies we expect to shine would be the trio in Alex Job's No. 24 Audi R8, Albuquerque, Jarvis and Mortara, and BMW's No. 93 lineup that contains Andy Priaulx and Maxime Martin.
The Rolex 24 At Daytona opens with practice and qualifying on Thursday. Friday features a one-hour final practice session ahead of Saturday's green flag which is set to drop on the 51st Rolex 24 at Daytona at 3:30 p.m. SPEED will carry live coverage of the race beginning at 3:00 p.m. ET.
For tickets to the Rolex 24, CLICK HERE.