Going into the 50th Anniversary Rolex 24 at Daytona, GAINSCO/Bob Stallings Racing had a couple of sentimental positives in hand. It had a Gurney (Alex) trying to emulate his father's win in the first major sports car race at the track, 1962's three-hour Daytona Continental. And its car, the No. 99 “Red Dragon,” tied in nicely with 2012 being the Chinese Year of the Dragon.
Unfortunately, the team's quest for the Rolex watches ended associated with the infamous number 13 – its final finishing place in the Daytona Prototype class. Had the team opened a fortune cookie, it would likely have read something to the effect of “adversity builds character.”
Still, Stallings' team could accentuate the positive. One of the Grand-Am Rolex Series' most successful teams entered 2012 with more moving parts than normal, thanks in large part to new third-gen DP bodykits and a new third driver.
Five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson opted to rest, leaving Memo Gidley to slot into the laid-back atmosphere at BSR. Thanks to Gidley's personal sponsorship from Muscle Milk, its “strawberries 'n' cream” flavor brand adorned his helmet, and so regular drivers Gurney and Jon Fogarty gave the Mexican-born Californian a variety of different nicknames including “Creme Fraiche” and “Banana Head.”
The main task for the team at Daytona was coming to grips with the new Corvette DP bodykit. Five examples raced in this year's Rolex 24, but GAINSCO's was the only one wrapping a Riley chassis and Fogarty said there was a major difference in aerodynamics and handling between old and new kit.
“For a rules package that doesn't allow much in aerodynamic development, I was surprised to see how much change there was in the bodywork compared to last year,” Fogarty says. “It's a totally different animal. It requires a finer edge in setup, so ride heights, spring rates and other bits become more critical. More mechanical aspects affect how the aero works. The chassis and the body talk as separate entities.”
Gurney qualified fourth at 1:41.519, second of the Corvettes and exactly four-tenths off the polesitting Starworks Motorsport Riley-Ford in Ryan Dalziel's hands. However, given that his team was the last of the four running the Corvette body to receive it, Stallings regarded that as impressive. “It's remarkable that, given the short timeframe to put this car together [a month], the car is doing so well,” he said.
Varying degrees of rain interrupted Friday's two final practice sessions. Fogarty noted the team wasn't able to adjust the gear ratios to their liking after changing to their race engine the night before. And Gidley said he wanted one more shot to run flat-out before Saturday's race.
The trio felt confident in doing the 24 Hours without a fourth member, a policy the team's followed only since last year. Gurney joked that it was “all about entropy” in getting the three of them maximum seat time. Stallings elaborates.
“Last year, I called Alex, Jon and JJ and asked, ‘Do we want to do three or four?'” he says. “They all said three, because each driver stays more tuned in, more alert and more focused. It seems almost counterintuitive, but it means they're each better dialed into the car.”
Philosophy ceded to reality once the green flew, and Gurney got a rare start aboard the Red Dragon – he usually follows Fogarty in the series' sprint races – and he played it perfectly for a 24-hour race, with caution and consistency ensuring he ran no worse than fifth in the first hour.
After his first pit stop, Gurney hounded Enzo Potolicchio in the pole-sitting Starworks entry like a rabid dog. The Corvette had Ford's measure in the infield, but was left behind on the oval's high banking and straights. As they hit traffic, though, Gurney grabbed his chance and went into the lead on lap 31. At the team's second stop, he relinquished the cockpit to Gidley, headed to the media center and then on to the motor home for rest.
While Gurney's stint had run cleanly, there was concern about the sister Corvettes. Both Action Express' No. 5 and SunTrust's No. 10 had unanticipated issues – SunTrust's a terminal failure in its valve train past the 30-minute mark – that raised a red flag about the Earnhardt Childress-built engines.
“We're in contact with the others,” Gurney admitted. “GM is trying to focus on collaboration. The No. 8 [Potolicchio] was getting such good shots out of the corner that I couldn't match him, but I knew I could get past him eventually.”
Gidley's first running went smoothly once darkness hit, in only the third hour of the race. Within a couple hours, with Fogarty in the car, the narrative changed as a strategy call set the team back. Pitting in anticipation of a full-course caution – which didn't fly despite a GT car that had spun off – cost the team a lap. Ordinarily that wouldn't be a huge issue but, given the last three Rolex 24s ended with multiple cars on the lead lap, regaining that lost lap became a priority.
Once Gurney took over from Fogarty, a new issue sprouted at 9:35 p.m.: the car's punctured radiator. Gurney had struck a piece of debris, and though the team hustled the car into the garage, fixed it and sent it back out in only 10 minutes, the deficit to the leader was now four laps and victory hopes for GAINSCO/Stallings had almost certainly died.
The coffin lid was hammered home at 1:50 a.m., when Gidley's routine pit stop turned into a two-hour stint in the garage. A sudden temperature spike had been traced to a water pump pulley failure, and the related thrown belt.
“I had no warning at all,” Gidley said. “The team was radioing me in anyway and it just struck out of nowhere.”
The car returned to the track already down more than 50 laps, but at 6:30 a.m., Gurney went off course and nosed into the tire barriers. The car returned for cosmetic repairs, and the race became a test session for the GAINSCO trio and so they left Daytona with 13th place in class, sans Rolex watches yet again.
However bad the race went and however quickly, it could have been worse. Yes, it's time for GAINSCO/Stallings to accentuate the positive. Long-time Rolex Series championship rivals from Ganassi and SunTrust also finished outside the top five (sixth and 14th, respectively), which at least means the 2012 title isn't out of reach after the first of the 13 races. And many estimated GAINSCO's pace was best of the ‘Vettes.
“A 13th-place showing doesn't seem right for how hard all the guys worked,” Gurney said. “There were a few positives as we led the race a little bit and we were fast at times. We just had a few little issues and that's all it takes here to get knocked back a lot.”
Adds Fogarty: “We had pretty good pace relative to the other Corvettes, but we didn't have anything for the Fords, or the newer Riley-Fords. It's frustrating but, at the same time, our relative pace to the No. 01 Ganassi car was pretty good – especially looking forward to the rest of the season.”
In fact, this result may have only lit a greater fire underneath the Red Dragon to unleash its fury for the rest of the season. A third series title would help heal the hurt of Daytona.
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