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A viewer’s guide to the 2021 Rolex 24 at Daytona: Five things to watch in the race

Racing's 24-hour renaissance awaits, as Daytona signifies the dawn of the season and welcomes the likes of Chase Elliott, Jimmie Johnson, Scott Dixon, Alexander Rossi, Alexander Rossi, Simon Pagenaud, Helio Castroneves.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The two-time defending overall champion car owner of the Rolex 24 at Daytona has a succinct description of how preparations have been going for a record-tying third consecutive victory.

“Oh, chaos,” Wayne Taylor said. “Just chaos. Complete chaos.”

This is a positive kind of chaos, though, for teams that enjoy challenges and fans who like a jumbling of the traditional power structure.

This year’s Rolex 24 has featured a frenetic run-up to a prestigious season opener that will have a formidable lineup top to bottom across the largest field in the sports car endurance classic since 2018.

In the DPi division, Wayne Taylor Racing has switched from running the No. 10 Cadillac (which has won three of the past four Rolex 24s) to Acura, which also has added Meyer Shank Racing (which is moving up from the GTD division) to replace the former two-car effort from Team Penske.

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Chip Ganassi Racing, an eight-time Rolex 24 winner, has returned to the sports car fray with the No. 01 Cadillac.

And those are only the team changes. The driver swaps require a much longer scorecard:

--Taylor essentially has hired the team that beat his squad for the 2020 series championship, bringing his older son, Ricky, back into the fold along with former Penske drivers Helio Castroneves and Alexander Rossi and pairing them with new full-season driver

--Meyer Shank Racing has hired two other former Penske drivers, Dane Cameron (full time) and Juan Pablo Montoya (for the Rolex 24).

--Having been “sacked” by WTR, Renger van der Zande has joined Ganassi, which also has added Formula One veteran Kevin Magnussen (son of former GT champion Jan Magnussen).

That’s just in DPi. There also is some major shuffling happening in GTLM (which has absorbed the blow of Porsche Motorsport’s departure) and GTD (whose Rolex 24 field will include past GTLM champions Earl Bamber, Laurens Vanthoor and Oliver Gavin, as well as IndyCar star Colton Herta).

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All of this is occurring against the backdrop of an extremely truncated offseason after a pandemic-delayed 2020 season ended a month later than usual with the Twelve Hours of Sebring, the second-biggest race of the year.

With barely time to recover during the holiday season, the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship Series had a brief testing session before falling into a new rhythm leading into the Rolex 24.

Instead of having a few weeks after the Roar Before The Rolex 24 test session to digest data, Rolex 24 teams have spent the better part of two weeks with nonstop running and tinkering while wedging in a 100-minute qualifying race for good measure.

Taylor’s mechanics have taken to sleeping in the trailer at their team’s shop while working on shocks until 3 a.m.

“I would put my team against anybody in terms of their vision, their focus, their attention to detail and just the attitude,” Taylor said last week. “But the guys literally have been working 24/7, and now we’re really, really tired. This is the hardest race to prepare for.”

This year, it will be among the deepest for an event that many consider a 24-hour sprint race around Daytona International Speedway’s 12-turn, 3.56-mile road course.

Beyond the usual collection of the world’s greatest sports car aces, there are three Daytona 500 winners, five Indy 500 winners and two Formula One winners. Both the reigning NTT IndyCar Series champion (six-time titlist Scott Dixon, who also won his fourth Rolex 24 last year) and NASCAR Cup Series champion (Chase Elliott in his IMSA debut) are here.

“It’s so competitive, and it’s never been more competitive than this year,” GTD driver Katherine Legge, who has returned for her first race since breaking her legs in a crash last year, told NBC Sports. “It’s so stacked driver lineup-wise, it’s ridiculous. You’ve got the best drivers from all over the world and so many cars. You go into it thinking we just have to survive. We just have to be on the lead lap until the last four hours. Then we can really go after it. The reality is you’ve been after it since the word go.”

Said Taylor: “These days are not like the old days of the 24 Hour. It’s like qualifying for 24 hours now.”

And it’ll seem very crowded on the high banks of the World Center of Racing. After a record-low 38 entries last year, car count has increased by 11 with the LMP2 class doubling and a new LMP3 class.

“The race is going to be really tight, really difficult,” Cameron said. “I think it’s going to have a little different feel this year. It’s the most cars we’ve had in a long time here. A new category, a lot of new teams, cars, drivers in this event. I think it’s going to take more of a survival feel than normal. Last year especially with so few cars, the pace was crazy with so few cars. Flat out all day, big stretches of green flag. This will be pretty far from that. This will be more about surviving.”

In addition to a very deep and very different field for 2021, here are four more things to watch during the 59th running of the Rolex 24 at Daytona, which will begin Saturday at 3:30 p.m. ET on NBC:

--Crossover country: The list of NASCAR and IndyCar drivers migrating south to Daytona Beach this winter is long.

The focus mostly has been on Elliott, who is continuing his offseason quest of diversifying his resume, and seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson, who is using his first Rolex 24 to prepare for his transition to the high-downforce world of IndyCar while also hoping to check a crown jewel off his bucket list.

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But there are many other familiar names with divergent interests in the race.

With the exhibition Clash and a Feb. 28 Cup race upcoming on the same Daytona layout, Austin Dillon is using the race primarily as a route to road course improvement. Oliver Askew (LMP3) and Zach Veach (GTD) both are trying to jump-start their careers after losing IndyCar rides. And Alexander Rossi and Simon Pagenaud just want to become first-time winners of the race that unofficially begins the major-league racing season.

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“Winning the Rolex 24 would go right there next to my Baby Borg Indy 500 trophy,” Rossi said. “It’s one of those three or four flagship premier events in the world. It’s something a lot of drivers cherish and are looking for and very few ultimately are fortunate enough to win it, so that’s my No. 1 target in Daytona.”

--The final four: Winning time will begin shortly before noon Sunday. That’s when the race will enter its 21st hour, and a mad dash typically ensues.

With the Rolex 24 starting shortly after 3:30 p.m. ET, there will be a longer finishing kick in daylight hours than some previous years when the race was ending around the time it’ll hit high gear in 2021.

“When we wake up Sunday, we still got a long way to go,” Montoya said. “It’ll be harder on the body and mentally and make the day feel longer.”

Said Rossi: “Sunrise is a special time because you’re kind of through, in a lot of people’s minds, one of the hardest parts in a way, but with the race time this year, the sunrise doesn’t really mean a whole lot. There’s still a good eight hours of racing to go, which is a lot of time. It’s both relieving to see it and depressing because it’ll be, ‘Oh, we’re almost done,’ and then you look at the clock, and it’s, ‘Oh, no we’re not.’ It’s just an added challenge. It’s what Daytona is all about.

“I think the first 20 hours of the race, you’re trying to protect the car, stay on the lead lap and then the last four hours is when you unleash everything you’ve got available to you.”

--No room to move: While the LMP3 class has helped juice the car count, it also has increased the level of amateurism in the field with many more “gentlemen drivers” on track.

Some professional drivers haven’t shied from publicly noting the lack of skill, and IMSA officials privately have been as concerned by the rise in amateurs in LMP2, too.

It’s made things especially tricky for some of the most talented GT drivers, whose cars technically are slower than the prototypes.

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“It’s a bit more of a challenge,” said Laurens Vanthoor, who will be racing in GTD after winning the GTLM championship in 2019 with Porsche. “With all due respect, as we’ve seen in LMP2, there are amateur drivers in LMP3. You come in situations where the car is quicker than the GT cars, but the driver inside is less experienced and an amateur vs. a pro, which then causes a bit of an issue because we have to try to overtake a quicker car.

“We saw that last year a couple of times in GLTM vs. LMP2. This will get worse for sure here and there and cause a little bit of drama, but we have more cars, teams and drivers on the grid, so I see that as a positive for everybody, and the challenge is the same in the end for everybody. You just have to try to be smartest with handling it.”

Regardless of how adept the pros are, it’s a virtual given that cautions will spike over last year (when there were only six).

--Feuds and power struggle: IMSA’s Balance of Performance policy to keep teams on equal footing always causes grumbling at the Roar and Rolex as teams lobby to get help or to hamstring the competition.

But the sniping seemed to reach next-level contentiousness among DPi drivers after the Motul 100 qualifying race when Cadillac winners Pipo Derani and Felipe Nasr immediately volunteered that they thought their Acura and Mazda rivals were sandbagging (and then doubled down when asked to elaborate in a postrace news conference). Mazda drivers sloughed off the criticism but also took some friendly shots in return.

The lap times from practice this week have indicated IMSA made a prudent decision to keep the rules static for the Rolex 24, which has been won the past four seasons by a Cadillac.

But the kindling has been laid for more trash-talking, particularly if there’s a race incident (such as the collision between Helio Castroneves and Harry Tincknell last year).