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Ryan: IMSA, Rolex 24 avoided COVID-19 calamity despite positive tests at Daytona

Watch extended highlights of the 59th Rolex 24 at Daytona, where the No. 10 DPi team of Ricky Taylor, Filipe Albuquerque, Alexander Rossi, and Helio Castroneves give Wayne Taylor Racing its third straight victory.

Just as Major League Baseball had an inauspicious COVID-19 moment when Justin Turner was yanked from the World Series, IMSA and the Rolex 24 at Daytona had the Antonio Garcia bombshell.

Though not nearly as brazen and controversial as Turner (who returned to the field to celebrate with teammates after his positive test was discovered during the Dodgers’ clinching victory in Game 6), Garcia’s stunning test result on a massive stage for worldwide racing was a big story Sunday. It ranked just behind Wayne Taylor Racing’s third consecutive victory in the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season opener – mainly because Garcia’s test seemed to catch everyone completely off guard.

The surprises continued Tuesday when Garcia (who had taken another test a couple of days earlier that turned up negative but was worried about getting a result before a travel deadline) said in a tweet that it had been a false positive.

IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship

#3 Corvette Racing Corvette C8.R, GTLM: Antonio Garcia

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After turning laps for nearly eight hours in the No. 3 Corvette (which won the GTLM class with co-drivers Jordan Taylor and Nicky Catsburg), Garcia told he learned through an in-race email of his positive test for COVID-19, and the team immediately pulled him from the car. There hardly were signs anything was amiss prior – Garcia even took questions in a Zoom media availability Saturday night after his first stint.

That amplified the incredulity greeting a statement from Chevrolet on Garcia within 10 minutes of the 3:40 p.m. ET checkered flag Sunday.

The news prompted some uncomfortable questions (How much contact tracing was conducted? Who was categorized as being exposed? What would determine who faced quarantine?) for IMSA, and many of them weren’t (or maybe couldn’t) be answered fully.

But it still didn’t rise to become the nightmare scenario that IMSA and NASCAR (its parent company) had been trying to avert for several weeks.

IMSA and NASCAR officials clearly took extra measures to ensure there were no COVID-related issues that could jeopardize future events at the track. Compared to IMSA races last season, access was more limited to the infield bubbles where teams and drivers work, and enforcement was more vigilant. Masks were mandatory everywhere on track property (including areas outside the bubble).

According to the Event Operations Protocols distributed to Rolex 24 teams, IMSA said it “rapidly would notify public health officials and others potentially impacted by a suspected COVID-19 case, in accordance with state and local mandates.”

Syndication: Daytona Beach News-Journal

Fans watch the race cars whiz around the track at Daytona International Speedway during the Rolex 24 at Daytona 24-hour endurance race on Saturday evening, Jan. 30, 2021. Seating was limited and face masks, social distancing and other coronavirus safety protocols were enforced during the event. Dtb Speedway Economic Impact 12

Clayton Park/News-Journal via Imagn Content Services, LLC

With the Daytona 500 looming Feb. 14, NASCAR needed virtually flawless execution of the Rolex 24 (and its preceding Roar test session) to ward off any pitfalls that might impact welcoming 30,000 fans to Daytona International Speedway for The Great American Race.

Though NASCAR president Steve Phelps and track president Chip Wile publicly confirmed the expected crowd for the Daytona 500, IMSA and Daytona officials were extremely coy when pressed multiple times on attendance estimates for the Rolex 24. No numbers were provided, and the only descriptor used was that the crowd would be “limited.”

Judging off lines to get in the infield and foot traffic, Saturday’s opening day crowd at the Rolex 24 seemed healthy with perhaps at least 10,000 on site.

While it was important to have a test run with fans (and some sponsor activation in a thinner infield midway), it also was important to minimize the optics that could cause speculation over whether the conditions were prime for a superspreader event.

Garcia, who celebrated the victory with a mixture of joy and rage in a nearby hotel parking lot, was among at least five instances of COVID-19 impacting teams over two weeks in Daytona. Renger van der Zande, who nearly won the overall for Chip Ganassi Racing, was in quarantine until the opening day of the Roar because of an exposure in Indianapolis (where Ganassi’s shop is located).

Black Swan Racing pulled its entry because its driver-owner tested positive in an apparent outbreak in Dubai, which also prevented one of Austin Dillon’s teammates from arriving. Alegra Motorsports replaced Michael de Quesada shortly before the green flag last Saturday after he practiced and raced in the Motul 100 qualifier.

IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship

#3 Corvette Racing Corvette C8.R, GTLM: Nicky Catsburg, Jordan Taylor winner, victory lane

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All of those were newsworthy, but Garcia is a defending GTLM champion in a higher profile ride (the No. 3 Corvette won Sunday 20 years after Dale Earnhardt raced the car in the Rolex 24).

Just like Turner, who wasn’t punished for his World Series celebration as the controversy quickly fizzled, it was fortunate for IMSA and NASCAR that Garcia’s news didn’t break until after a highly prestigious event had concluded.

If it had happened earlier, or to an even more prominent driver and team, the repercussions could have been far more damaging.

Other leftovers from IMSA’s first version of Speedweeks at Daytona International Speedway:

Rarely has Jimmie Johnson let his guard down as much as he did at Daytona. There was serious business for the seven-time Cup champion, who was there to win his first Rolex 24 and also gain experience in high-downforce cars for his IndyCar debut.

But Johnson also clearly was having as much fun as he has in years.

Over his final three winless seasons in NASCAR’s premier series that included two crew chief changes and a split from Chad Knaus, the stress clearly wore on the Hendrick Motorsports driver and especially in his last full year. Aside from the pandemic precluding nearly all of the countless fan tributes that had been planned at every track for the surefire Hall of Famer in 2020, Johnson missed the playoffs for the second consecutive season and had his consecutive start streak snapped by a COVID-19 positive.

“Often times, there are things that disappoint you or stress you out in a negative way and I haven’t made it that far in the season to encounter any of that,” he said. “But last year was a really intense year. I had very high expectations myself. The year didn’t go as planned. There was a lot of different negative stress on me during all of that … the middle part of the year into the start of the playoffs, that was an uncomfortable pressure that you don’t like to experience too often.”

The pressure at the Rolex 24 was all positive for Johnson, who provided a broad window into why he was racing sports cars and eventually IndyCar. Though as well-spoken as any champion on big-picture topics, Johnson isn’t always as forthcoming about himself. In Daytona, he was very open about why he was putting himself in a tough situation as a 45-year-old rookie in IndyCar.

Motorsports: IMSA Rolex 24 Day 1

Jan 30, 2021; Daytona Beach, FL, USA; IMSA driver Jimmie Johnson talks with Fox Sports announcer Jeff Gordon before the Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

It makes me feel alive,” he said. “And someday. I won’t have that opportunity, but I’m not ready to walk away from that now. I really do like being uncomfortable in how it makes me feel and how it holds me accountable. And, you know I’ve jumped into the deep end of the pool with weights around my ankles here for ‘21 and ’22 (in IndyCar), but it just makes me feel more alive than that I have in quite some time.”

Johnson, who has only one road course victory in his Cup career, undoubtedly will struggle mightily at times in IndyCar. In a recent test at Sebring International Raceway, he made serious inroads but still was a few seconds off the pace.

“I’m really excited for the experiences ahead and being able to run in a series I dreamed of running in as a kid is a really special opportunity for me,” he said. “But at the same time, it’s not going to be easy. I’m not going to look very good for a while, so I know I have a lot of work ahead of myself, but I’m really enjoying the process and enjoying this journey.”

Let’s hope the joy continues regardless of the results. Johnson has earned the right to be as giddy as we saw him at Daytona without anyone questioning his commitment to racing.

One of the best battles in the Rolex 24 was delivered by two drivers whose Formula One dreams didn’t work out.

That certainly hasn’t deterred Alexander Rossi and Kevin Magnussen from showcasing their immense talent, which was evident again while they diced for the lead through heavy traffic Sunday morning.

Motorsports: IMSA Rolex 24 Day 1

Jan 30, 2021; Daytona Beach, FL, USA; IMSA driver Alexander Rossi before the Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Rossi, driving the winning No. 10 ARX-05 for Wayne Taylor Racing, fended off several aggressive moves by Magnussen’s No. 01 Cadillac. “We felt we had a little bit of a pace disadvantage to the 01,” Rossi said. “We knew how important track position was, so it was very important to do everything we could to stay in front of that car and regardless of the phase of the race. Every stint was just trying to lead or get to the lead as quickly as possible. Regardless, it was good fun, a good show for everyone.”

Rossi, who won the 2016 Indy 500 and has become a perennial championship contender in the NTT IndyCar Series, said he had raced Magnussen while they were in European ladder series on the way to F1.

“Kevin and I go way back,” Rossi said. “I don’t know that any of that translates nine, 10 years removed, but regardless, it’s great to see him over here. It obviously shows the international interest of this championship and this race, and he’s a great addition to the series for sure.”

Magnussen will drive full time for Ganassi in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship this year after four seasons with Haas F1, where he admittedly got “a bit bored” as a midfield driver. His Haas F1 teammate, Romain Grosjean, reportedly will announce Wednesday that he will drive IndyCar next season.

Major-league racing in America of course still has its flaws, but it’s a good sign that two of its premier series are viewed as attractive options for drivers who don’t reach full potential in F1 despite their impressive skillsets.

IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship

#01: Cadillac Chip Ganassi Racing Cadillac DPi , DPi: Kevin Magnussen

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