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SunTrust Team Rallies for Top-Five Finish at Rolex 24

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Pit for nothing more than tires, fuel and driver changes over the course of a 24-hour endurance race, and they say you’re virtually a sure bet to come home with first place.

That’s pretty much all the No. 10 SunTrust Chevrolet Dallara team of Wayne Taylor Racing did during this weekend’s 49th renewal of the GRAND-AM Rolex Sports Car Series’ season-opening Rolex 24 at Daytona. While mechanical maladies were nonexistent for the entire, frantically paced 24-hour run by the SunTrust team, it all came down to a sudden, single on-track incident shortly after the five-hour mark that might have made the difference between victory and a highly satisfying yet bitterly disappointing fifth-place finish Sunday afternoon.

Italian driving ace Max Angelelli, his 21-year-old co-driving phenom Ricky Taylor and IZOD IndyCar Series star Ryan Briscoe consistently clocked among the fastest laps laid down over the newly repaved 3.56-mile, 12-turn Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway road circuit from the opening green flag to the checkered flag. With not even the slightest hint of mechanical trouble for the duration of the event from its tried-and-true Dallara chassis, its brand new Chevrolet engine package, and its brand new Continental tires, therein lies the bitter disappointment of a mere top-five finish for the SunTrust team.

But, considering the team fell a total of 13 laps off the pace from the effects of Taylor’s unfortunate encounter with a questionably aggressive NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, IndyCar and Formula 1 veteran driver named Juan Pablo Montoya not long after darkness fell Saturday night, then made up all but one of those laps over the next 18 hours and almost found itself in position to race for the win on the lead lap in the closing minutes, the result also brought satisfaction to the entire SunTrust Racing camp.

“There are so many things that have to go right for 24 hours,” said Angelelli, who certainly had visions of winning his second Rolex 24 for the SunTrust team since 2005, when he and team owner Wayne Taylor drove to a dominating victory en route to that year’s Rolex Series championship. “You have to have everything in place. You can go two seconds slower on the racetrack, but you can’t afford to stop in the garage. We were very unlucky. It was a little piece that broke and put us down eight laps, then five laps the second time. For the SunTrust team, I believe, recovering 12 laps is incredible. It is incredible. Anyway, I have to wait another year to win this race. It is going to take long to recover, physically and mentally. We were fast all race long, not only the last part of the race. It has always been always like that. It is very painful when you don’t win.”

Angelelli started the SunTrust car from the front row for the fifth time in the last eight Rolex 24s and wasted little time grabbing the lead, which he held for 24 of the opening 53 laps during his initial two-hour driving stint. He turned matters over to the 29-year-old Briscoe, who turned equally blistering fast laps in keeping the SunTrust car in touch with the leaders for the duration of his double stint. Then came Ricky Taylor’s turn at the four-hour mark, and the younger Taylor powered his way to the front, as well, leading 11 laps by the time the five-hour mark came around to signal the second half of his opening double stint. He smartly yielded the point to co-defending series champion Memo Rojas in the No. 01 Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates BMW Riley shortly after the five-hour mark as Rojas was charging just a bit too hard for the SunTrust team’s taste with more than 18 hours of racing remaining.

Not long after, at the five-hour, 15-minute mark, Taylor was in close pursuit of Montoya in the No. 02 Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates BMW Riley. They encountered a slower GT-class car around the sweeping, right-hand turn called the “International Horseshoe.” Montoya checked up at first, sending Taylor to the outside, and then slammed into the right-front of the SunTrust Racing machine exiting the corner.

The impact was significant enough to send Taylor straight to the garage for inspection by the SunTrust team. Angelelli replaced him and resumed for just a single lap before going right back to the garage for steering and alignment adjustments. The team lost more than five laps during the sequence of events and Angelelli resumed in 11th place, five laps down.

Those initial repairs apparently did the trick as Angelelli, and then Briscoe to follow, drove fast and furiously while creative strategy by team manager Simon Hodgson and race engineer Brian Pillar enabled the SunTrust car to make up all but one of those laps and five of those positions by the 11-hour, 45-minute mark.

Taylor replaced Briscoe at that point, resuming in sixth place and just one lap down. But he was called back into the garage three laps later as the crew discovered a right-front suspension upright bolt in the pit box shortly after he exited the pits. The team replaced the upright – a complicated task that took 11 minutes and seven laps to complete.

Once again, the SunTrust team found itself in an even deeper hole, eight laps off the pace in 10th place. But with 12 hours of racing remaining, it was confident it could work its way back to the lead lap with a lightning fast racecar and assuming there would be plenty of caution periods.

“The car was just so good, it’s just a shame we had to keep fighting from behind,” Taylor said. “I think we are probably the only people who wished it was 28-hour race instead of 24 because it would just be a matter of time before we could get back on the lead lap. No matter where we were, I knew Max and Ryan and I could fight our way up front. It is a shame. The car was good. The Chevrolet engine is good, and it makes me look forward to the rest of the season. We know where the engine is, now. We know we have a strong engine. All the variables we were worried about we have answers to, and I think they are all positive.”

Taylor was able to make up three of those lost laps by the 15-hour mark, but fog then rolled into the speedway complex shortly before sunrise and the forward march came to a frustrating halt as the field circled the track for 57 caution laps for nearly three hours before the fog lifted and racing resumed. Angelelli had replaced Taylor during the fog delay and, once the race went back to green, made up another lap to bring the SunTrust car to within four laps of the leaders by the 18-hour mark.

From there, the SunTrust driving trio steadily crept closer to the lead lap until Angelelli got to within one lap down during the next-to-last hour. A key caution period came with 90 minutes remaining, but Angelelli was not able to benefit from the wave around the pace car as he was trapped behind it this time. Unfortunately, there wasn’t another caution until seven minutes remained, at which point it was too late to get back onto the lead lap.

Scott Pruett, Rojas, Graham Rahal and Joey Hand went on to win the 49th Rolex 24 At Daytona, overcoming a late-race penalty with keen pit strategy on its final stop. The No. 02 Ganassi entry, with Montoya and fellow NASCAR competitor Jamie McMurray joined by IndyCar stars Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti, finished a close second with the defending Rolex 24-champion No. 9 Action Express Racing Porsche Riley of Terry Borcheller, J.C. France, Joao Barbosa and Christian Fittipaldi finishing third.

“We definitely tested the equipment because I don’t think I did a lap today at 80 percent,” said Briscoe, who drives for the three-car Team Penske effort in the IZOD IndyCar Series. “It was 100 percent all day long, all night long. I did three long stints, and every single one, they told me to push as hard as I could. It was frustrating because, the second time I got in the car, we got all the way to just one lap down and then we had another issue resulting from the incident with Montoya. But we were catching up. The SunTrust car was really strong. It felt fast with really good traction. The brakes were really consistent. It was a battle and it was still very satisfying. This is a great team.”

“It was an amazing event,” said team owner Wayne Taylor. “I don’t know what to say, I am just so happy for everybody. I mean, the guys, the drivers, the team, SunTrust, Toshiba, Dallara, General Motors – the engines were fantastic. It was just fantastic. The guys – Ryan, Max and Ricky – I think they were the best combination out there. We just had that stupid incident. In the end, it was probably a racing incident. But maybe he (Montoya) thought he was in a NASCAR stock car race or something, I don’t know. But, you know, these things happen. Big-picture, points-wise, I am very happy. I am looking forward to getting to the next race and winning some races.”