A Sizzling Last Lap Takes the Meyer Shank Racing Entry to the Top
By Holly Cain and Godwin Kelly
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The first “official” marks of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship’s 2023 season were set Sunday in Motul Pole Award qualifying to establish the lineup for the Rolex 24 At Daytona season opener. Most attention was focused on the hybrid-powered prototypes making up the reborn Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) class, and the qualifying session lived up to the hype.
In a dramatic final moments, Tom Blomqvist turned the best lap of the entire three days of Roar Before the Rolex 24 on-track activity, putting the No. 60 Meyer Shank Racing with Curb-Agajanian Acura ARX-06 on pole position. Blomqvist will lead the 61-car field to the green flag on Jan. 28, following an impressive lap of 1 minute, 34.031 seconds (136.295 mph).
Blomqvist’s fast time – set on the very last lap of the qualifying session – bettered Felipe Nasr in the No. 7 Porsche Penske Motorsport Porsche 963 by a slight 0.083 seconds. The top eight GTP cars were separated by only 0.815 seconds.
“That was one of the most difficult sessions I’ve done because my tires weren’t exactly fully, fully ready and I didn’t have much of a good reference to go off of, so I was glad to win that one,’’ Blomqvist said of his fourth career Motul Pole Award and first for the Rolex 24.
Ricky Taylor qualified third in the No. 10 Konica Minolta Acura ARX-06 fielded by Wayne Taylor Racing with Andretti Autosport (1:34.198, 136.054 mph) and will start alongside the No. 01 Cadillac Racing Cadillac V-LMDh on the second row. Sebastien Bourdais turned a best lap of 1:34.262 (135.961 mph) in the No. 01, one of two GTP cars entered by Chip Ganassi Racing.
Meyer Shank Racing paced the first four practice sessions of the weekend leading up to qualifying. But the pole appeared in jeopardy when Nick Tandy went off course in the No. 6 Porsche Penske Motorsport, bringing out a red-flag stoppage with Blomqvist sitting in seventh place. Once the track was cleared, it left time for a single flying lap for each car when the green flag returned.
“Thankfully that was just enough time for one lap,” Blomqvist said. “I don’t really know how I did it, but my lap was made easier because the car has been quick all weekend and I know what I had underneath me.”
Blomqvist, who pitted to change Michelin tires early in the session, conceded he was worried about getting a crack at the pole position during the red-flag stoppage.
“I was actually a bit bummed because I thought it was kind of done for us, and then they said, ‘You’ve got one lap,’” Blomqvist of the team radio chatter. “I didn’t know what to expect, so I just kind of went for it on the out lap and had to get past one car and make a legitimate move on the out lap.
“I was lucky I had such a smooth running in terms of the car being so good and really didn’t have to do too many changes to the set-up. I knew what I had but today the track conditions were very different with the wind and the heat, so I just had to virtually send it and rely on my instincts.
“Thankfully, I managed to survive that,’’ he added smiling. “That was a fun day.’’
Keating Earns Fourth Daytona Pole With LMP2 Flyer
Veteran driver Ben Keating took Le Mans Prototype 2 (LMP2) pole honors in the No. 52 PR1 Mathiasen Motorsports ORECA LMP2 07 with a lap of 1:40.541 (127.470 mph). While the conditions seemed ideal for fast laps – sunny skies, mild temperatures – Keating said the windy surroundings made it a bit treacherous.
Two LMP2s spun with the help of breezy conditions and a “green track” after Saturday’s rain showers washed the rubber off the track surface.
“I felt like this was one of the more tricky qualifying sessions,” said Keating, who earned his fourth Rolex 24 pole and 12th of his IMSA career. He’ll share the No. 52 in the race with Paul-Loup Chatin, Alex Quinn and Nicolas Lapierre.
“You set your car up so you’re on the edge in the Bus Stop (the Le Mans Chicane on the oval backstretch),” Keating explained. “All weekend, we had a slight headwind going into the Bus Stop. Today, we had about a 19-mph tailwind, and that made a huge difference in our car.”
John Farano, wheeling the No. 8 Tower Motorsport ORECA, spun and made heavy contact into a tire wall in Turn 7. Fred Poordad also went off course in Turn 6 in the No. 55 Proton Competition ORECA.
“I expected it to be tricky, but it’s never quite real until you get out there and start doing it,” Keating said. “I had quite a few ‘moments’ in the car at the Bus Stop and I was not surprised to see a car go off there.”
Francois Heriau in the No. 35 TDS Racing ORECA was a tick behind Keating, posting a time of 1:41.751 (125.594 mph). Steven Thomas was third in the No. 11 TDS Racing entry at 1:41.813 (125.878 mph) and inadvertently helped Keating.
“I got a nice tow off of Thomas and that made about half a second worth of difference,” Keating said.
Pino Procures First IMSA Pole in LMP3
Eighteen-year-old Nico Pino scored his first IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship pole with a blistering lap of 1:43.197 (124.189 mph) in the No. 33 Sean Creech Motorsport Ligier JS P320. Pino leapfrogged past Dakota Dickerson (No. 36 Andretti Autosport Ligier) on the speed chart late in the qualifying session. Dickerson wound up second fastest with a lap of 1:43.307 (124.057 mph).
It was a big day for Pino and car owner Sean Creech, who has a race shop in Jupiter, Florida. It was Creech’s first Daytona pole as a car owner.
“This is a special one,” Pino said. “This was my first pole (ever). We have a long race coming ahead – 24 hours. This was a 15-minute qualifying session.”
Pino will share the No. 33 with Lance Willsey, Danny Soufi and four-time Rolex 24 winner Joao Barbosa.
“We have done a lot of work fine-tuning the car,” Pino said. “We had our ups and downs through the practice sessions, but now we have a good baseline to start working with the team for the race. I’m looking forward to it.”
Rolex 24 At Daytona practice starts Thursday. The 24-hour race begins Saturday with the start airing live on NBC at 1:30 p.m. ET Saturday and the conclusion beginning at noon Sunday, Jan. 29. Flag-to-flag coverage is available on Peacock.