Filipe Albuquerque breaks ‘spell’, finally wins Rolex 24 At Daytona

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Filipe Albuquerque didn’t want to think about what happened to him as the leader the last two years in the Rolex 24 At Daytona.

But he couldn’t help himself. As much as the Action Express Cadillac driver didn’t want to live in the past, he couldn’t avoid it. Both his teammates had already won overall victories in the 24-hour sports-car race on the 3.56-mile Daytona International Speedway road course, which kicks off the IMSA season, but he had yet to seal the deal.

He has had his chances. Albuquerue saw his lead in 2016 end with a driveshaft issue. And then in 2017, he got beat on a late restart.

"I thought I was having a jinx on it," he said Sunday. "When I was seeing [my teammate] driving, I was super nervous because it’s not in my control.

"When I was inside of the car, I knew exactly what I had to do. But I was also thinking of those last finishes."

That’s what the Rolex 24 is all about. It’s about endurance and it’s about sacrifice and thinking nothing of it.

The 2018 version featured plenty of firsts that focused on endurance — and one big last.

Action Express ran away with the Rolex 24 At Daytona in what was pretty much a dud as far as final-hour dramatics. The No. 5 Cadillac of Albuquerque, Joao Barbosa and Christian Fittipaldi led nearly the final nine hours and broke the record for laps completed (808) and miles completed (2,876.48).

The drama was just from within as the car appeared to be overheating over the last several hours.

"It was not fun for me … because my steering wheel was like a Christmas tree with a water temperature flashing up and an oil temperature taking off," Albuquerque said.

"I was thinking, ‘It was going to blast like an engine.’"

It didn’t. And now he can forget about the past.

"I won and it was very emotional," Albuquerque said. "For me, it was breaking the spell. Persistence and working hard and sticking together with this amazing team that kept believing in me and what happened last year was nothing with me.

"They put me in there at the end. It was very comforting and just made me stronger."

Albuquerque wasn’t the only one who left with a feeling that the 24 hours were well worth it.

Roger Penske didn’t sleep. Most 80-year-olds would have taken a nap. But the Rolex 24 is a 24-hour race and Penske is a racer, so he stayed up on the box throughout and watched his new racing program even though it had no chance of winning after issues in the overnight hours.

"I love coming to these type of races," Penske said. "The last thing I want to do is sit in the hotel room and not be able to be here. … I had no issue at all."

Penske’s cars, on the other hand, did. One had an alternator issue and the other, with Helio Castroneves behind the wheel, had contact with Felipe Nasr, who was driving the No. 31 Action Express car that was the teammate to the winners.

"I think we’ve got something to build on," Penske said. "We made a lot of progress. … [The contact] cost us having to come in. We were right there. We would have given these guys a run for their money.

"At the end of the day, the 5 car … did a fantastic job. We’ll try to keep them honest the next race."

Nasr said he got hit on the restart and turned into Castroneves.

"We just came out from the restart and we had a bunch of prototypes together," Nasr said. "And I just felt a clip from behind. I spun the car. I lost the car coming out of [Turn] 3 to the inside and I was hoping no one was going to go in the inside so we could get it clear.

"Helio was the one, unfortunately he came over and clipped my front splitter."

The other storylines going in — the first Daytona sports-car race for versatile two-time Formula One champ Fernando Alonso and the final race of an illustrious career for 57-year-old Scott Pruett — created buzz among those who follow the sport.

Alonso, whose team was plagued by brake and throttle issues, said he likely would return.

"I think it’s a race that is in January where normally the motor sport calendar is quite empty, where I think for us drivers it’s quite convenient to come here to do this race," Alonso said. "It’s an iconic race, prestigious race. And as I said this is in one part of the year that we are quite relaxed, normally preparing ourselves for our season and wherever category you are.

"Instead of being on the bicycle or in the gym, you are driving. So it’s much better [than that]."

Pruett’s team also had an up-and-down 24 hours. But even before the race, he knew this would be a special day.

Several past teammates came to say hello. And even some rival owners.

"I guess I’m not having a problem with my night vision," Pruett quipped. "I spent all my time in the night and in a little bit of rain. It all went really good."

What’s up next for Pruett? He doesn’t know.

But he knows that unlike Albuquerque, it would be a good thing to live a little bit in the past. The 57-year-old has had a 50-year racing career with wins across various forms of motorsports.

"I think it’s going to be in a week or two it’s going to hit, especially as we look towards going to the test at Sebring and the race at Sebring," Pruett said. "And I won’t be packing my bags and going.

"But the first thing is, more than anything else, just toast this incredible career with my wife and family and just look back and take a moment to reflect on just how wonderful … and just taking a moment to savor that. Because typically I’m that guy with my head down just going forward, never looking back, afraid it might catch up to me."

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