Busch puts AIM Vasser Sullivan back in contention at Rolex

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Acura Team Penske driver Simon Pagenaud signs autographs before the Rolex 24 hour auto race at Daytona International Speedway, Saturday, Jan. 25, 2020, in Daytona Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Terry Renna)

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Kyle Busch drove his Lexus back to the lead lap at the Rolex 24 of Daytona — a move that changed team strategy and got the reigning NASCAR champion pulled from the car to keep him fresh.

Busch was scheduled to drive a double stint — roughly 90 minutes — in the Lexus RC F GT3. The car was 35th overall and second-to-last in the GT Daytona class when he got his turn Saturday night. A lack of speed, poor starting position and handling issues put the AIM Vasser Sullivan team into an early hole with Busch waiting in the wings.

He picked up two spots during his 45 minutes in the car, and when a full course caution was called that put the No. 14 back on the lead lap for its class, Busch got out for an early driver change.

“I drove all the way back to the lead lap,” Busch said. "That wasn't bad and to get ourselves back on the lead lap, and back into position to where we can start scrapping again, is what we needed.

“I got one stint in, but trying to save myself and Jack (Hawksworth), obviously, for later.”

The car struggled early and was running at the back of the field when Busch got in the car close to five hours into the race that began Saturday at Daytona International Speedway.

Busch was the third driver scheduled to get into the Lexus and Hawksworth started the race 37th out of a record-low 38 cars and struggled to gain any ground.

Hawksworth said the car was in need of both speed and adjustments to help the handling.

“The position right now doesn't make a difference, but we'll need to find some performance by the end of the race,” Hawksworth said. “We desperately are looking for yellow.”

The first yellow flag finally came out when Helio Castroneves, in a Team Penske Acura, had an incident with Harry Tincknell that sent Castroneves into a barrier and then the garage. His Acura had heavy damage to the front wing, and Harry Tincknell from Mazda Team Joest received a drive-thru penalty when IMSA ruled Tincknell was responsible for the crash.

Castroneves appeared to be furious as he sat inside his cockpit awaiting repairs. He finally climbed from the car when the team realized it needed a lengthy repair to the radiator.

The Brazilian was animated as he discussed the incident with teammates Ricky Taylor and Alexander Rossi, who has hardly turned any laps yet this weekend because Taylor crashed in qualifying.

“It's not even four hours into the raace and I was taking my time,” Castroneves said. “I was taking it easy and the guy just decided to dive into the bus stop. I am taking it easy and he does that, for what? My car is just destroyed.”

Rossi pulled a replay of the incident up on his phone and the three drivers shook their head in disgust as they watched.

Roger Penske informed his drivers — his six-driver lineup includes four Indianapolis 500 winners — they have no excuse not to win the race that ends Sunday afternoon.

Penske, who turns 83 next month, said he'd be staying awake atop the pit stand for the entire 24 hours for the third consecutive year. Team Penske returned to sports car racing in 2018 and earned a third-place finish in last year's race, while Juan Pablo Montoya and Dane Cameron teamed to win the IMSA championship.

The build-up, though, has been about Busch's first endurance race and the reigning NASCAR champion needs an improved Lexus to give Busch a chance to be competitive.

He was smiling and seemed pleased with his time in the car after the short stint, but said he's still adapting to the different nuances of sports car racing.

“Knowing the techniques that I've had in NASCAR forever has been hard,” Busch said. "I’d say about the biggest thing was just traffic, there were a couple of instances we ran down a smaller car and just mirror driving in front of us. That was pretty bad.

“Overall, we’ve had a good experience and hell, I only got one stint in, so I’m ready for more. Sign me up, coach.”

Hawksworth praised the effort Busch has put in so far.

“He’s been one of the easiest teammates to work with; the guy is demanding of the crew and equipment but also respectful of everybody and the challenges,” Hawksworth said. “With a nickname like Rowdy, I didn’t know what to expect, but he’s very easy to work with and with all the teammates I’ve worked with, he’s definitely up there in terms of easiest to work with.”

Busch has been very involved in his first trip to the Rolex and quick to offer suggestions and ideas to improve the Lexus.

“The guy’s like a sponge. He takes in all this information, studying the setup, the driving, every aspect of it,” Hawksworth said. "So a guy like that is always going to spring ideas and have a different way of looking at things. He’s been helpful in many elements with the car. I feel like he doesn’t quite understand the regulations are as tight as they are.

“Sometimes I think he thinks we can build new parts for the car and change things on the fly. In general it’s been really good. Anyone like him, he’s obsessed with it and thinking about it all the time and constantly trying to improve it.”

The GT Daytona class that Busch is competing in has a class-high 18 entries and is the most competitive in the field. The cars aren't fast enough to compete for the overall win, and a pair of Cadillacs have so far paced the field in the twice-round-the-clock endurance race.

The race will be won by one of the eight entrants in the Daytona Prototype class, which appears to be a race between defending winning team Wayne Taylor Racing and JDC-Miller Motorsports in Cadillac Dpi's, along with pole-winning team Mazda Team Joest and Penske's Acuras.