Ford’s NASCAR Regulars Burton, Smith Hang on to Win Michelin Pilot Challenge Opener

NASCAR driver Harrison Burton held off hard-charging sports car veteran Spencer Pumpelly by a slight 0.688 seconds to earn the overall victory in Friday’s BMW M Endurance Challenge, the season-opening IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge race on the 3.56-mile Daytona International Speedway road course.


Pumpelly, who co-drove with Jeroen Bleekemolen and Tom Collingwood, moved the No. 83 BGB Motorsports Porsche 718 GT4 RS Clubsport from fifth place to second in the final 30 minutes of the four-hour race, applying pressure on Burton as he cut into the lead with each lap.


But the 22-year-old Burton – who drives the famed Wood Brothers Ford fulltime in the NASCAR Cup Series – steered mistake-free, high-pressure circuits of his own in the No. 42 PF Racing Ford Mustang GT4 to ensure he and teammate Zane Smith – the 2022 NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series champion making his IMSA debut – became the first NASCAR regulars to take the victory in this race. 


Ben Rhodes, the 2021 NASCAR trucks champion, and fellow NASCAR truck series driver Hailie Deegan finished third in the No. 41 PF Racing Mustang to complete the podium for the 32-car Grand Sport (GS) class.


Smith, 23, qualified an impressive third and moved forward immediately on the start, holding a sizable lead with just under three hours remaining. Late pit strategy by the competition, however, shifted the lineup as the No. 41 Mustang pitted to change drivers – Smith out and Burton in – just past the midpoint.


Burton ran third with just under 50 minutes to go, steadily making his way forward. He took the lead for good when leader Elliott Skeer in No. 47 Nolasport Porsche had to retire with 22 minutes remaining.


“I felt like I was a little bummed out early because we got shuffled back a little after the first pit stop,’’ said Burton, making his second start in the race. “It was taking me a little bit to get back to the lead and I was like, ‘I don’t want to be the guy that lets the team down and not finish the race off like we should.’


“But a few restarts came our way and I kinda shuffled my way through there. A lot of hard racing, ‘’ he added with a grin. “Pretty similar to NASCAR racing, to be honest with you, the amount of bumping and aggressive dive bombs and stuff. I felt kinda home in that. That was fun.”


Smith, who will attempt to make his first Daytona 500 start in February, gave a thumbs-up to his friend Burton’s work.


“Watching Harrison at the end with Spencer coming had me shaking in my boots, but he didn’t make a mistake,’’ Smith said, delighting in the win at the famous track. “If you can win anything at Daytona, whether it’s a dirt bike or a go-kart or a stock car and now a GT4 Mustang, is just so dang cool.


“Daytona just brings such a different vibe than really any other racetrack. Not only to win at Daytona but in our first start is just so cool.’’


Road Shagger Sends Current No. 61 Audi out a Winner in TCR


Jon Morley and Gavin Ernstone took the No. 61 Road Shagger Racing Audi RS3 LMS SEQ for one last memorable ride, winning the Touring Car (TCR) class portion of Friday’s race. 


The victory didn’t come easy, however. Morley, on the wheel for the last half of the four-hour race, had a gripping, 45-minute, bumper-to-bumper battle with the No. 73 LA Honda World Racing Honda Civic FK7 TCR and driver Mike LaMarra.


Morley wrestled the lead from LaMarra with just 12 minutes left and held off the No. 73 over the final eight laps. 


“We had a pit stop, took new tires, then there was a full course yellow which wiped out a big lead (13 seconds),” Morley said. “From there, it was a battle.


“I couldn’t get rid of him (LaMarra),” Morley added. “Once I got by him, I still thought I was going to drop him because the car was good early on. I could not get him out of my mirrors.”


It was the fifth career Michelin Pilot Challenge win for both drivers, after going winless in 2022.


“It was nice to go out there and a get a win,” Ernstone said. “Most races, we finish on the podium. Last year was just miserable. It’s just good to get straight back out there and get a win.”


It also appears to be the last race for the car they used. The Audi is scheduled to be retired to make room for a newer generation RS3. 


“We got a new car about two weeks ago and we haven’t had a chance to test the car,” Ernstone said. “It was always planned for this to be the last race for this car.


“This car goes into my trophy cabinet, if I can squeeze it in there,” he added. 


The No. 61 Audi was caught in the middle of a multicar incident in Turn 6 midway through the race, but Ernstone somehow emerged unscathed.


“I was very lucky to get through,” he said. “It was kind of like the parting of the Red Sea and there was a space down the middle and I threw it down there. Everything went crazy around me. This is just amazing. It was a big team effort.”


The No. 73 Honda finished 0.427 seconds behind the winning Audi. Crossing the line in third was the No. 98 Bryan Herta Autosport with Curb-Agajanian Hyundai Elantra N TCR shared by Mark Wilkins and Mason Filippi.


CNBC carries the race telecast at 9 a.m. ET Saturday, Feb. 4. The next Michelin Pilot Challenge race is the Alan Jay Automotive Network 120 at Sebring International Raceway on Thursday, March 16.