NASCAR star Hailie Deegan proved that she can be a front runner in sportscar racing - at only her fourth start in IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge - when she ran an almost three-hour stint in the #41 Ford Mustang GT4, led laps and eventually finished third together with teammate Ben Rhodes.
In only her fourth ever participation in the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge, NASCAR most popular driver Hailie Deegan was the absolute star of the show, claiming a podium position at the season opener at Daytona. Deegan, 21, is a versatile driver that started racing in off-road, advanced to stock cars - where she took her first wins in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West in 2018 and 2019, before moving to ARCA and eventually to NASCAR Trucks. At the same time, Deegan made her GT4 debut in 2020, when the Ford Performance driver lined up on the grid of the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge race at Daytona, which traditionally kicks off the season in support of the Rolex 24 Hours. Deegan soon proved to be just as talented in sportscars; in her second participation in 2022, she ran towards the top-end of the field but bad luck prevented her from scoring the deserved result. A further entry in the Multimatic Ford in 2020, at the Laguna Seca round, had highlighted the young American's potential even further, as she finished in a promising 11th position. Now back behind the wheel of the Ford Mustang GT4, Deegan battled for the win and led laps in the four-hour long race, which she tackled with teammate Ben Rhodes. The Ford Mustangs run by PF Racing proved to be competitive since the ROAR weekend and the #41 driven by Hailie Deegan qualified in eighth place overall, among a 46-car field. “The expectations…just coming here and getting back in the groove of things, running where we’re capable of running,” she said before the race, stating how she was using this weekend as a warm-up to her following commitments. At the green flag, Stevan McAleer (RS1 #28/Porsche) held first position from pole, ahead of Deegan's sister car, the #42 PF Racing Ford of Zane Smith and the #59 Hohr Motorsport Mustang. Deegan took the start and immediately climbed to seventh place on the first lap. After two Full Course Yellows, Deegan pitted for the first stop of the race and, at the restart, she slotted into sixth place - second among the drivers that had already pitted. At the one hour mark, Deegan completed a couple of brilliant passes and took the lead of the race. She defended well on the banked corners of Daytona, making the most out of the slipstream to keep contact with the leading group at all times even when she had to give up the lead - who went to reigning NASCAR Truck Series champion Zane Smith, at his debut in IMSA. Deegan continued behind the wheel of the #41 Ford also at the following pit stops, surviving multiple cautions; the Californian would remain in charge of the #41 Mustang for almost a three hour stint, when she pitted under green from fifth and handed over to Ben Rhodes - Deegan's teammate at ThorSport Racing in the upcoming NASCAR Truck Series. Rhodes rejoined in P9 once the pit stop sequence in GS class was completed. He soon set vthe fastest lap of the race up until that point and started to make his way up the order. When a Full Course Yellow was called with 53 minutes to go for the crash of the Westphal's Porsche - which suffered a scary tyre blow at speed - most of the GS class entries pitted again. Rhodes was up to fourth, after a sterling stint. The final 30 minutes of green flag racing were action-packed and highly spectacular, with multiple potential winners in both GS and TCR categories. Rhodes was on a mission and moved into third place with a clean pass at the Le Mans Chicane, just moments before overtaking Wilson in the #11 Mercedes AMG GT4. La #47 NOLASPORT Porsche 718 GT4 of Skeer - one of the early leaders and main contenders - continued to lead until 22 minutes to go, when he dramatically slowed down and dropped out of contention. The two PF Racing Ford Mustangs of Rhodes and Burton had just swapped places, and the #42 moved into the lead. Rhodes, though, was a few tenths faster than the sister car but could not fight back, as he had to save fuel in the final laps of the race - when several GS entries also had to slow down significantly. With three minutes to go, Rhodes was overtaken for second place by Spencer Pumpelly, in the #83 BGB Motorsports Porsche, who had enough pace to catch up with Burton but not enough to pass him. PF Racing took victory with the #42 Mustang of Burton/Smith, ahead of Pumpelly/Bleekemolen/Collingwood. Third across the line was the #41 Ford Mustang driven by Hailie Deegan and Ben Rhodes - in a remarkable performance for the young woman, who claimed her best results on the IMSA platform and secured her first podium. “Honestly, these things are so comfortable to drive” - said Deegan, commenting on how quickly she got up to speed in GT4 machinery. “They’re one of the easiest cars you can ever drive, easier to drive than a stock car on a road course, because stock cars aren’t built to be on a road course." "These cars are built to be on road courses. It changes the game. Everything you want your stock car to do, this car does for you.” - she added. Deegan, who has also contested a one-off round in the NASCAR Xfinity Series in 2022, almost achieving a top-ten at debut, will return for her third year in the Craftsman Truck Series with top team ThorSport. Alongside her stockcar career, though, she proved once again that she could be a really strong contender in sportscar racing.