Michelin Pilot Challenge reigning champion Taylor Hagler was back on the podium at the Daytona season opener, recovering from 11th to second. A solid race for Sheena Monk brought the #3 Toyota to P12, while Hailie Deegan was denied a potential overall podium after a spin.
In motor racing, like in any high-level sport, the toughest job is not winning, but continuing to stay on top.
After a stunning 2021 season in Michelin Pilot Challenge, Taylor Hagler became the first female champion in the series - and the American racer, fully focused on keeping that No.1 on the side of her Bryan Herta Autosport Hyundai, seems to have started off the new season on the right foot to keep momentum.
“Last season was a storybook year for me and the best so far of my career,” said the Texan driver, who started racing in 2019 and has already made her debut in GT3 machinery in SRO. "We are starting with a blank slate this season with a new car but that doesn’t damper our determination to be back on top."
At the traditional season opener at Daytona International Speedway, IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge took to the track for the four-hour Endurance Challenge with reigning champion Taylor Hagler returning to the series - this year moving from the Hyundai Veloster to the Hyundai Elantra N TCR platform. Hagler, who shares the #1 machine with fellow champion Michael Lewis, made the most out of the three test days at the ROAR, completing 93 laps in order to gain familiarity with the new car.
“The Hyundai Elantra N TCR is a great car and will be a front runner this season,” said Hagler. “It is a super stable car so I can be more aggressive with my mid-corner speeds and the car gave me a lot of confidence. I’m really impressed with the car and just eager to keep getting more laps in it so this week should be awesome.”
The 2021 TCR class champion was not the only woman on track, as full-time driver Sheena Monk (Infinity Autosport) also returned to IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge after a positive season in 2021, as well as NASCAR star Hailie Deegan, who entered the first round at Daytona with PF Racing two years after her debut in the series.
Monk will contest the full schedule in the GS class but, similarly to Hagler, she has also moved to a different car: with the rebranding of Motorsports In Action into Infinity Autosport, Monk will now drive the #3 Toyota Supra GT4 alongside Kyle Marcelli.
Deegan - a Ford Performance driver - shared the #42 Ford Mustang with Chase Briscoe in the GS class. Throughout practice and qualifying, Deegan showed great speed and seemed able to compete for an overall Top-5 result. She qualified in fourth place and her promising pace continued into the first stages of the race.
All the three women on track took the start of the race - with Monk lining up from 23rd place in GS and Taylor Hagler 11th among the TCR entries.
After an early Full Course Yellow, Figueiras (#59 RS1 Porsche) settled in the lead from third on the grid. He was followed by Cooper (#71 Rebel Rock Racing Chevrolet Camaro) and Machavern (#95 Turner Motorsport BMW M4 GT4). Fifth in the opening laps, Deegan pitted at the second race neutralization and rejoined in ninth place.
Meanwhile, both Taylor Hagler and Sheena Monk were making up positions in their respective fields. having avoided the first corner contacts, Hagler was already just outside the top five at the first caution. After a quick stop by the BHA crew, she moved up into fifth in TCR and started her second stint.
Following a great charge, the reigning champion closed in on the sister car of the returning Robert Wickens; she would pass the #33 Hyundai and advance into a podium position,
She would go on to take the class lead on lap 37, before diving into the pitlane after a 1 hour and 30 minute driving shift and handed over to Michael Lewis.
Sheena Monk finished her stint and left the #3 JG Wentworth Racing by Infinity Autosport Toyota in the hands of Kyle Marcelli, who rejoined in P22.
Hailie Deegan, on the other hand, went for another stint and remained in the driving seat, as she had moved into the second spot overall by the second round of pit stops.
Unfortunately, her amazing race took a turn for the worse when the #61 Road Shagger Racing Audi TCR hit the barrier at the Bus Stop Chicane, bringing out another caution. At the restart, Deegan spun in the field of almost 50 cars going towards the International Horseshoe, dropping to the tail end of the pack. They would also receive a penalty for pit stop infringement, which made her recovery even more challenging. She would pit from P18 on lap 70, handing over to Chase Briscoe.
Having rejoined in sixth, Michael Lewis also had to serve a drive through before beginning the hunt; thanks to a great strategy and Lewis' precise stints, the #1 Hyundai moved up the field until 4th place. Similarly, Kyle Marcelli was also recovering in the GS field, as Sheena Monk's teammate was able to climb to P13 overall.
The #59 Mustang of Johnson hit trouble while leading the overall leaderboard: after oil smoke was spotted from the Kohr Motorsports entry, Johnson/Michaelian were forced to retire. But there was more drama also for the TCR frontrunners: LaMarra/Eversley were slowed down by electronic issues, while the leading #54 Hyundai Elantra of Simpson/Johnson was handed a 60 second stop and go penalty for running the red light at the end of the pitlane.
By avoiding chaos and with steady pace, Michael Lewis managed to get into second place in TCR during the final 30 minutes of racing.
After the last caution, both classes saw intense battles for the win: in GS, Trinkler (#64 TeamTGM Porsche 718 GT4) took the lead of the race, while Tim Lewis (#5 Alfa Romeo Giulietta) pulled away from the TCR field having cleared Simpson.
The battle for the win between Trinkler and McAleer went on to the wire, as the latter gained the first place with 10 minutes to go - sealing the victory in the BMW M Endurance Challenge for team RS1. Trinkler/Giovanis were second for TeamTGM, ahead of Auberlen/Machavern in the Turner Motorsport's BMW M4 GT4 who snatched the podium in the final laps.
Taylor Hagler and Michael Lewis crossed the line in second place in TCR, starting the season with another remarkable result for the Bryan Herta Autosport duo. It was Hagler's best finish at Daytona and her sixth IMSA career podium finish.
“This is the way to start a season” - she commented. “Our strategy was ever changing but the guys at BHA made the right calls at the right time."
"It was a ton of fun to be able to push the Elantra hard knowing it was going to stay under me with the amount of stability this car has. The 2022 season is going to be a good one if we continue on the path we have started here at Daytona.”
In a solid first race of the season, Sheena Monk and Kyle Marcelli were 12th at the chequered flag, while a real promising first half of the race turned into a real mess for the #42 PF Ford Mustang of Hailie Deegan and Chase Briscoe, as the latter served another penalty and was classified 24th.
IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge will return for its second round of the season at Sebring International Raceway, on March 16-19th.