It’s been a busy day at Daytona International Speedway, with nine total practice and qualifying sessions today between the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge.

For TSO Ladder’s coverage of the 55th Rolex 24 at Daytona, we’ll be primarily focusing on the Verizon IndyCar Series drivers in this year’s race along with a number of others with recent or current Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires experience. Those notes will come in addition to the session updates.

Qualifying for the race took place this evening with Cadillac (Prototype), Ford (GT Le Mans) and Ferrari (GT Daytona) all completing front row sweeps in their respective classes.

Joao Barbosa clocked a 1:36.903 best lap in the No. 5 Mustang Sampling Racing Cadillac, which was less than a tenth quicker than teammate Dane Cameron in the No. 31 Whelen Engineering Racing Cadillac at 1:36.973. Barbosa will race with Christian Fittipaldi and Filipe Albuquerque.

Neel Jani, a one-time Champ Car driver, was third in the No. 13 Rebellion Racing Oreca 07 Gibson with Ricky Taylor (No. 10 Konica Minolta Cadillac) and Brendon Hartley (No. 22 Tequila Patron ESM Nissan Onroak DPi) completing the top five. The best Mazda DPi was ninth, the No. 55 Mazda RT24-P.

Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GTs occupied spots 1-2-3 in GTLM, with Joey Hand on pole in the No. 66 car he shares with Dirk Mueller and Sebastien Bourdais. The No. 67 and No. 68 Fords were next up.

Alessandro Pier Guidi won the GTD pole in a Ferrari 488 GT3, while James French, a one-time Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires racer, scored the PC pole for Performance Tech Motorsports.

French’s pole ended Johnny Mowlem’s run of two poles in a row at this race.

So there’s a lot of INDYCAR presence within this year’s field. We’ll get to them in more detail in a bit, but first, here’s a look at where the eight confirmed 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series drivers’ cars qualified for Saturday’s race:

  • Spencer Pigot will start ninth in P in the No. 55 Mazda RT24-P (1:39.940)
  • James Hinchcliffe, 10th in P in the No. 70 Mazda (1:39.973)
  • Sebastien Bourdais, first in GTLM in the No. 66 Ford GT (1:43.473)
  • Scott Dixon, second in GTLM in the No. 67 Ford (1:43.704)
  • Tony Kanaan, sixth in GTLM in the No. 69 Ford (1:44.256)
  • Graham Rahal, seventh in GTD in the No. 93 Acura NSX GT3 (1:48.268)
  • Ryan Hunter-Reay, ninth in GTD in the No. 86 Acura (1:48.350)
  • Conor Daly, fifth in PC in the No. 88 Oreca FLM09 (1:47.682)

Four other drivers who raced once in IndyCar in 2016 are competing here. RC Enerson (P) starts eighth in the No. 52 PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports Ligier JS P217 Gibson, Townsend Bell (GTD) starts 16th in the No. 23 Alex Job Racing Audi R8 LMS, and Lexus RC F GT3 drivers Sage Karam (No. 14, GTD) and Jack Hawksworth (No. 15, GTD) start 13th and 20th.

Three practice sessions took place during the day on either side of qualifying, two beforehand and night practice coming Thursday night to ensure most – if not all – drivers got in their requisite night laps.

Earlier Thursday, the morning practice session was one hour from 10:20 to 11:20 a.m., with overcast skies shifting to sunnier skies as the session progressed, with an ambient temperature of 69 degrees Fahrenheit and a track temperature of 70 degrees per Al Kamel Systems, IMSA’s new timing & scoring partner.

Sunnier skies still and slightly warmer temperatures greeted the field for the second practice session, just a half hour from 1:30 to 2 p.m., with temperatures of 77 and 75, respectively.

The new Cadillac DPi-V.R completed 1-2-3 sweeps in the first two practice sessions of the weekend, both times with the No. 5 Mustang Sampling Racing Cadillac leading the session overall.

Christian Fittipaldi was fastest in the first practice at 1:38.196 around the 3.56-mile Daytona International Speedway road course. In the second practice, Joao Barbosa was fastest, albeit at a slightly slower 1:38.549.

BAR1 Motorsports (Gustavo Yacaman in session one, Johnny Mowlem in session two) and Ford Chip Ganassi Racing (Olivier Pla in both sessions) swept the pre-qualifying practice sessions in the Prototype Challenge and GT Le Mans classes. GT Daytona saw Alessandro Balzan in the defending class-champion Ferrari 488 GT3 for Scuderia Corsa, then Patrick Lindsey in the Park Place Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3 R, split leading the sessions.

Neither session had any major incidents, with the exception of a handful of spins and off-course excursions around the Bus Stop. In session one, red flags occurred for track inspection and Rebellion Racing’s Oreca 07 stopping on course. Session two saw a red right at the end of the session for two stopped cars, the No. 22 Tequila Patron ESM Nissan Onroak DPi and DragonSpeed Oreca 07, respectively, in separate spots on the track. The DragonSpeed car crashed in Turn 1 with Loic Duval driving, and required a fix starting with qualifying.

In the night practice, a number of cars went to the garage. The No. 55 Mazda went behind the wall for an alternator belt change, while a fuel leak interrupted the session for the No. 88 Starworks Motorsport PC car. The Performance Tech Motorsports entry also spent some time behind the wall, and the Change Racing Lamborghini Huracán GT3 stopped on track with just over half an hour remaining in the 90-minute session to bring out a red flag.

Session leaders at night were Max Angelelli in the No. 10 Cadillac (1:37.757), Pato O’Ward in PC (1:43.634), Ryan Briscoe in GTLM (1:44.242) and Joerg Bergmeister in GTD (1:48.084).

All cars ran between 16 and 43 laps in the session.

INDYCAR is tracking its eight full-season drivers confirmed for the 2017 season for the Rolex 24. Meanwhile, when you add in a number of other recent drivers, that number grows significantly.

In any event, neither of the Mazda RT24-Ps had great opening practice sessions, with the pace shown at the Roar Before the Rolex 24 test not duplicated thus far. The No. 55 car, which features Spencer Pigot in its lineup, was 10th in both sessions, while the No. 70 car that features James Hinchcliffe in its lineup was 11th in the morning, then eighth in the afternoon.

TSO caught up with both drivers during media availability after first practice. Both Pigot and Hinchcliffe related the challenge of being in this race as an extra driver. These two understand that they have to be a key cog in helping the overall effort for Mazda with this new car’s debut, while also being more at ease with the schedule compared to the more frenetic pace of an IndyCar weekend slate. That being said, Thursday’s schedule features three WeatherTech Championship practice sessions, plus qualifying. Pigot has also grown in confidence from his battle with Simon Pagenaud at last year’s Petit Le Mans, as he not only raced the IndyCar champion but also longtime friends such as Ricky Taylor and Tristan Nunez.

The debuting Acura NSX GT3s have been in the midfield of the deep, 27-car GT Daytona class. The No. 93 Acura, which counts Graham Rahal and fellow IndyCar veteran Katherine Legge among its quartet, has clocked in eighth and 14th in the two sessions. The No. 86 Acura, which features Ryan Hunter-Reay, was 17th and 23rd, and spent most of the second session in the garage area before heading out for four laps at the end of the session.

Ford has three current IndyCar drivers with Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan and Sebastien Bourdais all in separate cars. Kanaan’s No. 69 Ford has clocked in fifth and sixth, Dixon’s No. 67 Ford in seventh and ninth, and Bourdais’ No. 66 Ford in third and fifth. Bourdais, like Rahal, has arrived fresh at Daytona from a two-day test at Sebring this week. In Bourdais’ case, he had the opportunity to work with his full complement of engineers at Dale Coyne Racing.

The eighth full-season IndyCar driver in the field here arrived like Bourdais and Rahal from Sebring, but last-minute. Conor Daly received messages from Starworks Motorsport team principal Peter Baron while testing his No. 4 ABC Supply Co. Chevrolet for the first time, and now is set for his second Rolex 24 appearances.

This doesn’t factor in other 2016 drivers such as RC Enerson, Townsend Bell, Sage Karam and Jack Hawksworth, who are also racing here this week. Mazda Road to Indy veterans such as James French, Pato O’Ward, Jose Gutierrez, Gustavo Yacaman, James Dayson, Austin Cindric, Connor De Phillippi, Tristan Vautier and Zachary Claman De Melo are merely some of the recent examples of the 54 drivers Mazda identified with past MRTI experience racing in the Rolex 24.

At the end of second practice, only Dixon (four laps completed) and Kanaan (five) had been officially on track.

Pigot, Hinchcliffe, Bourdais, Rahal and Hunter-Reay were listed without any timed laps, while Daly may have been out but not been registered by timing & scoring. That listed Sebastian Saavedra as having run 16 laps, but the Colombian is not racing here this weekend.

Two formal media availabilities took place after first practice. The first saw the welcome return to Daytona International Speedway for Memo Gidley, who was seriously injured in a 2014 crash. Gidley was quick to thank the combination of Jim France, the France family, IMSA and the team at Halifax Health in Daytona Beach, and expanded on how thankful he was to be able to travel and improve in his recovery.

Significant nerve pain has dwindled to a tolerable rate, and Gidley feels the best he has since the accident as he prepares for a possible racing return.

The second was the formal reveal of the class of 2017 inductees for the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America. The seven drivers set to be inducted in late June in Daytona Beach are Scott Pruett, Steve Kinser, Dick Klamfoth (three-time Daytona 200 motorcycle champion), past NASCAR champions Terry Labonte and Herb Thomas, drag racing and land-speed record pioneer Paula Murphy and multi-faceted legend Brock Yates. Pruett was present at today’s announcement.

FOX Sports’ TV coverage will have a Jamie in the pits for the Rolex 24 at Daytona, but not the one you’re normally used to for sports car racing. FOX NASCAR reporter Jamie Little makes her Rolex 24 pit reporting debut, substituting for Jamie Howe.

Howe is anticipating the arrival of her and husband Bryan Sellers’ second child. Sellers co-drives the No. 48 Paul Miller Racing Lamborghini Huracán GT3 in the GT Daytona class.

It’s not just the WeatherTech Championship but also the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge racing this weekend. Dean Martin (Ford Mustang GT4, GS) and Connor Bloum (Porsche Cayman, ST) have the pole positions ahead of the BMW Performance Challenge four-hour endurance race. The series had four practice sessions prior to qualifying.

More tomorrow, with final practice for the Rolex 24 at Daytona and the Continental Tire Challenge race on tap on track. There will also be a number of driver availabilities.