A Classic at Daytona

AVONDALE, AZ, February 8, 2005 – There were plenty of outsiders contesting the 43rd running of the Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway last weekend from all facets of motorsports.

Nine NASCAR NEXTEL Cup drivers got all the headlines in the series’ hometown, but there were drivers who got their chops in open wheel – both here and in Europe – who came to participate in this mid-winter twice-around-the-clock classic.

Of the outsiders who don’t regularly drive in the Grand American Rolex Sports Car Series, NASCAR dudes ruled. Jimmie Johnson, who tallied the runner-up position in Cup last season did the same thing at the end of this particular race, finishing second in his second try at this long and perilous activity around Daytona’s 3.56-mile road/oval course.

Tony Stewart’s team once again had problems in the late going, as gearbox trouble sent his car to the garage area for repairs with less than an hour left in the race. He settled for third after leading a good deal of the event. In fact, there was a record 44 lead changes amongst eight drivers in this Rolex 24, due in part to the exceptional cadre of teams and drivers present.

In most races of this nature, one team manages to stand out from the start, running away and hiding from the balance of the field. It wasn’t the case at Daytona this year, where the Rolex 24 field was strong from top to bottom. Some folks had trouble in qualifying and had to work back from that – and many did.

Others had problems during the race and recovered – others did not. With 29 Daytona Prototypes in the field this year – almost double the 17 that competed in 2004, and with only two classes (GT being the second) it was a lot easier for fans to follow this race and to find teams to cheer on.

The general consensus was that this would be an All-Star event and what occurred on the track didn’t dim that ideology one bit. As is customary, whenever somebody would get excited about being in the front of the field, the bubble got burst fairly quickly.

Last year’s winners, the Forrest Barber-led team of Terry Borcheller, Christian Fittipaldi, Paul Tracy and Ralf Kelleners never saw the light of day. They barely made the green flag at 12 minutes past noon, when the brake bias cable went awry. That’s Daytona, folks.

The Champ Car pilots didn’t have the best time of it overall; in addition to Tracy, former champ Cristiano da Matta was teamed with current titleholder Sebastien Bourdais, Paul Newman and Michael Brockman. Fighting a leased car that was never really in the kind of league these drivers deserved, handling problems that took them out early in the going.

It was a shame for the fans who mobbed their pits, only to be shooed away by the relentless number of stooges on hand to guard Newman, the actor/driver who never really looked comfortable with this year’s situation.

The nine NASCAR drivers did a bunch better, with Jimmie Johnson part of the runner-up team with veterans Elliott Forbes-Robinson and Butch Leitzinger taking him to school on this type of racing. The NEXTEL Cup bridesmaid (by a scant 8 points) did far better than Cup winner Kurt Busch, whose team was studded with Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle and Canadian sports car ace Scott Maxwell yet failed to make the final bell.

Neither did IRL stars Dario Franchitti and Dan Wheldon, driving to 27th with Milka Duno and Dario’s brother Marino in a sister car to Stewart/Lammers/Wallace. They retired early. 2004 Indy champ Buddy Rice was in an 18th finishing DP car with Boris Said, a man who can and will drive anything (he can fit into).

Jamie McMurray found himself on one of three Chip Ganassi with Felix Sabates teams as the current Grand Am champs pulled out all the stops in their second assault on this “most difficult race” according to their own [second consecutive] polesitter and champion Scott Pruett. Scooter teamed with Luis Diaz, in whom this team sees great promise and IRL newcomer Ryan Briscoe, a kid who impresses the hell out of me for seventh.

Just as I was amazed by the talent of Dale Earnhardt Jr. during last year’s 22 hours of monsoon, this year I was taken with McMurray’s tenacity in the pits. He seemed always to be asking questions and wanting to know what was going on. Whether he gets value from it in his own discipline is up to question, but his fourth place finish was best of the trio of entrants.

Casey Mears got to share a Ganassi/Sabates DP with 2003 IndyCar Series champ Scott Dixon and his current teammate Darren Manning. Mears had a great time doing the race; so did Manning but it was always during Dixon’s watch that stuff happened. They took sixth. These three results would have pleased most team owners, but not Ganassi, not Sabates and certainly not general manager Mike Hull.

The guys from Ganassi’s IRL team that went to Daytona were still junk on Tuesday when they arrived at Phoenix International Raceway for IndyCar Series testing, as was this writer.

While it was easy to catnap during last year’s race – a weather-related red flag for nearly three hours made relaxation doable – it was not possible to look away for even half an hour in 2005.

There was excitement in the air at nearly every turn of the minute hand as true professionals and admitted amateurs vied for the checkered flags.

The winners were series regulars and 2004 championship runners-up Wayne Taylor and Max Angelelli, who have been joined this year (and when they won at Daytona last summer in the Paul Revere 250) by Emmanuel Collard.

Their team barely lost pole position to Pruett at this race and Angelelli was visibly distraught by that situation (it must have looked familiar?). Now that he’s finally adding the timepiece he’s always to his Rolex watch collection, Italian Angelelli seems to have lost the lost-soul look he had earlier in the week.

The 43rd annual Rolex 24 at Daytona seemed almost like a throwback to days when racing was perhaps a bit more personal and diverse than it is now. If nothing else, it was nice to be at a motorsports contest where the action centered on the race track rather than in the board (or court) room.