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'Rolex 24' a Who's Who of legends
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.
It may come as a surprise to some NASCAR fans, but Daytona Speedweeks technically started this week.
Nearly a full month before the drop of the green flag in the Feb. 26 Daytona 500, a Who’s Who of international drivers has gathered to mark the 50th anniversary of the endurance race now called the Rolex 24.
With NASCAR President Mike Helton looking on, the legendary Sir Jackie Stewart — clad in green “Stewart tartan” pants and matching trademark cap — spoke at a pre-race drivers meeting Saturday morning that included Daytona 500 winners Jamie McMurray and Michael Waltrip, four-time IndyCar champ Dario Franchitti, action sports star Travis Pastrana, three Indy 500 winners and a half-dozen former Formula One drivers.
There are three Andrettis — Marco, John and Jarett — and an Earnhardt (Jeffrey). And even “Dr. McDreamy,” actor Patrick Dempsey of the hit TV show “Grey’s Anatomy.”
The assortment of more than 150 elite drivers, high-end gentlemen racers and sports-car stars filled a 59-car grid for the annual twice-around-the-clock endurance around Daytona’s 3.56-mile road course officially marking the beginning of the motorsports schedule and what increasingly has become racing’s “must-do.”
Imagine the old IROC Series on steroids.
“Everyone wants to be here,’’ said Dempsey, who owns a team, was making his fifth start as a driver in the Rolex 24 and is coming off a career-best third place in the GT-class last year.
“It’s great to be here for the 50th anniversary of this great event and to see all the people who made history here. I know how passionate [Grand-Am founder] Jim France has been to build this series so it’s great to see.’’
It’s a racing voyeur’s dream of legendary drivers, former champions and up-and-coming talent. And for one weekend, all the eyes from all the racing series are focused on one place.
Four-time NASCAR champ Jeff Gordon tweeted about watching the race from home. Five-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson is taking the year off from the Rolex 24, but promised to be watching closely.
“It’s one of the biggest races in the world, and a great way to kick off Speedweeks," said Team Penske’s new NASCAR hire, AJ Allmendinger, who is driving a Ford Riley in the marquee Daytona Prototype (DP), and is one of eight NASCAR drivers entered.
“More than anything, it’s one of those races you want to have on your resume. All the greatest drivers in the world come over to race this race. You want to compare yourself to all the best, and that’s what makes it fun.’’
Fellow NASCAR driver Jamie McMurray would like to add a Rolex win to a resume that already includes the 2010 Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 wins.
“I told my wife I couldn’t even sleep last night I was so excited to be back in the car racing again,’’ said McMurray, who is part of a Chip Ganassi Racing dream team and will do-drive one of the DP-class BMWs with three Indy 500 winners, including Franchitti, Scott Dixon and Juan Pablo Montoya.
“It’s fun to come over and see all the media hype and fan following that we are kind of used to in NASCAR."
During a pre-race news conference, the Ganassi drivers playfully teased Montoya about his “aggressive” driving style — one that sometimes irked other competitors in last year’s Rolex 24.
So team owner Chip Ganassi revealed the team will have a signal board (pit sign) that will read “Juan” or “Not Juan” so the other drivers will know who’s in the car so they don’t exact revenge on the wrong guy. Or perhaps, it’s to warn them.
Yet amid the playful banter is a serious mission for the team.
Montoya’s teammate, four-time Grand-Am Series champ Scott Pruett — the lead driver on Ganassi’s other car — is going for a fifth overall victory, which would tie him with Hurley Haywood for most all-time.
“We’re here for fun, but we’re here to win,’’ Franchitti said.