DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - A slew of teams jockeyed for position at the halfway point of the Rolex 24-Hour sports car race at Daytona International Speedway, with Alex Gurney, son of longtime racing star Dan Gurney, holding a narrow lead over a large group of Daytona Prototypes.
Five of the sleek sports car prototypes were bunched on the lead lap with five more trailing by less than three laps in what is already the most competitive race in the 46-year history of America's premier endurance race.
Gurney, co-driving a Pontiac Riley with fellow Rolex Grand-Am Series prototype champion Jon Fogarty, two-time defending NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson and former CART champion Jimmy Vasser, is trying to match the victory by his father in the inaugural Daytona race in 1962 — a three-hour event.
The elder Gurney was on hand for this year's race as the grand marshall.
The leader was less than 3 seconds ahead of the Chip Ganassi Racing Lexus Riley driven by former open-wheel star and current NASCAR racer Juan Pablo Montoya, part of the winning team last year, along with teammate Scott Pruett. That car also is shared by IndyCar champion and NASCAR rookie Dario Franchitti and Memo Rojas.
By the end of the 12th hour, at 1:30 a.m. EST on Sunday, 15 different cars had led, breaking the record of 11 set last year. Overall, there were 38 lead changes, four more than the record set in 2007, and 25 different drivers had led the race.
"It's just so close out there," Pruett said after his first stint on the 3.56-mile road circuit. "It seems like everybody is running almost the same lap speeds."
The other cars on the lead laps were the Ford Riley co-driven by NASCAR driver A.J. Allmendinger, John Pew, Ian James and Burt Frisselle, the Pontiac Riley shared by NASCAR champion Kurt Busch, two-time Indy winner Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe and the Pontiac Riley co-driven by Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marc Goossens, Johnny O'Connell and Jim Matthews.
Johnson, who will return on Feb. 8 to begin preparations for the season-opening Daytona 500, a race he won in 2006, enjoyed his first stint, despite occasional light rain that made the track slick.
"I had a great experience out there," he said. "We have a great car and we're just really trying to stick to our rhythm. I tried not to put the car into any bad situations."
Ganassi, going for an unprecedented third straight Daytona victory, saw one of its two entries run into trouble early.
Salvador Duran, the Mexican driver who was also part of the winning team in 2007, former IndyCar champions Scott Dixon and Dan Wheldon and IRL rookie Alex Lloyd, were far back in the back despite Duran posting the fastest lap of the race.
After running off course and damaging the car in Thursday's night practice, Duran did it again Saturday, 4½ hours into race.
This time, Duran made a mistake as his Lexus Riley Daytona Prototype came upon a pair of the slower-moving GT class cars.
"I was trying to scrub (new tires) a little bit before going into turn four and I hit the brakes quite early to heat the tires," Duran said. "When I got to the middle of the turn, everyone was stopped and I tried to avoid contact by going to the right.
"It was either hit the cars in front or go to the grass and I thought I could go through the grass and make it back onto the track without any trouble. But as soon as I hit the grass, the front of the car took the brunt of it. It was a stupid mistake."
After repairs requiring about 20 minutes, the Ganassi car was still fast. But a second stop for more repairs to the same problem left the entry far back in the field. At the halfway point, with Dixon driving, the car was 15th, 18 laps behind the leaders.
Ganassi didn't appear concerned that he was apparently down to one shot at the record victory.
"It's the most unpredictable race in the world," said the team owner who also runs cars in NASCAR and the IndyCar Series. "That's the challenge. This race has everything that can happen in a yearlong championship take place in 24 hours. That's what makes it fun."