DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Racing is all about one thing for Chip Ganassi: winning.
After the quartet of Juan Pablo Montoya, Dario Franchitti, Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas gave the car owner an unprecedented third straight Rolex 24-Hour win, Ganassi was jubilant.
“All I could think about when Scott took the checkered flag was saying to these other guys: ‘How’s that taste? How’s that feel?’ You just can’t put it into words. You just know it feels good and you want it to last,” Ganassi explained.
Unlike NASCAR contemporaries like Rick Hendrick, Roger Penske and Jack Roush, Ganassi’s main business is his race team and the former open-wheel driver’s bottom line is winning.
“My favorite win is always the most recent one,” said Ganassi, whose NASCAR team will be back here in two weeks hoping to win its first Daytona 500 with Montoya, stock car rookie Franchitti and Reed Sorenson.
“Obviously, this is a huge accomplishment, but I’m not retiring any time soon. I’m still trying to climb the mountain. There’s still a lot of peaks to conquer.”
Other than a minor handling problem for Pruett at the start of the race Saturday, the team’s No. 01 Lexus Riley Daytona Prototype was virtually perfect, racing at or near the lead in the most competitive running in the 46-year history of the event until the waning hours.
At dawn on Sunday, with about six hours to go, there were five other prototypes on the lead lap. But, as often happens in endurance events, attrition suddenly took its toll.
The Ganassi car had been swapping leads with the Ford Riley shared by NASCAR’s A.J. Allmendinger, Ian James, Burt Frisselle and John Pew. That car, driven by Frisselle, was just seconds behind the leader when a tire blew, damaging the suspension midway through the 21st hour and knocking it out of contention.
“Last year I felt we had a stronger car,” said Montoya, who combined with Pruett and Salvador Duran to win here in 2007, leading 468 of 668 laps on the 3.56-mile road circuit. “That was a car that you thought, whatever happens, we were fast enough to win. This year, if it came down to it, I think it would have been a lot harder.”
Montoya, who took the wheel near the end of the 18th hour, suddenly found himself with a comfortable, five-lap lead. His team was able to cruise the rest of the way in a race that had scattered rain and a treacherous track through the evening and nighttime hours and ended in dry conditions on a warm, sunny Sunday afternoon.
“At that point, with that kind of lead, you just have to make sure you don’t touch anything or run over curbs too hard,” he said. “You just roll.”
The winning car was one of 10 prototypes that pitted during the pace lap to change from rain tires to slicks as the track dried. That meant Pruett, who started in the car, fell all the way to 18th. But the eventual winner quickly got back into contention, running among the top five from the fifth hour on.
Pruett took over from Montoya for the last two hours on the way to becoming the winningest sports car driver at Daytona with his eighth victory – three overall wins and five others in lower classes.
“It’s such a challenge to do this,” said Pruett, who also has class victories in the 24 Hours of Le Mans in France. “This is the hardest endurance race in the world and this one was really tough.
“There were a lot of fast cars and the conditions were pretty treacherous. It was dry, it was wet. You just never knew which tires to stay with, wets or slicks. But this is great. We’re just going to keep doing it as long as we can.”
Franchitti, who won the IndyCar Series title last year, and Rojas both won here for the first time. But Franchitti also won the Indianapolis 500 and a class victory in the 12-hour race at Sebring in 2007.
“It’s just been one hell of a year,” the Scotsman said. “But the preparation the team puts into these cars made this one possible.”
Ganassi, who also won a record four straight championships in the CART open-wheel series in the late 90’s, got his first win here in 2006 with IndyCar stars Scott Dixon and Dan Wheldon combining with NASCAR’s Casey Mears for a win in his No. 02 entry.
No other team has won three years in a row, but the late Peter Gregg owned and drove the cars that won three straight races from 1973 to 1976. The 1974 race was canceled because of a national gas crisis.
The latest edition of the 24-hour grind was easily the most competitive ever – at least until the waning hours.
Fifteen different cars led, breaking last year’s record of 11. Overall, there were 60 lead changes, 16 more than the record of 44 set in 2005.
In the end, though, the winning car led a race-high 252 of 695 laps, including the final 100 laps, and completed 2,460 miles. It beat the runner-up Pontiac Riley co-driven by two-time defending NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson, former CART champion Jimmy Vasser and 2007 Rolex Grand-Am Series prototype champions Jon Fogarty and Alex Gurney by two laps. Johnson, who has raced in this event four times, also was second in 2005.
Four more laps back in third was the Pontiac Riley co-driven by NASCAR champion Kurt Busch, two-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe.