Ganassi Racing wins Rolex 24 at Daytona

Ganassi Racing won its fourth Rolex 24 in six years Sunday at the Daytona International Speedway, as the No. 01 BMW Riley shared by Scott Pruett, Memo Rojas, Graham Rahal and Joey Hand beat the car driven by Dario Franchitti, Scott Dixon, Juan Pablo Montoya, and Jamie McMurray to the checkered flag by 2.070 seconds to prevail in the 49th edition of the Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series' first and most important race of the season.

The two Ganassi cars led 420 of the race's 721 laps, with the No. 01 car leading 231 laps and the No. 02 entry 190 laps. The cars were strong from the start, but both encountered early issues. The No. 01 car needed a new gear cluster at the end of the first hour to prevent the engine from bouncing off of the rev limiter on the straights and a subsequent camber adjustment. The No. 02 entry suffered two flat tires in the first hour and then two broken front splitters. Once the team resolved those issues, the cars ran trouble-free to the finish.

With about three hours to go, it looked like the No. 02 car might be in position to win after race officials assessed Hand a 30-second, stop-and-go penalty for hitting a tire during a pit stop. The penalty dropped Hand to fourth, 52 seconds behind Dixon. By the end of his stint behind the wheel, Hand had worked his way up to second. "We go that penalty call and I was at ramming speed and was a little ticked-off with the call," said Hand. "I just tried to put my head down and get as much back as I could. I knew if I could get a lot of it back, that Scott was getting
in next and he could seal the deal. I just wanted to make sure we were in the hunt."

Pruett climbed into the car with about two hours remaining and it took him about 30 minutes to close to within six seconds of Dixon. Pruett pitted under the race's second to last caution, rejoining the field in fourth, behind Dixon, Joao Barbosa's Action Express Racing Porsche Riley, and the No. 23 United Autosports with Michael Shank Racing Ford Riley of Mark Blundell - the only cars still on the lead lap. The stop put Pruett out of sync with the other three cars and effectively sealed the win, as his next and final stop was quicker than those of the other three front runners, all of whom needed to take on more fuel than Pruett. A caution with six minutes to go added some last-minute drama by allowing Dixon, Barbosa, and Blundell to close up on Pruett, whose car had a tire issue. But the Ganassi driver held on for the win when the race went green for one final lap.

"We knew we had a strong car and all of us were a little disappointed by the call, but you can't think about it," said Pruett after the race. "You just have to focus on trying to get to victory lane. Our car at the end was not beaten up, torn up, or banged up. It was still a strong piece.

"We were able to run fast all of the time. We ran the majority of this race at a good hard pace, but we never had to drive over the curbs and beat the car up and really take its toll on the car. And that really put us in a strong position where - even at the start where we had to do that cluster change - we were able to come right back pretty quickly and get our lap back."

Barbosa and his co-drivers, Terry Borcheller, Christian Fittipaldi, Max Papis, and JC France, had to settle for third after the Portuguese driver could not pass Dixon on the race's final lap. Blundell, Martin Brundle, Zak Brown, and Mark Patterson ended up fourth - the final car on the lead lap.

"We did all we could to be as fast as we could, but we just didn't have the speed this weekend," said Barbosa, whose car suffered rear-end damage in the middle of the race that hampered its performance at the end. "We knew we weren't going to be the fastest car out there, but we were consistent. Ganassi had the edge on us this year."

With the win, Pruett joined Peter Gregg, Bob Wollek, Rolf Stommelen, and Pedro Rodriguez as a four-time victor in the Rolex 24. Only Hurley Haywood has more wins, with five. "I think it's incredible," said Pruett. "It's nice to get back to victory lane, especially after the last two years, when we were just so close to victory."

Rahal's share of the win was also remarkable as it came 30 years after his father, Bobby, won the Rolex 24 in 1981. "It feels pretty sweet," said Rahal.

The win was the first overall victory for BMW in the Rolex 24 since 1976, when Peter Gregg, Brian Redman, and John Fitzpatrick drove a BMW CSL to victory lane.

Ganassi Racing has won the Daytona 500, the Indy 500, Brickyard 400, and the Rolex 24 in less than 12 months. "I'm just the guy that gets to stand up here and talk about it," said Ganassi. "It's the guys who do all of the work. We just try to focus on the next race."

The win may be an ominous sign for the rest of the year, as Pruett and Rojas won nine of 12 races last year.

SunTrust Racing's Max Angelelli drove like a demon in the closing hours in an attempt to make up the lap his team lost early in the race after a collision with Montoya, but he ended up fifth, one lap down to the leaders in the car he shared with Ryan Briscoe and Ricky Taylor.

The Krohn Racing Ford Lola, No. 6 Michael Shank Racing with Curb Agajanian Ford Dallara, No. 55 Level 5 Motorsports BMW Riley, No. 5 Action Express car (which led 120 laps), and No. 60 Michael Shank Racing Ford Riley rounded out the top-10 in the headlining Daytona Prototype class.

Slowed by brake issues, a broken muffler, and suspension damage sustained in a collision with Montoya Saturday evening, the Gainsco Bob Stallings Chevrolet Riley of Alex Gurney, Jon Fogarty, and Jimmie Johnson finished 15th, 42 laps behind the winners.

The pole sitting Flying Lizard Porsche driven by Patrick Long, Jorg Bergmeister, Johannes van Overbeek, and Seth Neiman set the race's fastest lap, but ended up 22nd, 67 laps behind the leaders, after suffering a broken radiator early in the race.

Early in the race, a number of Daytona Prototypes experienced issues with the series' new Continental tires. The issues were attributed to warmer than expected temperatures, improper tire pressures, aggressive camber settings, and the large amount of debris thrown on to the track by all of the spins and off course excursions that occurred in the first few hours of the race. The problems seemed to go away once teams adjusted their tire pressures and camber settings so that they complied with Continental's recommendations.

Andy Lally, Wolf Henzler, Spencer Pumpelly, Brendan Gaughan, and Steven Bertheau survived a broken clutch to win the GT class in the Racer's Group Porsche. The No. 48 Paul Miller Racing Porsche of Bryce Miller, Tim Sugden, Bryan Sellers, and Rob Bell finished second in class, followed by the No. 40 Dempsey Racing Mazda RX-8 driven by Joe Foster, Charles Espenlaub, Tom Long, and actor Patrick Dempsey. The winning car originally qualified on the class pole, but its qualifying time was disallowed after the car failed post-qualifying technical inspection due to a minor rules infraction. Kevin Buckler's TRG squad now has four GT class wins in the Rolex 24.

"Hell yeah there's a little bit of vindication," said Buckler. "We were out of complaints. And even though [we failed] by a millimeter and it could have slid, the rules are tightening up a bit."

The new Turner Motorsport BMW M3 of Boris Said, Bill Auberlen, Matt Plumb, and Paul Dalla Lana led some laps early in the race, but finished well off the pace after encountering gearbox problems Saturday evening. While the new Brumos Porsche ended up fifth in GT in the hands of Hurley Haywood, Andrew Davis, Leh Keen, and Marc Lieb.

The highest finishing Chevrolet Camaro was the Stevenson Motorsport car, which finished 12th in class.

The race featured three Ferrari 430s, the best of which finished 15th in GT.

The race featured some very aggressive driving right from the start, resulting in 23 cautions for 141 laps, including one that lasted for almost three hours due to the fog that enveloped the track early Sunday morning.

Credits: Pat Jennings, Sportscar series reporter