Can anyone beat Ganassi’s superteam?by Gordon Kirby on 6th January 2009
The American racing season kicks off in just two weeks at Daytona with the Rolex 24-hour race and many of the teams assembled this past weekend for a three-day test running into Monday. In normal times nobody pays attention to the Rolex test because all eyes and ears are focused on the upcoming NASCAR test days at Daytona and Talledega in preparation for next month’s Daytona 500. But these are not normal times and NASCAR has cancelled all testing at tracks where it runs races, so that instead of weeks of raucous NASCAR testing silence prevails at the high-banked superspeedway for most of this month.
Fastest of the Grand-Am sports car drivers testing at Daytona over the last three days was Alex Gurney, who turned a best lap of 1min 42.230sec (125.364mph) on Saturday morning. And let’s not forget that Roger Penske’s team moves full-time into the Grand-Am series this year with a Porsche-powered Riley. But everyone will be trying to beat Chip Ganassi and Felix Sabates’s two-car team of Lexus-Rileys, which have dominated the race in recent times. Ganassi’s cars have done something no other team has ever achieved, which is to win the race three years in a row. A further measure of the team’s dominance is that it has led more than 60 per cent (1257) of the total laps over those three years.
Ganassi’s team of star drivers is led by defending Grand-Am champion Scott Pruett, who won last year’s race with Juan Pablo Montoya, Dario Franchitti and Memo Rojas. Pruett has three outright and eight class wins at Daytona. This year he will again be partnered in the Rolex 24 by Montoya and Rojas in Ganassi’s #01 car, while Franchitti will drive the #02 Lexus-Riley with IRL champion Scott Dixon and Alex Lloyd.
Leading the fleet of contenders aiming to defeat Ganassi this year is Bob Stallings’ Gainsco team with a single Pontiac-Riley driven by 2007 Grand-Am champions Alex Gurney and Jon Fogarty, who will be joined at Daytona by 1996 CART champion Jimmy Vasser and three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson. Vasser and Johnson co-drove last year with Gurney and Fogarty. While Gurney turned the fastest lap of last weekend’s test, Johnson was fastest on the final day, getting down to 1min 42.981secs (124.450mph). Johnson has become a devotee of Daytona’s 24-hour enduro after finishing second on his race debut with the factory Crawford team in 2005.
“The Rolex 24 is an awesome experience and challenge,” says Johnson. “Two or three of the years I’ve raced I’ve been in the car as the sun has come up, which is once of the coolest things a driver can experience. I’ve always been a fan of endurance sports car racing and this environment has always been appealing to me. I’m extremely interested in other forms of motor sport and I love how different the Daytona Prototypes are. It allows me to go back to my world and see things a little differently.”
The Grand-Am’s Daytona Prototypes may not be dazzling technical wonders, but they do produce NASCAR-like close racing with plenty of depth to the field. That means the Rolex 24 is a very difficult race to win. Despite the new standard Ganassi’s all-star team of drivers, managers, engineers and crewmen have set for Grand-Am the pressure is always on and the pace is fierce all the way.
Can Chip and Felix’s cars score a record fourth win in a row? We’ll be there to cover it for you.