Champions Galore At Daytona

Daytona Beach, FL ? Champions from many racing series warmed up for the 2008 race season by competing in the Rolex24 at Daytona this weekend. The twice-around-the-clock endurance race always attracts the best drivers in the world, and the 46th edition of the grueling race is no exception.

The champions list includes NASCAR champions Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch, Sprint Cup rookie-of-the-year Juan Pablo Montoya, Indianapolis 500 winners Helio Castroneves, Dario Franchitti and Buddy Rice, IndyCar stars Scott Dixon and Dan Wheldon along with Rolex Series champions Scott Pruett, Jorg Bergmeister, Jon Fogarty and Alex Gurney and others.

Eighteen of the champions gathered in victory lane on Friday for a ceremonial photo. While there, the drivers were in a relaxed mood and freely talked about the Rolex24, the off-season and the season ahead.

Johnson said he is looking forward to the Rolex24, as he likes to try all forms of racing and the race mentally prepares him for the NASCAR season. ?I would love to drive a rally car but Formula 1 doesn?t interest me as much,? he indicated. ?My interest wouldn?t be similar to that of Jeff Gordon, as I don?t want to drive beyond what my brain can absorb. But I would really like run in the 24 Hours of LeMans.? The two-time champion affirmed that he is totally focused on winning Sprint Cup races and championships.

Castroneves, who gained national fame through the Dancing with the Stars television production, said his dancing experience was an incredible one. ?It was brutal and very hard work, but it paid off in the end,? the flashy driver said. Regarding the 24-hour race, he added, ?The Rolex is a very tiring race and I have a plan that allows me to sleep, eat and relax, so I can be fit while I am in the car.?

A year ago, the IndyCar Series had a test session on Daytona?s road course and Castroneves would like to the open-wheel cars return for a race. ?I hope that one day we can have an IndyCar race here, as the track is fast and fun,? he stated. ?Going into the banking is a very unique experience.?

Franchitti just completed five days of stock-car testing on Daytona?s tri-oval and he indicated it was a rewarding experience. ?My Sprint Cup test went very well,? the accomplished driver said. ?My Dodge was good in single-car runs and in the draft. The drafting experience in a stock car is definitely different and my learning curve is a steep one.?

Franchitti and Montoya will be teammates in the season ahead and Montoya believes that Franchitti?s oval-track experience will be beneficial. ?Dario?s in a better position than I was at the start of last season, and I know he can get the job done.?

Concerning the 24-hour race, Montoya said it is hard for drivers to pace themselves. ?It is a very hard race to do mentally,? he said. ?It is very hard to get out of the gas, but you know you just have to wait a few seconds before passing a slower car. If you aren?t careful, you can damage your car and repairs consume a lot of pit time.? The Colombia native knows his two-car team is strong and looks for one of the cars to win the race.

Rolex Series defending champions Gurney and Fogarty believe their line-up, which includes NASCAR?s Johnson and Champ Car?s Vasser, is a formidable one, and they hope to atone for last year?s poor showing. ?Having great teammates give you comfort when you turn the car over to them,? the second-generation driver said.

Gurney has a special reason for wanting to do well this weekend, as his father, Dan Gurney, is the grand marshal of the Rolex24, and he knows his dad will be watching him with a critical eye. ?It would be neat if he could present me with the winner?s trophy,? Alex Gurney said. ?I know he has a lot of fond memories of this race, winning it once as a driver and also winning as a car owner. Even though he only gets to two or three races a year, he does offer me tips and I do listen to him.?

Once the Rolex24 ends, the Rolex Series regulars will focus on the season ahead and the guest drivers will return to their more familiar surroundings to prepare for their 2008 race activities.

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