Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates scored a 1-2 finish in the Rolex 24 at Daytona, the no.01 car of Scott Pruett, Memo Rojas, Joey Hand and Graham Rahal surviving delays and a one-lap dask to the checkered flag at the end of a day's racing.
The result is just another is a supreme twelve months for Chip Ganassi, his INDYCAR team winning the Indy 500 and series title through Dario Franchitti and the Daytona 500 with Jamie McMurray. Both drivers – along with their respective teammates – Scott Dixon and Juan Montoya – crewed the no.02 which came in second.
That Ganassi's teams dominated is then, perhaps, unsurprising. But what was surprising is the manner in which the two Target and Telmex backed cars began the 24 hours.
Pruett, taking the first stint in the no.01, was almost immediately telling the team of the BMW engine hitting the rev limiter on the run through the tri-oval towards turn one. The decision was made to change the entire gear cluster but even under a full course caution the team lost a lap – a change which, completed in practice in two minutes had taken almost double that.
At the same time Pruett was sitting in the pitlane namesake Scott Dixon was limping the sister car back to the pit with a flat right-rear tyre. Luckily – and unlike some less fortunate – there was little to no damage to the car, and any delay was minimal, but the delays to Ganassi allowed others to dominate the early running.
Flying Lizard Motorsports – and Joerg Bergmeister – had taken a surprise pole position on Thursday's qualifying session and the same pace was in evidence in the opening hour of the race. Bergmiester and the Porsche flat-6 engine in the back of the Riley chassis were unstoppable – the only man capable of dipping into the 1:40s around the 3.56mile track he set the fastest lap of the race after just 22 laps -1:40.417.
Pre-race build up had mentioned the possibility of one team trying to run the 24 hours as a sprint race and that team looked to be Flying Lizards as Bergmeister opened a gaping lead over Max Angelleli – starting the SunTrust Racing car.
Any early battling was to be found in the GT ranks. The dominance of the Porsches last almost exactly one lap before Robin Liddell went from third to first on the inside of turn one. The lead in the class swapped several times in the early hours. Dominik Farnbacher led the first lap in the pole sitting Porsche before Liddell and the Stevenson Motorsport Camaro took the lead. The no.44 Magnus Racing Porsche also took a turn in the lead before the no.94 Turner BMW took it's turn in the lead.
All four would hit trouble. The Camaro was first to fall, reports of throttle problems ending in the car shutting off. The car – shared by Liddell, Jan Magnussen and Ronnie Bremner would eventually finish twelfth in class. Magnus Racing would hit trouble – quite literally – when a piece of debris damaged the Porsche's sway bar and Turner Motorsport were delayed with a gearbox problem after six hours of racing. The no.70 Speedsource Mazda – another front running car – was another to pucture a right-rear tyre, the rubber destroying much of that corner of the car. it did finish, though devoid of most bodywork behind the passenger door.
Problems would also cripple the effort of the Flying Lizard car. There was no doubting the team were fast. Bergmeister handed the car to Patrick Long at the end of the first hour, but only rejoined in sixth. Over the course of the next green flag run Long climbed back up to second, but the third caution flag signalled the beginning of the end. Shortly after a mix-up on the restart Seth Neiman came around the infield too find three GT cars spinning infront of him. Neiman – also the team principal – took the only route availbale to him and drove onto the grass on driver's right. The plough fronted Daytona Prototype dug in, damaging the radiator and water lines according Neiman and necessitating a 19 lap delay for the team.
As the long January night fell so did a night of problems for many teams. The GAINSCO backed Bob Stallings car was blighted by brake and steering problems and the SunTrust car had similar problems, stopping for steering problems twice. Both cars had run ins with Juan Montoya, who was on typically combative form. On both occasions the Colombian forced his way up the inside of his rivals at the first of the tracks two infield horseshoe turns. Despite both the victims having to stop for repairs the Ganassi car remained relatively unscathed – though it did end the 24 hours sporting a plain white nose after hitting a piece of debris – Montoya describes as “half a nose” – damaged the car's own front bodywork.
Minnows Spirit of Daytona Racing – which had led earlier in the race – also fell by the wayside in the closest the race got a major crash, when the Coyote chassised car span into the outside wall of the Superspeedway on the exit of the chicane, slewing back down the banking happily not collecting anyone else.
The hours of darkness also saw the end of the Doran Racing challenge. The Ford-Dallara had run in the lead group early on but delays had set them back. Ross Kaiser span at the bus-stop chicane on the back straight – he was by no means the only man to do so – damaging the nose and splitted before a spin by teammate Henri Richard ended the no.77's run for good.
The race remerged into daylight under caution for fog. Almost three hours of racing were spent behind the safety car, putting an end to any hope of a record distance that may have occurred.
When the green flag flew again, shortly after 8am, it did so after a vastly different race. Ganassi's cars now ran 1-2, with Action Express Racing's two Porsche-Rileys in third and fourth and the no.40 Dempsey Racing Mazda leading the GT classes.
It was the first time the team – and Patrick Dempsey personally – had led the class at the Rolex 24, having taken the class lead in the early hours of the morning the screaming rotary engine car held off the advancing TRG Porsche GT3s. A 1:23s lead ebbed away when Tom Long spun the Mazda at turn six and stalled the car, his charge just one of many struggling with clutch problems – the number pushed away from pitstops a clear symptom of a typical endurance racing epidemic.
The next to need assistance was Mark Donahue in the no.5 Action Express car, another victim of the bus-stop, the stalled Riley was enough to bring out another caution.
The steady flow of cautions had kept a set of cars on the lead lap – the two Ganassi entries, no.9 Action express and Michael Shank's no.6 and no.23 cars – the latter the co-opertaive effort with United Autosports, which had made it back from three laps down after problems including repairs after contact with another car (for which the other car was penalised).
The no.6 car – A.J. Allmendinger, Michael McDowall and Justin Wilson – soon fell off the lead lap, leaving United Autosports to fight for an unlikely podium against some of the favourites for the race.
Third place was handed to the United Autosports squad by another Ganassi delay. Joey Hand, exiting the pits in the no.01 clipped a tyre, drawing a 30 second stop-go penalty. It dropped him 50 seconds off the lead held by the sister car, but as both Ganassi cars had fought back from delays before they would again.
While the race between Scott Dixon, Christian Fittipaldi in the no.9 and Mark Blundell for United Autosports raged at the front – the trio covered by barely a second in a battle that occasionally looked to be heading for an accident – Hand was battling though the lapped DP traffic until he handed driving duties to Scott Pruett with deficit sliced to just 15 seconds.
“I was at ramming speed,” said Hand in the post-race press conference. “I was a little bit ticked off at the call, and so I just tried to put my head down and get as much back. I knew if I got a lot of it back that I could get – that Scott was getting in next, I knew he would definitely seal the deal.”
Pruett soon took charge of the race. Under a caution for the Flying Lizard car – which gave its last with the right-rear corner on fine – Pruett took the decision to pit for tyres and fuel while the three ahead stayed out. It sacrificed track position, but gave him fresh tyres as tools to make up ground.
Within ten minutes Pruett was into third past Martin Brundle at the bus-stop, the Briton running wide as first a lapped Max Angelelli then a rapid Pruett appeared on his inside. With Brundle dropped from the lead battle the top three were all clustered together, as well as Angelelli who still had the pace to run with leaders on lap time.
Where Pruett's off-sync pitstop paid dividends was at the final round of scheduled stops, with just under an hour to go. With Dixon in the no.02 and Joao Barbosa in the no.9 needing a full tank of fuel Pruett was easily able to jump into the lead, with enough of an advantage to be heading comfortably for the win.
Still, there was a final twist. The Spirit of Daytona entry became the final car of the race to suffer a flat right-rear, the tyre shredding and ejecting the rear bodywork on the entry to the banking at turn six.
The late yellow flag – the 23rd and final – set up a one lap shootout for the win, but Pruett had a GT Ferrari between he and anyone else, so was able to dash away from potential danger.
After 720 laps Pruett too the checkered flag, officially 2.07 seconds ahead of Dixon and Barbosa.
Andy Lally crossed the finish line to win the GT class in the no.77 TRG Porsche, having lost pole after a technical infraction the team had inherited the lead from the stalled Dempsey Mazda in the morning. Paul Miller Racing's Porsche – with a line up including Rob Bell (a Rolex 24 debutant) and Tim Sugden finished second in class. The no.40 car third, four laps off the class lead.
The winning GT car had completed 17 hours without a clutch, Kevin Buckler's team often within minutes of bring the car in for the lengthy repair he estimates would have taken 20 laps.
“At the point that the clutch goes out and you decide to do the rest of the race without it, that means no mistakes, no stopping of that car anywhere on the track; other than your pit box because if you spin and stop, you’re done,” Lally explains the stakes of the gambles. “You’re going to get towed back to the pits, and you lose three or four laps getting towed back to the pits; in the Rolex Series, you may as well just pack it up and go home because you’re not going to end up on top of that podium here.”
Asked about “the slam” – Daytona 500, Indy 500 and now Rolex 24 – post-race Chip Ganassi passed the credit to his teams; “I’m telling you, I don’t drive the cars, I don’t change the tires, I don’t work on the engines. There are lots of people, lots of great competitors that it takes to make up a team, and I’m just the guy that gets to stand up here and talk about it.”
The full results of the 49th Rolex 24 at Daytona can be seen here.