The 45th Rolex 24 At Daytona -- History's Best?

Can you believe it? The Rolex 24 At Daytona is nearly here.

It took a call from Kevin Doran wanting to play a little pre-race golf this week - and subsequent repeated assertions on his part - for me to really realize the 24 was at hand.

(BTW: For those out there in AutoWeek land, Doran really is - no 'speculation,' here - building a few "Ford GT40" race cars for ALMS racing purposes.)

And, just last week, I was certain Bill Riley had taken a skewed look at his calendar, and let it pass without comment, when he said "see you next week."

Can you tell I regularly look at calendars? My computer and PDA's Outlook are Godsends. They remind me of upcoming appointments and all I do is show up. I don't care what day it may be. Cavemen didn't have a clue as to the day and the species still got here without time pieces, didn't it?

It's a tough deal nowadays to figure the odds on who's gonna do what in this race. Sure, this motorhead might have some insight others don't but who, if given just half a chance, wouldn't spend almost endless hours in the race pits or garages or at tests throughout North America?

If so, you'd likely come to an understanding of the sport similar to my own. I'm just lucky enough to be able to live a dream I've had since kid who literally stood on Sebring's runways when sportscar racing was still a relatively new import from Yurrup.

The sportscar scene has since undertaken a considerable evolution after more than a few United States Army Air Force plane jockeys returned from WWII Yurrup action with cool two-seater cars and, no longer having the ability to compete against comrades in the skies, found it on the ground in the U.S.

Like us (I'm just, um, slightly grayer in hair and less in tooth than when standing on that Sebring runway) the sportscar scene still changes and will continue to change - it'll have ups; it'll have downs.

Remember in 2004 when the DP car class was looking at its second Rolex 24?

Starting that race were 17 DPs. At its end, Terry Borcheller, Forest Barber, Christian Fittipaldi and Andy Pilgrim would bring home an ailing No. 54 Jim Bell-prepared Kodak "Chevrolet" Doran to take overall honors.

(Bell, absent of a breaking - as in, "just happening" Pontiac deal - kept the Chevy decals on the car and, as importantly, on the engine.)

To this day, I remember the feeling that washed over me when, days earlier during that race's first practice day, I stood in the early-morning garage and knew the playing field was no longer solely "mine."

A lot of new faces - or old ones not seen in awhile - were in the pits, the garages and the DIS media center.

Though I had strongly felt the day would come, I didn't like it worth a darn when it arrived. At least at first.

Honestly, on one hand I felt happy - vindicated might be the better word - that I'd made the correct move to cover the 2003 series in its entirety. But a pang of anger (jealousy?) hit, knowing that I no longer would be the sole journalist solely following the full Rolex Series.

Man, long to be treasured are the hours I spent during that 2003 season talking mano-a-mano with some of the sports' best. And, though relatively few in number at the time, it was quality time. I'll take quality over quantity any ol' time.

Yet, the wailing and gnashing of teeth over the 2003 Rolex 24 was still distinctly ringing in my ears (and other "believers") at the dawn of that 2004 season.

Surely you remember the avalanche of criticisms, among which was: "Ah-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! This'll never work!"

Oops.

About 25-minutes before the 2004 race's checkered flag I had booked-it from the No. 54's end-of-pit road tent - we're talking last stall all the way down toward Turn 1 - striking out on the relatively long walk to the Crawford pits when about halfway there word struck that Crawford's Tony Stewart had hit the wall in the "Moretti Chicane."

(No, Daytona International doesn't call it "Moretti." Nearly everyone in the racing universe calls it the entirely UNoriginal "bus stop," without knowing why it should or shouldn't be named such. When was the last time anyone saw a doggone bus stop there, anyway? In the final analysis, Gianpiero Moretti was a trigger man behind that chicane being placed there. But that's a story for another time.)

At the time I had no clue as to the severity of Stewart's hit. All I did was put some really tired bones in high gear and sprint the rest of the way to the No. 5's pit.

Then, learning Stewart was okay - if one didn't count disappointment - it was a sprint back to the Kodak pits, where the people therein had taken on renewed vitality. Hell, I woulda been happy to get a strong cup of java.

To the extent Max, Jan and Katie Crawford were saddened, the Kodak crew and, even, car constructor Kevin Doran, were oppositely elated.

To know one's about to take the lead toward the end of a 24-hour struggle - and a 24-hour race is just that - provides a very welcome shot of adrenaline for those in the associated pit box.

For the first time in the race, Barber - in his clean, shiny all-but-new uniform - would don his helmet to bring the 54-car home.

To say the least, Barber was reluctant to assume the seat and it was only after Bell and Borcheller urged him on that he would actually commit to doing it.

Still, he was filled with concern.

The 54's engine was hardly at full song and Barber feared that he lacked the talent - and it does take talent to nurse, whether human or mechanical - to bring the ailing car home.

Barber's "what if's" were countered with "Get in the car" and he was gone.

Left behind in his pit was great concern over the engine. It'd lost compression and no one really knew if it'd last even those last few minutes.

And that's part of the problem with predicting a 24-hour race.

First, there are so many things that can go wrong, from Stewart's suspension collapse to Barber's engine to, in 2006, Wayne Taylor's SunTrust car being in the wrong place at the wrong time when an out-of-control racer appeared from almost nowhere and ended the defending 2005 Rolex 24 champions' day.

Second, the DP's reliability continues to grow.

In 2003, Scott Maxwell, David Empringham and David Brabham's No. 88 Multimatic Ford Focus finished first in class, but fourth overall (likely first overall, if not for an improper throttle spring the drivers had insisted upon for "drivability" purposes).

Brumos Racing's No. 59 Porsche-Fabcar driven by Hurley Haywood, J.C. "Mexico Mangler" France, Scott Goodyear and Scott Sharp would follow in fifth-place overall, second in class, 18-laps down to the No. 88.

The next DP? G&W Motorsports' (now 'Synergy') 24th-place No. 8 BMW-Picchio driven by Boris Said, Darren Law, Dieter Quester and Luca Riccitelli.

Driving their GT-class No. 66 Porsche 996 GT3RS to the 2003 victory, winners Kevin Buckler, Michael Schrom, Timo Bernhard and Jorg Bergmeister compiled more than 10-times the number of laps run by the first DP to go out in the race - the same "Chevrolet" Doran that would win in 2004.

In 2004, the next-closest DP to the No. 54 Kodak Chevrolet-Doran was the fourth-place No. 27 Lista Lexus-Doran, five-laps down, of Didier Theys, Fredy Lienhard, Jan Lammers and Marc Goossens.

Six of that year's top-10 finishers were DPs -- a three-fold increase over the year before (as many in number as in all of that 2003 field, too).

In 2005, the race's first nine finishers were DPs with a total of 35-laps separating first through ninth.

Though the SunTrust Pontiac-Riley (Wayne Taylor, Max Angelelli, Emanuel Collard), with 710 laps would win by 11 laps over the next-closest DP, overall finishers two-through-five were separated by two laps! After 24 hours! Two doggone laps!

Second-place (Boss-Howard's Pontiac-Crawford with Butch Leitzinger, EFR, Jimmie Johnson) and third (Citgo's Pontiac-Crawford with Andy Wallace, Jan Lammers, Tony Stewart) were each on their 699th lap.

Fourth-place (CGRWFS Lexus-Riley with Stefan Johansen, Cort Wagner and Jamie Mac Murray) was on Lap-698 and fifth place, (Doran Racing's Lexus-Doran with Fabrizio Gollin, Mateo Bobbi and Didier Theys) was on lap 697!

Wow!

But 2006 gets better, if nothing else but for the fact that CGRWFS/Target's Scott Dixon, Casey Mears and Dan Wheldon would lay down 734 laps in their winning Lexus-Riley - the Rolex 24 At Daytona's fourth-highest-ever laps total! We're talking going back as far as Dan Gurney and his 1961 victory in a Lotus-Climax 19B!

"Ozz" Negri, Mark Patterson, A.J. Allmendinger and Justin Wilson were one-lap down with 733-laps in Mike Shank's No. 60 Flight Options (now, Fresh From Florida) Lexus-Riley.

In third place, Alex Job's Shred-It/XM Satellite (now, Ruby Tuesday) No. 23 Porsche-Crawford, driven by Luca Luhr, Mike Rockenfeller and Patrick Long, racked up 731-laps.

Fourth-place's David Donohue, Darren Law and Sascha Maassen in their Brumos Racing No. 58 Red Bull Porsche-Fabcar compiled 730 laps.

Each of the above 2006 finishers beat the next-best, fifth-best-ever Daytona 24 lap total (728) compiled by 1988 race winners Martin Brundle, Raul Boesel, John Nielsen and Jan Lammers in Tom Walkinshaw's No. 60 Jaguar XJR-9!

Really, now, is it unreasonable to expect a DP to soon eclipse the all-time lap record, 762, compiled in 1992 by a Nissan R91CP (Masahiro Hasemi, Kazuyoshi Hoshino, Toshio Suzuki)?

The 2006 Rolex 24's fifth- and sixth-place finishers each placed in the race's top-nine, highest-ever historical lap totals.

And, for the record - 'cause someone out there is going, "Buh, buh, but ..." - Pedro Rodriguez, Leo Kinnunen and Brian Redman posted 724 laps driving their No. 2 Porsche 917K in 1970.

I can hear others; "What about the WSC era!? What about the WSC era!?"

To the point: 2002, Doran-Lista Judd-powered Dallara, 716 laps, won Rolex 24.

I'm going to predict at least one thing for this weekend's race: It'll be good. Darn good.

Now, wasn't it worth hanging around after first reading my ramblings?

On Wednesday, you get to see who I think will take the 45th Rolex 24 At Daytona.

-- Commentary Written Exclusively for Motorsport.com by DC Williams