The Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway traditionally attracts an eclectic mix of driving talent from a variety of racing disciplines around the globe, yet victory usually goes to sports car veterans. This year, however, a team comprised of two open-wheelers, Scott Dixon and Dan Wheldon from the Indy Racing League IndyCar Series, and NASCAR Nextel Cup regular, Casey Mears, stole one from the Grand American sportscar regulars, leading the most laps (272 of 734), covering a record distance in the Daytona Prototype class, and winning the 44th running of the event in the No. 02 Chip Ganassi Racing Lexus Riley.
"But you have to thank the guys at Target Chip Ganassi Racing. There was some stuff that they did through the night that really made this possible. It was eventful and tiring, but it's a great achievement by everybody involved."
With the win, Wheldon joins Mark Donohue, Mario Andretti, A.J. Foyt, Bobby Rahal, Al Unser, Sr., Al Unser, Jr., and Arie Luyendyk as the only drivers to have won the Indy 500 and the Rolex 24. Luyendyk, in 1998, was the last to pull it off. Wheldon became the first to take three consecutive major accomplishments: IndyCar title, Indy 500 and the victory today -- all in less than eight months.
"The race started well," said Dixon, who started the DP on the front row. "It's always around 7 o'clock or through the night when the issues start to happen. In my first stint, we had a brake pad fall out and that's why I looked like an idiot spinning out at the end of the front stretch. That wasn't a great way to start the race, but we sort of worked through it.
Dixon was slapped with a drive through penalty in the race's waning moments for contact with the No. 58 Brumos Porsche Fabcar.
"It's unbelievable," said Mears, the first active, full-time NASCAR driver to win the race overall. "There are only a few big races in the world and this is definitely one of them. I can't believe we're sitting up here right now and that we won this race. Everybody's up late, you're tired, and there are a lot of things that go on. It hasn't even really sunk it yet that we actually won. It was so much fun and it feels great."
Oswaldo Negri, Mark Patterson, A.J. Allmendinger, and Justin Wilson finished second in the Michael Shank Racing Lexus Riley, one lap behind the winners. "I'm worn out and my body hurts," said Allmendinger after his first 24-hour race. "I've never experienced in my life trying not to fall asleep in a race car. That was interesting. It was fantastic, though. Thanks to Mike Shank and the whole team at Mike Shank Racing, especially Mark Patterson for allowing myself and Justin this opportunity to get in such a great car and to Oswaldo for teaching us so much right away so we could get right after it. It was almost like I had almost driven the car before when I jumped in it; he just taught me so much."
A cut tire with less than five minutes remaining cost the No. 58 Brumos Racing Porsche Fabcar driven by David Donohue, Darren Law, and Sascha Maassen a podium finish. They ended up fourth, one lap adrift of the No. 23 car. "It was a great run," said Law. "We have a new. It's so much better. We're a lot more competitive. I think we really showed that we're back in the hunt. The team has done a great job. We had our ups and downs just like everybody. There were water cooling issues and at the end I was saving the car because the motor was running hot. I'm just so upset. In the very end, I got hit by the Ganassi car and I have no clue why. They were two laps up and there was no need for them to push the issue at all. I'm sure he had to see that we were going slow; but I don't know for sure but I think that's the issue that cut the tire. It's just so unfortunate. We had a podium. We were there. The Job car wouldn't have caught us. So it's a little disappointing. But I guess if I look at the bright side, we're coming away with fourth-place points; which is a good start to the season; better than we've had in years. So were happy about that."
The No. 19 Playboy/Uniden Racing Ford Crawford, the No. 77 Doran Racing Ford Doran, and the No. 7 Citgo Racing by Samax Racing Pontiac Riley rounded out the top finishers in Daytona Prototypes.
Eddie Cheever's new team also ran well, leading during the early evening hours. But the team's Lexus Crawford coasted to a halt on course during the 22nd hour, leaving driver Christian Fittipaldi with nothing to do but raise his hands in disgust.
Three traditional Rolex Series front runners did not fair as well. A savage collision with a spinning BMW GT car during the fourth hour eliminated the SunTrust car from the race. A broken oil pump in the 17th hour felled the Ganassi car. And seven alternator changes dashed any chance the No. 04 Howard-Boss Motorsports Pontiac Crawford may have had to win the race.
"It was a pretty wild deal," said Lally. "I think I did 13 hours and I feel like it. I'm certainly hurting. Two triples, three doubles, and a stint and a half at the end. Almost any other day, we would have won by laps. But the competition in Grand-Am today is just amazing. We just knew that some team somewhere was going to all out; another crazy year in Daytona."
The No. 82 Farnbacher Racing Porsche driven by Dirk Werner, Philip Peter, Dieter Quester, and Luca Riccitelli rounded out the top-three in GT, eight laps behind the leaders.
The race featured 39 overall lead changes among 28 drivers and 13 different cars led. There were nine caution periods accounting for 48 of 734 laps. Thirty-seven cars were running at the end of the race.
The Rolex Sports Car Series returns to action on March 2, 2006 in Mexico City.