NASCAR Around The Clock Jimmie Johnson Making a Great Team Even Better, In Rolex 24 At Daytona DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Jan. 25, 2008) -- The Rolex 24 At Daytona annually welcomes a broad cross-section of the world's best drivers who compete ...
NASCAR Around The Clock
Jimmie Johnson Making a Great Team Even Better, In Rolex 24 At Daytona
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Jan. 25, 2008) -- The Rolex 24 At Daytona annually welcomes a broad cross-section of the world's best drivers who compete in racing disciplines ranging from open-wheel to NASCAR and this year is no different.
With the all-important Daytona 500 looming on the near horizon, two-time and reigning NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Champion Jimmie Johnson has nonetheless arrived early at Daytona International Speedway for the third time in four years, with two goals: Learn to become a better road course competitor and win the Rolex 24.
Johnson came tantalizingly close during his second try in 2005 with co-drivers Butch Leitzinger and Elliott Forbes-Robinson, finishing second at the end of the world's most grueling twice-around-the-clock race -- for which drivers this year will take the green flag at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, on the DIS 3.56-mile road course.
Should a search be conducted for any one team that could be named as the best of those found in the sea of racing teams here for the race's 46th running, surely the No. 99 Lowe's Home Improvement/GAINSCO Auto Insurance Pontiac-Riley Daytona Prototype would make the short list.
Teaming with Johnson are 1996 CART champ Jimmy Vasser and the 2007 Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series driving champions, Alex Gurney and Jon Fogarty, who last season set the series on its head by winning an unprecedented 50 percent of its races.
In no small, simple or easy feat, during the 2007 season Gurney and Fogarty competed against teams fielded by the likes of Chip Ganassi Racing With Felix Sabates and Indianapolis 500 champion Eddie Cheever.
Furthermore, Gurney and Fogarty would win the championship by a scant two points -- in the season's final race, no less -- over road-racing great Scott Pruett, who claims the 2004 Rolex Series championship among his six major road racing titles accumulated over more than 20 years of professional racing.
To No. 99 team owner Bob Stallings, Johnson's fit into the team was only natural despite having some early reservations.
"When the idea first surfaced my first instinct was, 'No, he's a Cup guy,'" Stallings recalled.
It's not that Stallings didn't hold respect for NASCAR Sprint Cup contenders, he said, "It's just that I didn't really know that much about him. I'm just not that much of a Cup guy."
Nevertheless, a seed had been planted and Stallings, as well as Gurney and Fogarty, started tuning in to what Johnson was doing in NASCAR competition and it wasn't long before they understood Johnson's nature.
"I think it's safe to say we realized Jimmie is a very intense, dedicated driver," Stallings said. "So, we started communicating with each other and, after a couple of months, we got together."
As one of only 14 drivers to have made more than 200 career CART starts, Vasser feels he has a pretty good handle on race car drivers and expressed it quickly using only two words in describing Johnson:
"You want to know how good of a driver I believe he is?" Vasser added. "I bought one of his T-shirts after watching him in a Vegas Cup race."
Gurney, son of the legendary Dan Gurney who was himself an occasional NASCAR competitor. Is likewise impressed.
"Jimmie's not going to hold us back, that's for sure," Gurney said. "His work ethic, input on the car and rapport with the team's engineer, Kyle Brannan, is second to none. Watching and working with him as closely as we have tells me all I need to know about him; he's a champion."
Fogarty, who captured a record eight poles for the No. 99 team in 2007, makes it unanimous, saying, "Jimmie's easy to get along with. He's become a good friend and is a lot of fun to hang out with. He's laid back, but knowledgeable and a great competitor.
"Our only apprehension about Jimmie coming into this was concern over how the extra attention he gets might divert our focus. But he's so used to it -- he's great with the fans -- that it quickly became a non-issue."
As the No. 99 Lowe's/GAINSCO team learned last year, sometimes all the talent in the world can't change fate.
Gurney was sitting on the pole and easily held the early race lead when another car's suddenly loose hood caused its driver to collide with Gurney and all but ended the No. 99 team's chance at a Rolex 24 victory.
"I know what it means to come up short in this race," Johnson said. "I've even seen guys like Tony Stewart leading the race and lose it when his car broke with under 30-minutes left.
"That's one of the reasons I want this win and why we're preparing as hard as we can to do it.
"Plus, it won't hurt if I learn how to drive on road courses a little better."