NASCAR drivers Daytona 24 hour preview

Clock-Watchers: Twice-Around-The-Dial Challenge Awaits NASCAR Drivers in Rolex 24 at Daytona Four NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series Champions Lead Stock Car Contingent Qualifying Lands Gordon's Team On Outside Pole, Johnson's Team Third-Fastest DAYTONA...

Clock-Watchers: Twice-Around-The-Dial Challenge Awaits NASCAR Drivers in Rolex 24 at Daytona

Four NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series Champions Lead Stock Car Contingent Qualifying Lands Gordon's Team On Outside Pole, Johnson's Team Third-Fastest

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Jan. 25, 2007) -- Increasingly, it seems the world is coming to NASCAR.

This weekend, NASCAR returns the favor.

A contingent of stock-car stars that is both impressive and imposing has provided an additional boost to one of auto racing's true international spectacles -- the Rolex 24 at Daytona road race at Daytona International Speedway.

The Rolex 24 -- set to begin Saturday at 1:30 p.m. -- is the season-opening event for the Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series. Originally known as the 24 Hours of Daytona, its world-renowned history is rich.

Occasionally through the years, NASCAR has embellished that history, with various drivers getting personal "head starts" during Daytona's annual "Speedweeks" that culminates with the Daytona 500.

In the 1960s, Fireball Roberts, Joe Weatherly and Bobby Allison raced in the event.

In the 1970s, NASCAR NEXTEL Cup champions David Pearson and Benny Parsons were involved.

Two other champions, Terry Labonte and Darrell Waltrip, were entrants in the '80s.

In a particularly memorable pairing in 2001, seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were co-drivers on a Chevrolet Corvette team.

And last year, Casey Mears took NASCAR visibility in the Rolex 24 to a new level, becoming the first active NASCAR driver to win the event's overall championship, as he was part of a Daytona Prototype team that also featured former Indianapolis 500 champion Dan Wheldon of England.

This year, in a development reflecting the resurgence of sports car racing in America -- a resurgence personified by the Rolex 24 -- the race has perhaps its best-ever collective list of NASCAR names set to tackle Daytona's 3.56-mile road course encompassing both the high-banked tri-oval and a twisting infield excursion.

Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Bobby Labonte and Jimmie Johnson -- a group accounting for eight NASCAR NEXTEL Cup titles -- lead the way. They're joined by NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series veteran Bill Lester and three drivers from open-wheel racing who debuted in NASCAR last season: past Indy 500 champions Juan Pablo Montoya (2000) and Sam Hornish Jr. (2006) and former Champ Car standout AJ Allmendinger. Montoya and Allmendinger are slated for full-time duty this year in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series, while Hornish plans a limited NASCAR Busch Series schedule while also racing in the IndyCar Series.

Of that group, four-time NASCAR NEXTEL Cup titlist Gordon appears to have an especially good shot at following Mears' 2006 lead. Gordon, making his first Rolex 24 appearance, has chosen fast company for this debut; he's teamed with Max Angelelli of Monaco, Wayne Taylor of nearby Altamonte Springs, Fla. and Denmark's Jan Magnussen in the No. 10 SunTrust Pontiac Riley, one of the top rides in the headlining Daytona Prototype class. Angelelli and Taylor co-drove to the 2005 Rolex 24 victory and the co-championship of the series, as well.

"I think we have a great lineup; now I'm just trying to live up to my end of the deal," Gordon said during test sessions for the Rolex 24. "I feel like we really have the makings of what it takes to win this race. I just want to do my part to make sure I contribute enough to get us a victory."

Labonte, the 2000 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup champion, is set to co-drive the No. 19 Ford Crawford of Finlay Motorsports, also a Daytona Prototype entry. "This will be my third time in this race but I think it's the best shot I've had at visiting Victory Lane," said Labonte.

* * * * * * *

The first day of Rolex 24 qualifying was held Thursday, locking in the top 20 positions in each class. On Friday there will be another session; teams which qualified below 20th on Thursday can improve to as high on 21st on the overall grid.

On Thursday, the No. 10 SunTrust Pontiac Riley co-driven by Jeff Gordon qualified for the outside pole; Max Angelelli was at the wheel during qualifying. The No. 91 Lowe's Pontiac Riley co-driven by Jimmie Johnson qualified third, with Marc Goossens of Belgium driving.

-credit: nascar

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Series Grand-Am , NASCAR
Drivers Juan Pablo Montoya