Montoya, Preutt defend Daytona 24H title

NASCAR Around The Clock Tenuous Teammates No Longer, Juan Pablo Montoya, Scott Pruett Return For Rolex 24 At Daytona Title Defense DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Jan. 24, 2008) -- As the countdown clock inexorably marched toward the start of last year's...

NASCAR Around The Clock
Tenuous Teammates No Longer, Juan Pablo Montoya, Scott Pruett Return For Rolex 24 At Daytona Title Defense

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Jan. 24, 2008) -- As the countdown clock inexorably marched toward the start of last year's Rolex 24 at Daytona, Juan Pablo Montoya was answering a question about his teams' chances in the Daytona International Speedway race at when he paused in mid-sentence.

Perhaps realizing he was precariously close to all but predicting an outright Rolex 24 win, the confident driver shifted gears ever so slightly and began his answer anew.

"It would probably be very nice if you could win the (Rolex) 24 before the (Daytona) 500 and then come out of here with the 500 and with the 24-hour win," Montoya said. "It would be pretty cool."

"But you can't really say you're going to win it before you even start it. So far everything looks pretty good."

In a matter of days it looked far better than "pretty good" for the former Indianapolis 500 champion as well as his co-drivers -- 2004 Rolex Series driving champion Scott Pruett and Salvador Duran -- as the trio's No. 01 Telmex/Target Lexus Riley Daytona Prototype captured the Rolex 24 victory on the 3.56-mile DIS road course.

Montoya and Pruett are back again to defend their title and this time are joined by another former Indy 500 titlist who, like Montoya, has shifted to NASCAR racing -- Dario Franchitti. Memo Rojas completes the four-man team.

The Rolex 24 win got the 2007 season off to a great start for the Chip Ganassi Racing With Felix Sabates organization and in particular for Montoya, who in previous months had been criticized by those who thought the Columbian-born driver erred by leaving Formula One in favor of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.

As a driver for whom motorsports success is a part of everyday expectations -- if by no one other than himself -- winning had nonetheless proved elusive for the seven-race Formula One winner after his jump to stock cars in late 2006.

Starting the 2007 season with a win in one of racing's most prestigious events was all the more gratifying to the driver and his team owners, especially after their last-chance hopes for his scoring a 2006 NASCAR Sprint Cup win literally went up in smoke a couple of months earlier when his car caught fire shortly after the start of Homestead-Miami Speedway's season-ending Ford 400.

The Rolex 24 got Montoya on a roll, and the following week he kept on rolling -- this time on DIS' 2.5-mile tri-oval -- by scoring his first NASCAR Nationwide Series race pole. Momentum slowed somewhat as Montoya finished 40th in the NASCAR Nationwide Series' Orbitz 300, followed the next day with an 18th in the Daytona 500. Two weeks later, though, he was in Victory Lane in Mexico City, winning a NASCAR Nationwide Series event -- his first NASCAR victory, which he followed up with a June victory in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at Infineon Raceway.

Those two road-course wins fueled Montoya's march to the Raybestos Rookie of the Year title. Now, a year later, his switch to NASCAR looks completely plausible.

And that turnaround in perception can perhaps be traced to the early-season boost provided by his sports car win last year at Daytona.

Though a Rolex 24 win is a notable and very rare achievement for a sports car racer, Pruett's 2007 overall victory with Montoya and Duran put him in an elite group of drivers having two or more wins in the race. And like Montoya, Pruett's resume is varied; he has won five other major racing championships along with his 2004 Rolex Series driving crown.

Pruett also has chased success in NASCAR Sprint Cup racing. A full-time ride in 2000 ended before the season's end. Since, Pruett's NASCAR appearances have been only at road races, such as last year at Mexico City where his primary focus was on the weekend's Rolex Series event.

Saying "thanks" to Pruett for his work ethic and team loyalty, Ganassi and Sabates loaded up a second NASCAR Nationwide Series car for Pruett, again making him and Montoya teammates. Montoya and Pruett ended up battling for the win, producing one of the NASCAR Nationwide Series' most historic -- and controversial -- races.

Pruett and Montoya clearly had the field's top cars that day. Leading on a caution-flag restart with eight laps to go, Pruett was on the point with Montoya behind and closing fast as the field hurtled head-long into the first turn.

Montoya, two wheels in the grass, had drawn partly alongside Pruett by the middle of the turn. It was at that point that perceptions about what was transpiring started differing dramatically -- so much so, that NASCAR would later hand down a ruling upholding a move by Montoya that included a bump and resulted in a victory.

Post-race, Pruett expressed his displeasure over the late-race contact. Meantime, Montoya repeatedly apologized in Victory Lane.

Montoya's crew chief Brad Parrott was conflicted, saying, "I'm happy we won but I'm upset that we wrecked Scott."

Chip Ganassi, Felix Sabates and team director Mike Hull were left speechless, happy to see one of their guys win, sad to see one of their guys lose.

"What can I say?" Pruett would ask rhetorically at the Rolex Series' next race. "I felt like it was a bad deal for me primarily because I don't like to lose.

"At the end of that race I wasn't remotely interested in being Juan Pablo's teammate; couldn't believe we'd just won the Rolex 24 as teammates and then have that happen in Mexico City.

"But time has a wonderful way of putting things in perspective and I'm no longer even close to being upset with Juan Pablo. I'm a professional; Juan Pablo's a professional. We drive to our maximum physical ability and, when we reach our physical thresholds, give it all we can emotionally."

-credit: nascar

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Drivers Juan Pablo Montoya
Teams Chip Ganassi Racing