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Rolex Has Grip On NASCAR Boys

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Tuesday, January 26 2010
Jamie McMurray takes laps at Daytona in Chip Ganassi's Grand-Am car. (Photo courtesy of the Grand-Am Series)

Jamie McMurray takes laps at Daytona in Chip Ganassi's Grand-Am car. (Photo courtesy of the Grand-Am Series)

Several years back, well after that point when upward-zipping NASCAR had passed downward-spiraling IndyCars on the American racing-popularity charts, open-wheeler Greg Ray was asked his thoughts on that subject.

Specifically why, Ray was queried, were drivers scuttling life-long dreams of open-wheel stardom to get into bigger, heavier and slower stock cars?

Ray needed zero time to ponder that one. “Because,” he said, “racers like to be where the action is.”

This week, the action is at the infield road course of Daytona International Speedway. That’s where the Rolex 24 Grand-Am sports car race will take place and a look at the lineup of drivers for the event proves Ray’s point.

As usual, top drivers from all over the world will be competing in the twice-around-the-clock event, and, as is becoming usual, many of those will be from NASCAR.

Veteran Sprint Cup driver Jamie McMurray is one of those who will be in this year’s field – which will take the green flag on Saturday afternoon – and he picked up on Ray’s theme when asked why.

“I’m doing this because I want to do it,” McMurray said, “and it’s fun.”

This year, McMurray will be joined in the field by reigning four-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, A.J. Allmndinger, Paul Menard, Max Papis, Juan Pablo Montoya, Colin Braun and Bobby Labonte.

In the past, drivers like Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch have participated.

McMurray will be driving a BMW-powered Riley prototype for owner Chip Ganassi. He will be teaming up with three Indianapolis 500 winners in Montoya, Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon.

McMurray waved off questions about driving in the 24 to shake off the rust after the off season or because it might help him improve on his road racing skills in Cup.

“I’m not necessarily doing this to make myself better for the Sprint Cup racing, though I don’t think it hurts to do more road races,” McMurray said. “This is such a different type of race. It’s about staying on the track and just kind of putting in consistent lap times, not necessarily the fastest lap times. Then racing with the GT cars, there is such a discrepancy in pace that you spend most of the race kind of judging how you’re going to time out those passes. So it’s a lot different of a race.

“Really I’m doing it just because I want to, and I think it’s fun more than anything.”

McMurray will be back in the 24 for the first time in five years.

Allmendinger has become a Rolex fixture. This will be his fifth straight 24.

His reasons for competing are about the same as McMurray’s.

“Just getting in the Grand-Am car, especially 24 hours of Daytona there at the Rolex, it’s just a great way to kick off the year,” Allmendinger said. “And especially being at Daytona, it kind of leads into the Daytona 500. And it’s really one of those things that for me as a driver I look at there’s four or five races, if you could only have those five races on your resume as winning, Daytona 500, the Indy 500, and F1 it’s Monaco. And in sports car racing, it’s Le Mans and Daytona.

“Those races, if you could have it on your resume as a victory, that’s what you want to do. And for me to be able to kick off the season at Daytona, it kind of rolls into the Daytona 500. And more than anything for me it’s just a fun race to be a part of.”

Allmendinger will be racing for Michael Shank Racing this weekend.

Before defecting to NASCAR a couple years back, Allmendinger made his living as a winning road racer as he had a steady ride in the Champ Car series.

He said that background, too, makes racing in the 24 a pleasurable experience.

“When I come back I get in that open wheel mindset,” Allmendinger said. “I wish we ran more road courses on the Cup car. They’re a lot of fun on the road courses to drive. But still I’ll never lie to anybody: I miss Champ Car racing. Driving those types of cars were like nothing any other person could experience except the ones that got in there.

“And the Grand-Am cars, although not like a Champ Car in that sense, they’re just a lot of fun to drive. So it allows me to get back to my road racing background. And it’s kind of halfway true the fact that when I come back I always got the little nervousness that maybe I’ve lost a little something on the road courses or that it’s kind of slipping away because I spend a lot of time on the oval.”

While it’s true that drivers like McMurray and Johnson and Stewart are interlopers when it comes to the Rolex 24, it is also true they are not treated as such.

For the most part, they are welcomed by the regular drivers.

“I think for the series” Scott Pruett, an eight-time winner of the 24 and also a former Cup driver, said, “not only you know when you get guys like Jamie and Juan and Scott Dixon and Jimmie Johnson and some of the other guys, there are a lot of people who may not see our series or may not pay attention to our series that much. They’ll be reviewing it more. We’re seeing that every year. More exposure and more coverage and more excitement.

“With a lot of the series kind of on the downward sort of growth in 2009. We saw pretty much across the board with spectators and with TV ratings on the way up. It just shows that our series is in growth. And these opportunities to bring in other drivers from other series who bring their own group of followers and fans is nothing but a great time.”

The 2010 event begins on Wednesday when team haulers are allowed into the Daytona infield.

Practice is scheduled for Thursday and Friday.

The race is scheduled to begin at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Tuesday, January 26 2010
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