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Rolex Notes: Mystery Stop Costs Ganassi

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, January 31 2010
Hurley Haywood out of the car at Daytona – for good. (Photo courtesy of Grand-Am Series)

Hurley Haywood out of the car at Daytona – for good. (Photo courtesy of Grand-Am Series)

Daytona Beach, Fla. – Chip Ganassi has won the Rolex 24 too many times to be happy about finishing second.

But for the second straight year, that’s exactly where one of his two entries wound up, with the No. 01 BMW Riley Daytona Prototype finishing on the lead lap just 52.303 seconds behind the winning Porsche Riley, thanks to a mystery stop late in the race.

“It’s a good start to the season,” Ganassi said. “I guess we’ll be second in the championship. It’s disappointing, but we’re certainly glad to be in it. It’s a great race, grueling and a lot of work.”

The second-place car was co-driven by three-time Daytona overall champion Scott Pruett, his regular Rolex Sports Car Series partner Memo Rojas, Max Papis and Justin Wilson.

They were in and out of the lead throughout the race and could easily have been celebrating a victory if not for Wilson, a newcomer to the team, driving the car to the garage with about 2 1/2 hours left after apparently hearing and feeling something strange as he came out of the chicane on the backstretch of the 3.56-mile circuit.

“It was very strange and very frustrating,” said Wilson, an IndyCar regular who was in the lead before he drove to the garage on lap 624 of 755. “As I came out of the bus stop chicane I just felt what to me felt like a small explosion in the car. The car shook around. There was a bit of a rattle after that and I was wondering whether it was a wheel bearing or if I’d blown a front tire. I couldn’t work it out.

“You’ve got about 5 seconds to decide, do I do another lap or do I go into the pits. If I do another lap and it is a blown tire, we’ll probably lose the body work. They just said go straight to the garage. … It’s just disappointing to just have to hand it over like that, but it’s part of racing.”

The 01 crew scrambled to the garage to see if the car could be fixed and found nothing wrong, quickly sending Wilson back on track. But the stop was the deciding moment of the race for the 01 and the 9, which both had virtually flawless runs.

Ganassi, whose team won three straight races here from 2006-2008, was asked if losing because of that stop was a bitter pill to swallow?

He refused to place the blame on Wilson.

“A bitter pill is the 02 car that’s in the garage,” Ganassi said, referring to the second team car, co-driven by IndyCar stars Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon and NASCAR stars Juan Pablo Montoya and Jamie McMurray. That car went went out with a blown engine in the 13th hour while leading the race. “You win as a team and you don’t win as a team. Whatever calls are made, those are the ones we live with and we take the good with the bad.”

Pruett, who has five class victories to go with those three overall titles here, called it a tough 24 hours.

“We had just one little miscue,” he said. “The (winning) 09 car they ran great, but you can’t flower it up. I mean, it’s like ARGGGHH. It’s hearbreaking. It really is because we’ve been up on top of the podium, because that’s the way that Ganassi rolls. If you’re not up on top, it’s just not where you want to be.”

The third-place BMW Riley of IndyCar driver Ryan Hunter-Reay, Scott Tucker, Christophe Bouchut, Lucas Luhr and Richard Westbrook finished four laps behind the leaders and had its own strange story.

“We had a problem with our seatbelt, with a piece of tape getting tangled up in it and costing us probably two laps,” Hunter-Reay said. “It’s amazing that something as simple as the belts can holdyou out of the race.”

Westbrook said another, perhaps bigger, problem was a lack of straightaway speed.

“We maybe could have stayed on the lead lap without the seatbelt problem, but we probably didn’t have enough overall speed to win.”

Hunter-Reay agreed, saying, “I don’t think we passed anybody on the straightaways all day.”

BY THE NUMBERS: Here’s a few final stats from the Rolex 24:

* The winning car covered 755 laps, or 2,687.80 miles. That’s the second most laps/miles completed in the race.

* The victory margin of 52.303 seconds was the third closest in this race.

*  Joao Barbosa of Portugal, who teamed with Terry Borcheller, Mike Rockenfeller and Ryan Dalziel for the win, led 129 laps, the most in the Daytona Prototype class. Teammate Rockenfeller, from Germany, was next with 113 laps led, with Scotsman Dalziel third with 73.

* The winners led the final 92 laps, including the final 59 by Barbosa.

*  There was a total of 16 full-course caution flags for a 74 laps, but none in the last 163 laps.

* Thirteen different cars led the race and there were a record 53 lead changes, tying the 2009 race as the second most in race history.

CHAMP BELTED: The Chevrolet Riley co-driven by NASCAR’s Jimmie Johnson, former CART champion Jimmy Vasser and road racing stars Jon Fogarty and Alex Gurney was sidelined with just over two hours remaining in the Rolex 24 on Sunday at Daytona International Speedway.

“We lost a belt on the oil pump and, when that happens, it’s only a matter of time until the engine is done,” explained Kyle Brannan, team manager for GAINSCO/Bob Stallings Racing.

That ended a very difficult week for Johnson and the No. 99 team. The problems began Thursday when Johnson crashed the car during practice and only intensified in the race as a series of mechanical problems kept slowing the car. Vasser was in the wheel and in 10th place when the engine quit for good.

Johnson’s private jet was spotted flying out of the adjoining Daytona Beach International Airport just minutes after the car was declared out of the race.

OUT AND OVER: The race was over for Hurley Haywood’s car, thanks to a blown engine, shortly after the five-time Rolex 24 winner ended his day with a strong stint in the Brumos Racing Porsche Riley.

The difference, though, is that the car will race again. Haywood will no longer race as a professional.

The 61-year-old racing icon says this was his last race as a pro driver, ending a sparkling career that also included three victories in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, four wins in the Sebring 12 Hours and an 18th-place finish in the 1980 Indianapolis 500.

“I’m still going to race vintage cars and be part of the management team (for Brumos). Everybody’s going to still see me,” Haywood said. “I’m not going away.”

The finish of the emotional race was disappointing for the longtime sports car ace.

“It’s not the way I wanted to end my career, but I can feel proud of the team,” he said. “It was a great effort.”

The No. 59 Porsche fell about 20 laps off the pace early with a broken axle and wound up finishing 19th when something in the engine broke with Raphael Matos at the wheel.

Most of the focus throughout the race was on Haywood, ending a professional career that began right here in Daytona in 1969.

“Most of the time, I wasn’t thinking about it, but there was more emotion when I knew getting in (the car) this would be my final professional stint,” Haywood said. “When I got into the pits, everybody was crying. It was more emotional for them, I guess.”

But Haywood did have some real fun during that last professional stint, racing for several laps with NASCAR star Jimmie Johnson and turning his fastest lap of the race on his final trip around the 3.56-mile circuit.

“The guys are Brumos are NASCAR fans and they wanted me to see if I could stay with Jimmie out there,” Haywood said. “I was able to get on his tail. It was a pleasure to race with him on my final lap.”

STRANGE WEATHER: Throughout the 48 years that this race has been run, weather has often played a major part. But the weather may have changed more from start to finish this year than any other time.

The race began – for the first time – with rain falling and the yellow flag displayed for the first six laps. Because of the gray skies and no helping sunshine, the track stayed wet for a very long time, forcing a lot of one-lane racing. But at least the temperature was comfortable, hovering in the low 70s in the early going.

By the time the sun came up Sunday, the temperature had dropped into the high 40s and the 12 mph wind, with gusts up to 25, made it feel a lot colder.

“The conditions have been tough out there the whole race,” said Ryan Dalziel, driving the No. 9 Porsche Riley that was leading late in the race. “But, at least it was more comfortable in the car with the cooler temperatures.”

GAS STARVED: Former NASCAR champion Bobby Labonte was happy to get out of the TRG Porsche Sunday morning after running out of fuel on track and having to be pushed back to the pits.

“I’ve seen enough of the infield,” Labonte said when asked if he wanted to get back in the car before the end of the race.

The Sprint Cup star explained that the reserve fuel button was somehow turned on when he left the pits.

“When I was out of fuel, I was out of fuel,” Labonte said. “I don’t know how the button got turned on. I’m not even sure where it is.”

And he isn’t the first Labonte to run out of gas in this race. Brother Terry, co-driving a GTO class Pontiac in 1984, ran out of fuel in the infield in the middle of the night.

Back then, the driver was responsible for retrieving the gas or fixing the car when it was out on the track. The eventual two-time Sprint Cup champion had to climb a fence and dash through the infield to get a can of gas. He even got chased by a dog on the way. But Terry managed to get the gas, get the car restarted and he and car owner Billy Hagan and Gene Felton wound up winning their class.

“Terry warned me about the infield,” Bobby said.

– Mike Harris can be reached at mharris@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, January 31 2010