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Rolex 24 Gives Stockers Chance To Do Road Work

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Thursday, January 27 2011

The GAINSCO Grand-Am team of Jon Fogarty, Jimmie Johnson, Bob Stallings and Alex Gurney. (Photo courtesy of the Rolex Grand-Am Series)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor

The word “fun” gets wide use by stock-car and open-wheel drivers who cross over to the world of sportscar-racing at this time of year. Ask them why they are competing in the Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway, and they usually work that word in.

But for some of those cross-pollinators, it is not just fun they are chasing. Their motives are much more strategic. They are participating to work on their craft. They are doing it to get better at their day jobs.

Jimmie Johnson may best personify this practice. And he may be the best at taking advantage of it.

Heading into the 2010 NASCAR season, Johnson had started 17 Sprint Cup races on road courses. Johnson, the winner of 47 Cup events from 2001 through 2009, had zero victories on the twisties. Zero at Infineon. Zero at Watkins Glen.

But the last four years years, Johnson has opted to drive in the Rolex. For fun, yes. But, with two important, championship points-paying races on the Sprint Cup schedule every year, for more tangible reasons as well.

Last June at Infineon in Northern California, Johnson qualified second fastest of the 43 starters and then went on to win the race.

In the months since, he has been quick to tell people that driving for the Bob Stallings-owned GAINSCO Grand-Am Series team helped him get that victory.

“I do feel driving this (Daytona Prototype) does help me grow as a driver,” Johnson said recently. “I

Jimmie Johnson and fellow Rolex 24 driver/actor, Patrick Dempsey. (Photo courtesy of the Rolex Grand-Am Series)

think running with Bob (Stallings) and these guys the last few years has made me a better road course racer and I was finally able to get my first road course win out in Sonoma.”

Johnson will be back in the GAINSCO car this weekend for the 2011 Rolex 24. He will again be sharing driving duties in the Chevrolet powered Riley Daytona Prototype with Grand-Am regulars Alex Gurney and Jon Fogarty.

Different this year, however, will be the number of co-drivers on the team. There will just be the three instead of four.

While racing sports cars on road courses is not the five-time Cup champion’s main focus, it is a focus. Has been for a long time, he said.

“I’d say the bottom line to it is I love road course racing,” Johnson said after the breakthrough Infineon victory. “I always have. I grew up racing off-road trucks, they were on road courses with jumps. Made a name for myself in that style of racing.

“To come into the Cup Series and not have success early irritated me. Chad (Knaus, his Cup crew chief) in general, if there’s a track on the schedule, doesn’t matter what design it is, if that’s our weak spot, he’s going make it better. So we kind of got in this routine of road course, road course, road course.

“That’s why today is so special to us, why it has meant so much. I just truly enjoy road course racing, doesn’t matter if it’s our stock cars, the Grand-Am Series I run in. I’d love to run in an IndyCar someday, F1. The test that Jeff did was insane. Hopefully somebody watching can set that up for me.”

Gurney and Fogarty raced the GAINSCO car 11 times as a duet a year ago. About that many times the

Jamie McMurray will be going for another win at Daytona in this weekend's 24-hour race. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)

year before and the year before that. One time each year, Johnson drops in.

Gurney was asked this week if he views the Cup big shot as an interloper or a member of the team. The latter, he said.

“Oh, absolutely he is” a valued teammate, Gurney, a two-time Grand-Am champion and the son of American racing legend Dan Gurney, said. “He’s a team player and just a very nice guy in the end.  Surprisingly open and down-to-earth.  From what you might – from what it might seem from the outside, you know, a guy that’s won so much and become such a star is just very down-to-earth.\

“So he gets the job done in the car.  He takes very little time to get up to speed.  Seems good in all conditions including the rain.  So, great communicator, and been pretty obvious to us why he wins so much. You know, we think he can do it in our team, as well.”

This weekend, the field for the 24 will once again be packed with big name drivers from other racing series.

Prototype drivers from NASCAR include Juan Pablo Montoya, Jamie McMurray, A.J. Allmendinger, Michael McDowell, Colin Braun and Max Papis.

From the IndyCar Series there is defending champion Dario Franchitti, Scott Dixon, Graham Rahal,

Juan Pablo Montoya will take a spin in a sports car this weekend. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Ryan Briscoe and Justin Wilson.

While all will be attempting to take money out of the pockets of regular Grand-Am drivers like champions Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas of the Chip Ganassi with Felix Sabates team, Gurney opened his arms to the interlopers.

“We actually love it,” Gurney, who will be looking for his first 24 victory, said. “I think as a whole all, I think all of the drivers love it.  If nothing else, we get to compare ourselves against great talent and internationally-recognized talent.

“So that’s a nice thing for us to be able to say that, you know, that we were there and we can stand up against those guys and join them in the race.”

Johnson will be attempting join yet another elite club this weekend. If he wins, he will become just the third driver to have won the Daytona 500 and the Rolex 24. The others are Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt.

“I’m excited for the race,” Johnson, who has twice finished second in the 24, said. “I certainly hope to make three guys that won the 500 that have gone on to win the Rolex 24. We have been awfully close. This year, the team has worked awfully hard again to get us in position and hopefully we learn some more this afternoon and tomorrow and come back buttoned up and ready to go.”

McMurray can also join that club this year as he was the winner of last year’s Daytona 500.

Foyt the two existing members of the club are just happy to see drivers like McMurray and Johnson show breadth of talent.

“I don’t want anyone else in the club besides Mario – let it just be the open-wheel guys, no NASCAR guys,” Foyt joked recently. “No …  really … I always felt that records are meant to be broken. I think it’s great that they’re racing more than stock cars. I always tried to do that in my Indy car career.”

Andretti said,  “It’s great to see drivers interested in different disciplines of racing, and I admire them. That’s part of my career that’s given me tremendous satisfaction. I’m with those guys 100 percent. It’s wonderful that they’re doing it, and I respect them tremendously because of that.”

The race is scheduled to start at 3 p.m. Eastern on Saturday.

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

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Thursday, January 27 2011
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