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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted at 10:26 a.m., Sunday, January 27, 2008

Autos: Ganassi wins third Rolex 24-Hour in a row

AP Auto Racing Writer

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Chip Ganassi's guys are making this look easy.

The quartet of Juan Pablo Montoya, Dario Franchitti, Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas encountered no serious problems, giving Ganassi an unprecedented third straight victory in America's premier sports car race — the Rolex 24-Hour at Daytona International Speedway.

Other than a minor handling problem for Pruett at the start of the race Saturday afternoon, the team's No. 01 Lexus Riley Daytona Prototype was nearly perfect, racing at or near the lead in an event that was the most competitive in the 46-year history until the waning hours.

At dawn today, with about six hours to go, there were five other prototypes on the lead lap. But, as often happens in endurance events, attrition suddenly took its toll.

The Ganassi car had been swapping leads with the Ford Riley shared by NASCAR's A.J. Allmendinger, Ian James, Burt Frisselle and John Pew. That car, driven by Frisselle, was just seconds behind the leader when a tire blew, damaging the suspension midway through the 21st hour and knocking it out of contention.

Montoya, who had taken the wheel of the Ganassi car near the end of the 18th hour, had a comfortable five-lap lead on the 3.56-mile road circuit and his team was able to cruise the rest of the way. The race began with scattered rain showers and a treacherous track and ended on a warm, sunny afternoon.

The winning car was one of 10 prototypes that chose to pit during the pace lap to change from rain tires to slicks as the track dried. That meant Pruett, who started in the car, fell all the way to 18th. But it didn't take long for the eventual winner to get back into contention, running among the top five from the fifth hour on.

Pruett took over from Montoya for the last two hours on the way to becoming the winningest sports car driver at Daytona with his eighth victory — three overall wins and five others in lower classes.

A beaming Ganassi hugged all of the winning drivers and gave Pruett high-fives with both hands as he shouted "Unbelievable! This is amazing."

Pruett said, "We're just going to keep doing it as long as we can."

Montoya, who left Formula One late in 2006 to join Ganassi's NASCAR team, co-drove with road racing veterans Pruett and Salvador Duran to victory in the No. 01 last year. NASCAR rookie Franchitti, who won the IndyCar Series title last year, and Rojas both won here for the first time.

"It was pretty hard until the last stint," said Montoya, last year's top NASCAR rookie. "The No. 6 was tough until they had a problem and, after that, it was more just bringing the car home."

Ganassi, who also won a record four straight championships in the CART open-wheel series in the late '90s, got his first win here in 2006 with IndyCar stars Scott Dixon and Dan Wheldon combining with NASCAR's Casey Mears for a win in his No. 02 entry.

No other team has won three years in a row, but the late Peter Gregg owned and drove the cars that won three straight races from 1973 to 1976. The 1974 race was canceled because of a national gas crisis.

The latest edition of the 24-hour grind was easily the most competitive to date.

Fifteen different cars led, breaking the record of 11, set last year. Overall, there were 60 lead changes, 16 more than the record of 44 set in 2005.

In the end, though, the winning car led a race-high 252 of 695 laps, completing 2,460 miles and beating the runner-up Pontiac Riley co-driven by two-time defending NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson, former CART champion Jimmy Vasser and 2007 Rolex Grand-Am Series prototype champions Jon Fogarty and Alex Gurney by two laps. Johnson, who has raced in this event four times, also finished second in 2005.

Four more laps back in third was the Pontiac Riley co-driven by NASCAR champion Kurt Busch, two-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe.

For Ganassi, the only disappointment was the performance of the No. 02, shared by Dixon, Wheldon, Duran and Alex Lloyd.

"It seemed like that car caused half the caution flags out there," Ganassi said.

Duran had the fastest lap early in the race, but damaged the car when he went into the grass to avoid two of the slower GT class cars. He spun again later in the race and Lloyd was at the wheel when the badly damaged car spun a third time and retired late in the 18th hour.