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Daytona buzzing over endurance race

2/4/2005

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The cars are exotic and the engines
whine rather than growl. It's sports car time at Daytona.

And this year, the Rolex 24 seems somewhat like a stock car race
rather than an endurance event.

At least part of the reason for the added excitement at the
traditional opening of Daytona's Speed Weeks this weekend is a
lineup that includes nine NASCAR Nextel Cup stars as well as top
drivers from the Champ Car World Series and the IndyCar Series.

"It's a lot of fun,'' said 2003 Cup champion Matt Kenseth,
making his debut in a sports car. "You come here and feel like a
rookie. I never even knew where the road course was here.''

Part of the 3.56-mile circuit will be very familiar to the
NASCAR drivers, who will race here in two weeks in the Daytona 500.
The road course uses three-fourths of the 2½-mile, high-banked
oval, then snakes through the infield.

Kenseth will drive a Ford Multimatic Daytona Prototype, sharing
the ride with two Roush Racing teammates, Cup champion Kurt Busch
and Greg Biffle. They're joined by Canadian sports car ace Scott
Maxwell.

"The biggest thing for us is to come here and have fun,'' said
Busch, also a sports car newcomer. "We're going to have a team
meeting later today to get to understand more about a 24-hour
scenario. But, really, we're going to learn as we go.''

Biffle appeared the most excited of the Roush trio.

"Every time I get in the car, I get faster,'' he said. "I
really can't wait for the green flag. I'm really enjoying this
experience.''

Other NASCAR regulars entered in the 24-hour race are Jimmie
Johnson, Jamie McMurray, Casey Mears, Bobby Labonte, Terry Labonte,
a class champion here in 1984; and Tony Stewart, whose team was
leading last year with 20 minutes to go before a broken suspension
part cost it the victory.

Also in the lineup are Champ Car World Series champion Sebastien
Bourdais and former series champions Paul Tracy and Cristiano da
Matta, as well as IRL stars Scott Dixon, Dan Wheldon, Dario
Franchitti, Darren Manning and Bryan Herta.

Tracy and German driver Ralf Kelleners join defending champions
Terry Borcheller, Christian Fittipaldi and Forest Barber in the
Pontiac-powered Doran prototype that won here last February.

"I'm very fortunate to join a team that has so much experience
and a real chance to win the race,'' Tracy said. "I did this once
before, in the `80s, but I hardly remember it, so it's like being
all new again. I'm really looking forward to the race.''

For the Grand American Rolex Series regulars, the chance to
compete against the best of the rest in American racing is a real
treat.

Scott Pruett and Max Papis, who shared the Daytona Prototype
championship last season, said they are delighted with the all-star
lineup for the twice-around-the-clock race that begins Saturday at
noon.

"It just brings more spotlight on us and on where the series is
going,'' said Pruett, who will start from the pole in a Lexus
Riley, one of the record 29 Daytona Prototypes entered here. "It's
a little different thing for them to do because you're dealing with
three other guys in your car.

"For a lot of these guys, I know that's a little different than
they're used to. But I think it's awesome to have these guys
here.''

Papis, who has changed teams this season, is impressed by depth
and diversity of the 62-car field.

"I think this is the largest number of champions ever to run in
the 24 hours,'' Papis said. "It's going to be really cool because
I've watched these guys on TV a lot of times and now I'm going to
have the opportunity to run really close to them.''