Daytona buzzing over endurance race

Updated: February 4, 2005, 7:41 PM ET
Associated Press

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.''

Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press