DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Chip Ganassi Racing was on its way to reclaiming the 24 Hours of Daytona title, with Juan Pablo Montoya leading more than seven hours into the sports car endurance race Saturday night.
Montoya powered past Lucas Luhr on the outside of the slippery track after a restart on the 169th lap. He deftly guided the No. 02 BMW Riley with clean and crisp moves on Daytona International Speedway's infield twists that had been pelted with rain early, causing cautions and skid outs.
Montoya's teammates and fellow Indianapolis 500 champions Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon held the lead for a combined 123 laps through seven hours. They considered their start a big accomplishment under the conditions.
"The track is quite tricky, especially getting up to speed with cold tires," Franchitti said. "And then once you do get up to speed, you have to be really careful because it's only one lane out there in a lot of parts. But the car seems pretty quick. I'm quite happy right now."
There were eight cars on the lead lap.
Alex Gurney was in second when he handed off to teammate and four-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson for Gainsco/Bob Stallings Racing after about three hours. Johnson kept them in contention, and Jimmy Vasser pushed them in the lead for three laps before pitting. Vasser was in eighth after more than seven hours.
Even being so close, so early was a big move for the No. 99 car, which started last among the Daytona Prototypes after Johnson crashed the car earlier in the week and the team missed qualifying. The telemetry wasn't working for most of Johnson's ride -- it was later fixed -- so he drove conservatively under the lights on the damp track.
"I wasn't going to wreck the car on my watch," Johnson said. "I've done that once this week."
But it was Ganassi making all the noise again.
The organization had three straight wins in the prestigious endurance race until finishing second last year in the closest finish in the event's history. Ganassi drivers weren't wasting any time coming back this year.
Dixon broke away from the pack with some tight zigging and zagging on the narrow infield road course. He avoided spinouts -- unlike some drivers -- when the track was still soaked early, and he and his teammates didn't lose ground on the straightaways to other Daytona Prototypes as Ganassi did a year ago.
"In my opinion it's a better car than we had last year, and probably better than when we won it in '08," Franchitti said. "It's more competitive."
Other drivers tested the wet track too early.
There were 10 cautions, including at the start with rain still falling, before the green flag was waved five laps into the race. Ricardo Zonta held a brief lead until he hit a turn too fast, braked too hard trying to recover and spun out into the tire wall like so many others in the back.
"The first three laps were extremely difficult. It was very hard to put the power down and have any kind of hope to keep the grip," said Patrick Dempsey, who had the No. 40 car in the pack of the other GTs. "It was certainly great television and fun to watch."
But there still was plenty of time to catch up.
That alone was enough for the 44-car field -- that included 29 of the slower GT class cars -- to keep hope alive. The 3.56-mile road course that encompasses about three-fourths of the NASCAR oval was starting to dry, then a quick shower sprinkled the track again about five hours into the race.
The flat infield course still had a few puddles and was perhaps the most difficult to navigate, especially with Daytona Prototypes trying to weave around the GT cars.
"On some of those restarts," Gurney said, "guys weren't starting like it was 24 hours."
Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press
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