Different genres serve as teaching tools for Cup drivers
Michael Waltrip has rubbed fenders with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson.
Next week, the two-time Daytona 500 winner will rub shoulders with the greats of another genre as he and 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship runner-up Clint Bowyer team up in the Rolex 24. The sports car season-opener takes place Jan. 26-27 at Daytona International Speedway.
“It’s more about the experience in my eyes, getting to learn and drive a different car and meet and compete against drivers from all over the world that you’ve always heard about,’’ said Waltrip, who mentioned Allan McNish and Hurley Haywood as some of the great sports car champions he has looked forward to competing alongside. “It’s unique and it’s fun and you actually sort of get used to being able to battle side by side with them. It’s really rewarding to be able to match skills.”
"It was just more than a dirt racer from Kansas could pass up."
-- Michael Waltrip, on Clint Bowyer joining his Rolex 24 team
Although Waltrip has recently competed in several sports car events around the world -- including the famed 24 Hours of LeMans -- this will be only his second appearance in the Rolex 24.
He will again co-drive a GT-class Ferrari with his NASCAR team co-owner Rob Kauffman. Portuguese sports car veteran Rui Aguas and Bowyer will join them, making their team debut in the event.
The idea took a little while to sink in for Bowyer, who initially balked at the chance. Waltrip then offered the seat to his close friend, Sprint Cup driver Denny Hamlin, only to have Bowyer change his mind and call him back asking for the opportunity.
“I think the more Clint thought about it, the more he wanted to be a part of it,’’ said Waltrip, who had to call Hamlin back and explain that Bowyer was a go after all.
“It was just him (Bowyer) thinking about how cool it would be to be in Daytona, racing the road course, something that he had never done before, and driving the Ferrari for 24 hours. It was just more than a dirt racer from Kansas could pass up.”
And it apparently has not taken long for that dirt racer to get up to speed. In the Rolex test session earlier this month, Waltrip said Bowyer was turning laps every bit as fast as the competition.
“There were cars that were faster than me, and that’s something that was new for me,” Bowyer said with a smile, referring to the quicker Daytona Prototype class.
“But it was a lot of fun to be able to drive with both bosses. I’m looking forward to the race and hanging out with the guys for a long time.
“Twenty-four hours is a long time to stay focused. There’s going to be plenty of product (his Cup sponsor 5-Hour Energy) in the 24-hour race that I will be using.”
Testing themselves outside their comfort zone is often a reason NASCAR drivers have run the Rolex, which has drawn top drivers from Formula One and IndyCar.
Five-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson competed in seven Rolex 24 races. Three-time Sprint Cup champ Tony Stewart has raced in five. Former Cup champions Jeff Gordon, Rusty Wallace and Terry Labonte have also run the race.
The first NASCAR full-time driver to win overall in the Rolex 24 was Casey Mears, who co-drove a Chip Ganassi-owned prototype with IndyCar champs Scott Dixon and the late Dan Wheldon to victory in 2006.
Since then, Ganassi’s Sprint Cup driver Juan Pablo Montoya has taken two overall titles (2007, 2008) and is entered again this year, along with Ganassi driver and 2010 Daytona 500 winner Jamie McMurray.
AJ Allmendinger won last year and will be back defending his title, co-driving with Cup standout Marcos Ambrose.
With so many of NASCAR’s best choosing to compete in the Rolex 24, Waltrip has discovered a mutual interest and respect among drivers of the varied racing backgrounds.
“Whether it’s other drivers or the fans that I’ve been able to fortunately run across in my travels across the world racing these cars, the way they love NASCAR and appreciate what we do over here, that means the world to me,’’ Waltrip said. “It’s been fun for me to see Clint get to experience how much people from all over the world and all types of different disciplines of racing really love NASCAR and what we do.”