Top 10 NASCAR moments in the Rolex 24
January 21, 2014, Holly Cain, NASCAR.com
NASCAR's best stock car drivers have always maintained a strong presence in sports car racing's season-opening, star-studded Rolex 24 at Daytona. NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champions from Bill Elliott and Dale Earnhardt to Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon and six-time champ Jimmie Johnson have made the twice around-the-clock event a priority on their bucket list.
It's an eclectic list of NASCAR competitors who have tried to earn a Rolex watch by testing their skills against the best road racers on the planet. However, the list of those stock car stars that actually earned a watch or hoisted a trophy may surprise fans.
Three Cup drivers -- 2010 Daytona 500 winner Jamie McMurray, rookie Kyle Larson and veteran AJ Allmendinger -- will give it a try this weekend, competing on the challenging 3.56-mile Daytona International Speedway course made up of the speedway's high-banks and infield's winding road course when Daytona Speedweeks' first official green flag drops Saturday afternoon.
Here are the top 10 NASCAR moments in the Rolex 24:
10. A pair of NASCAR champions from the 1980s -- future NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott (1988 Sprint Cup champ) and recently inducted Hall of Famer Rusty Wallace (1989 Cup champ) -- each added the renowned sports car race to their book of achievements. Their outcomes, however, differed greatly. Elliott won the GTO class in 1987, while Wallace -- who teamed with then-IndyCar driver Danica Patrick and sports car legends Allan McNish and Jan Lammers -- had to retire early in his only race entry in 2006 when his car overheated while running third overall.
9. When it comes to racing, there seems nothing that Kurt Busch won't try. So it was of little wonder that Busch, who has competed in an NHRA Pro Stock car, wanted to give sports cars a try in the sport's biggest race. He ran the 2005 Rolex 24, months after accepting the 2004 Sprint Cup Series trophy, finishing 15th in the DP class during his debut. He answered that showing with an impressive third place overall with the Penske Taylor Racing joint effort in 2008 teaming with three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe.
8. Four-time Cup champ Jeff Gordon is batting a thousand when it comes to Rolex 24 trophies. He teamed with sports car championship-winner Wayne Taylor Racing in 2007, co-driving with team owner Wayne Taylor, as well as sports car talents Max Angelelli and Jan Magnussen. The team finished on the podium (third place overall), giving Gordon a trophy in his only start.
7. Fans may not realize it, but six-time Sprint Cup Series champ Jimmie Johnson is a seven-time starter in the Rolex 24, with two runner-up finishes (in 2005 and 2008) driving a Pontiac. Perhaps the most newsworthy Rolex outing for Johnson had less to do with his driving talent than a freak accident, however. In 2009 he had to get stitches on the middle finger of his left hand after he cut himself trying to modify his driver's suit with a knife. He had healed by the time the Sprint Cup season started two weeks later, and went on to win his fourth NASCAR championship.
6. Three-time Cup champ Tony Stewart competed in five Rolex 24 races and twice finished in the top five, but the race that stands out for him -- and for fans -- occurred in 2004 when he teamed up with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and sports car champion Andy Wallace. In the 24th and final hour, with Stewart behind the wheel and the field solidly behind the car for the previous 17 hours, the left rear tire suddenly came off the rim nearly spinning Stewart into the wall with 17 minutes remaining. Because the car had held such a big lead, the trio still earned a podium position in third place in their group. Stewart equaled the finish the next year, though in less dramatic fashion.
5. Hall-of-Famer Dale Earnhardt only competed in the Rolex 24 one time, but his 2001 debut was worth his while. Teaming up with his son Dale Jr. and sports car veterans Andy Pilgrim and Kelly Collins, the group's No. 3 factory Corvette finished runner-up in the GTS category. Heavy and frequent rain tormented the competitors throughout the two days of racing, but Pilgrim insisted that the seven-time champ Earnhardt was as quick as his experienced teammates after only a couple stints on the challenging track. Pilgrim fondly recalls a moment on the podium while the drivers were awaiting their trophy, when Earnhardt leaned over to him and whispered, "Second sucks, don't it, son?"
4. Fan favorite Mark Martin has come heartbreakingly close to winning the Daytona 500, but the certain NASCAR Hall-of-Famer owned Daytona International Speedway's Victory Lane in the 1990s, winning four GT class titles for Ford Racing in the Rolex 24. Perhaps the most memorable victory came in 1995 when he co-drove with Academy Award-winning actor Paul Newman and sports car veterans Tommy Kendall and Michael Brockman. The Ford Mustang wore No. 70 in honor of Newman's age and he became the oldest winner in the event's history, taking the title for the GTS-1 class.
3. In 2012, only weeks before he would make his debut as driver of Penske Racing’s No. 22 in the Sprint Cup Series, AJ Allmendinger helped underdog Michael Shank Racing pull one of the biggest upsets in Rolex 24 history, beating factory-backed teams to earn first place overall in the 50th anniversary of the event.
2. One-time Sprint Cup winner Casey Mears wisely joined sports car's mighty Ganassi Racing team for the 2006 Rolex 24 and promptly made history as the first full-time NASCAR driver to win overall.
1. A year after Mears' win with the team, Juan Pablo Montoya helped Ganassi continue the historic theme through the following two years (2007-08). Not only did the former Cup Rookie of the Year Montoya become the first NASCAR driver to win multiple Rolex 24 titles, but Ganassi's stellar driver lineup made the team the first -- and only -- to win three consecutive Rolex 24 titles.