Drivers gear up for this year's Rolex 24
January 22, 2014, Holly Cain, NASCAR.com
Jamie McMurray, Kyle Larson and AJ Allmendinger among NASCAR drivers looking forward to the elite event
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- For the better part of the last 25 years, NASCAR's biggest names, most celebrated champions and most popular drivers have eagerly entered American sports car racing's biggest event, the Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway.
Drivers from Dale Earnhardt and Jimmie Johnson to Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch have readily accepted the challenge to share the cockpit of unfamiliar cars with new teammates competing against world-renowned drivers of nearly every other racing genre. Quite often, it's meant enduring heavy rain and freezing temperatures while adjusting to the ultimate all-nighter in this twice-around-the-clock event around both Daytona's high banks and infield road course.
This year's three NASCAR entrants are 2010 Daytona 500 winner Jamie McMurray, NASCAR Sprint Cup Series rookie Kyle Larson and 2012 Rolex winner A.J. Allmendinger. And as with those that preceded them, the payoff for the competition isn't just winning a coveted Rolex watch, which 67 teams of racers will vie for when the green flag drops on Saturday.
It's about adding the title of Rolex 24 winner -- an elite list that includes racing legends Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt. It's also about the sense of accomplishment -- venturing out of your comfort zone to compete against the world's best road racers in the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship's inaugural event.
"This is, for me, the most fun race I get to run all year long. No points; it's all about coming here to win," said McMurray, who drives the No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet in the Sprint Cup Series.
"I think what makes it such a good time is you get to meet so many drivers from so many different series you watch on TV all year long, and you hang out and drive with them on a friendly level.
"It's awesome to know you're on the team that's won so many of these races. Driving for Chip has been a huge honor for me, and I'm glad he's asked me to be a part of it again."
McMurray will co-drive the No. 01 TELMEX Ford Ecoboost prototype this weekend with five-time Rolex winner Scott Pruett, Memo Rojas and open-wheel up-and-comer Sage Karam. And McMurray likes his chances, considering the driving talent around him and that Ganassi's two-car effort has produced five wins and a pair of runner-up finishes in the last eight Rolex races.
Larson, who had tested the prototype twice and calls this a "dream" race, will co-drive the No. 02 Ganassi entry with reigning Indy 500 winner Tony Kanaan, reigning IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon and sports car ace Marino Franchitti.
The all-star lineup is business as usual for Ganassi. Each year, the multi-series team owner fuses incredibly prepared cars with his best driving talent from across multiple racing disciplines.
But this is also serious business.
It's the first race toward a season championship for Pruett and Rojas. And there are also historic opportunities. Should Pruett win his sixth race, he would top legendary racer Hurley Haywood as the Rolex 24's all-time winningest driver. McMurray would become the first to claim wins in the Daytona 500, Brickyard 400 and Rolex 24.
"One thing you can't forget is when we come here, we come as a team, as a very serious organization -- and one that we set our standards (and) are focused on wining the race," Pruett said.
"When all of us get together, certainly there's a fun element to it and a mutual respect element to it. And at the end of the day we are all very focused. We know what our job is.
"Chip's focus is singular, to win races. Every driver he calls on to be part of that absolutely knows that's his job. There is that fun element, but it's absolutely very serious, anyone involved with this organization knows that and comes with their A-game."
Ganassi's operation has shown itself to prevail against many variables. It is trying to win with its third different engine make, using the Ford Ecoboost V6. And the revolving driver lineup reflects Ganassi's eclectic involvement.
Casey Mears became the first full-time NASCAR driver to win overall in the Rolex driving for Ganassi in 2006. Juan Pablo Montoya, who drove for Ganassi in the Sprint Cup Series from 2007-2013, became the first full-time Sprint Cup driver with multiple Rolex wins in 2007 and 2008.
"Chip obviously has a team that can win every (Rolex) race," McMurray said. "I've had the chance to win the biggest NASCAR race, the Daytona 500, I got to win the Brickyard 400 and to me, this is the one race I’d like to win more than anything right now."