News & Media

From the Notebook: NASCAR has impact on Rolex 24

January 27, 2012, Dave Rodman,

From the Notebook: Papis helping out at RCR; Pastrana seeking veteran input

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The fact that this weekend's Rolex 24 at Daytona marks the 50th anniversary of one of the world's most renowned sports car races is a coincidence to 16 drivers with strong NASCAR ties -- including four full-time Sprint Cup Series drivers -- competing.

Former 24-hour winner Juan Montoya, who joins legends A.J. Foyt, Dan Gurney and Mario Andretti as men who have won Daytona's season-kickoff event as well as Cup Series races, is the headliner. Montoya is joined with his Earnhardt Ganassi Racing teammate Jamie McMurray, along with IndyCar champions Dario Franchitti -- who himself had a cup of coffee in NASCAR in 2007-08 -- and Ganassi Racing open-wheel teammate Scott Dixon.

A.J. Allmendinger, who will make his Penske Racing debut at Daytona in the events leading up to the 54th annual Daytona 500 on Feb. 26, and Michael McDowell, who will drive this season for Phil Parsons' new Cup team, also are entered in the lead Daytona Prototype category.

The other dozen competitors include owners and drivers with ties to all three of NASCAR's national series, both current and from the recent past. Two-time Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip, Rob Kauffman and Travis Pastrana are owner/drivers of several dimensions, but the most critical this weekend is it's their Rolex 24 debut.

"We tested at Daytona earlier this month and everyone seemed to get the hang of it pretty quickly," Waltrip said of his AF Waltrip Racing Team GT Ferrari teammates. "It's Daytona, and there's no place I'd rather race. The Daytona 500 will always be the most important race to me, but this weekend's race is really special.

"I'm looking forward to seeing all the drivers from around the world. It's like all the drivers you have heard about or seen on television gather for this one race."

The balance of the NASCAR-oriented competitors fit the bill of Waltrip's assessment. Boris Said has 131 starts in NASCAR's national series, but he's a multiple sports car champion. Said will drive Turner Motorsports (the sports car team owned by Will Turner, not Steve Turner's multi-team NASCAR operation) BMWs in both Grand-Am races this weekend.

"I haven't run a full season with Turner since 2006, when we won the [Continental Tire] championship," said Said, who practices what he preaches, having recently become a BMW dealer. "I think we're going to have a lot of fun this year. The pressure is on me."

John Andretti, who will drive for the first time with his teenaged son, Jarett, in a GT-class Mazda RX-8, has a 1989 Rolex 24 win on his resume along with triumphs in the Cup Series, IndyCar and the NHRA.

Timmy Hill, the 2011 Nationwide Series rookie of the year, is teaming with Jeffrey Earnhardt, who made seven 2011 starts between the Nationwide and Camping World Truck series last season, and Chris Cook, who has an in-depth pedigree as a NASCAR drivers' road-course instructor with 15 NASCAR race starts, as well.

Others with close NASCAR ties: Roush Fenway Racing Truck Series driver Colin Braun, who came from a sports car background and who'll drive full time in the 2012 American Le Mans Series. Andy Lally was the 2011 Cup rookie of the year but will return to GT-class racing this season in the Rolex Series.

Billy Johnson races for owner Jack Roush in sports cars -- in fact, teaming in a winning Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge program with Roush's son, Jack Jr. -- and also has spent time in RFR Nationwide cars. And Bill Lester was an eight-year mainstay in the Truck Series before he transitioned back to sports cars.

Papis comes back

Max Papis is a former Rolex 24 winner, and driving an Action Express Corvette Daytona Prototype, he has a chance to win again. But Papis, who's made 79 NASCAR national series starts since 2006, wants to continue in that discipline.

Richard Childress Racing will make it happen, at least short term, with an opportunity for Papis to drive its No. 33 Nationwide Series Chevrolet in June at the Road America road course in Elkhart Lake, Wis. In addition, Papis will serve as a driver-coach for his fellow RCR teammates, assisting in strengthening their road-course racing skills.

"It is an honor to join a history-making team like RCR and continue what I started with Kevin Harvick Inc. the last couple of years," Papis said in a team release. "I feel ready to win races in NASCAR and, at the same time, I'm honored to have the chance to pass all the experience I built in my last 20 years of competition around the world to real racers like Austin Dillon and Ty Dillon and doing it with my never-give-up attitude that brought me all the way here."

The group was together at RCR's base in Welcome, N.C., for Wednesday evening's media tour visit. And Ty Dillon and Papis had already begun an exchange on Twitter later that evening.

Pastrana craving veteran attention

Action-sports star Travis Pastrana has made only five stock-car race starts in his transition from two wheels and winning off-road rally-racing championships to the hoped-for destination of at least the Nationwide Series.

So Pastrana will take all the insight he can get, whether it's from his spotter and driver-coach, Truck Series veteran Matt Crafton, or his K&N Pro Series East Pastrana Racing crew chief Mike Greci, who's been involved with NASCAR touring championship teams for two decades.

Pastrana worked with Crafton at his first stock-car test, in December 2010 at New Smyrna Speedway in Samsula, Fla. Their relationship has developed beyond student and coach, as Pastrana attended Crafton's recent wedding.

"Matt became a pretty good friend pretty quick," Pastrana said. "At his wedding we were talking about racing. It's all we talked about ... I want to do well and he wants to help, and that's awesome."

Crafton will spot for Pastrana, who can't wait to take advantage of his fellow driver's insight.

"I'm not worried so much about the finishing positions at first," Pastrana said. "I just wanna know how to drive faster, where the other guys are, where I'm slow, where I'm quick and what I need to do different."

Pastrana said working with Greci has been "awesome," mostly because "I don't know anything about race cars." Pastrana said his crew chief set up a two-day session when Pastrana came to the Michael Waltrip Racing shop where Pastrana's cars are based and visited every department and everyone on the team and figured out what everyone's role was.

"He'll call me up and say, 'What's this, and if you change this what does it do to the car?' " Pastrana said. "It's just helping me to be able to explain what's going on."

Ward Burton back racing at Daytona

Ward Burton, the 2002 Daytona 500 champion, hasn't driven in NASCAR since '07. He's never driven in the Truck Series.

But family ties -- something Burton was soaked with throughout his racing career, particularly in the beginning when his father fielded late-model stock cars that were tended by brothers Brian and Jeff -- have brought back Ward.

He'll attempt his first Truck Series race in the season opener at Daytona, driving a Chevrolet fielded by Hillman Racing, which is an offshoot of the multiple championship-winning Germain Racing team.

Burton will do an unknown number of races in 2012, splitting time with his 19-year-old son, Jeb. Jeb Burton, who his father said won five late-model stock-car races in 2011, isn't approved to run Daytona. Ward, who for the past four years has spent the majority of his time involved with his Ward Burton Wildlife Foundation, is lending his low-key celebrity to the team's sponsorship search.

Hamlin bolstered by Grubb's hiring

Count Denny Hamlin, who had one of his worst seasons in Cup racing in 2011, among those who's thrilled by Joe Gibbs Racing's hire of 2011 championship crew chief Darian Grubb to lead Hamlin's team in 2012.

"It was big for us because [Grubb] had so many good options and he had an offer from every race team in the garage area," Hamlin said of the move. "For him to pick me as his driver and continuing to want to be a crew chief, that's a big deal. So, at least it gives you the faith that the guy has got a lot of faith in your talents and that you can bring him another championship."

Hamlin did not think the transition would be easy, but he said he's ready to make the effort necessary to succeed.

"I think there's a lot of things that are going to be different," Hamlin said. "I've got to be a little bit more aware of what's going on with my feedback. I think at times I kind of took for granted that Mike [Ford, the only Cup crew chief Hamlin's ever had] just always knew what I needed at certain times even though I might not say it.

"With [Grubb] I've got to make sure I continue to voice those things and tell him the specifics because he's not worked with me before. Working with other drivers, he's got different ideas and stuff that he can bring up to me. I think it's going to be key for me the first six months to really communicate a lot with him."