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Drivers On The Clock For The Rolex 24 at Daytona

by Cathy Elliott
Wednesday, January 19, 2011

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Kurt Busch practices in a Grand-Am car
Like NASCAR, the GRAND-AM Series opens the season with its biggest race, at the very same venue. The 49th running of the Rolex 24 at Daytona will be held on Jan. 29-30 at Daytona International Speedway.

If a landscaper who is sidelined by weather issues for a day or two feels bereft in the absence of his weed whacker, which to him is like an extension of his own arm, and for a singer with a sore throat, silence is anything but golden. Just imagine what the “off-season” must be like for NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers. For them, competing in a race car isn’t just what they do. It is what they are.

The span of weeks between Homestead-Miami Speedway and Speedweeks at Daytona seems all too brief when it begins in November, but by the time early January arrives, the days seem to be dragging along as slowly as the director’s cut of “Braveheart.”

If you’re like me – human, busy and kind of lazy – the days you look forward to most during the year are the ones designated as ‘vacation.’ That precious week (or two, or even three if you’re lucky) of doing either completely nothing or absolutely everything, depending on your definition of down time, looms like an oasis in the desert. In the mind’s eye, it offers rest, relief and perhaps a couple of umbrella-adorned beverages for sojourners parched and dry from the rigors of their everyday duties. It is hard to get there, and even harder to leave.

We never want our vacations to end.

Well, most of us don’t, but there are always exceptions. During the NFL playoffs last weekend, the FOX network broadcast several advertisements for the Daytona 500 on Feb. 20. A friend remarked, “That seems like an awfully long break.”

I agree; it does. I returned home from the flurry of Champion’s Week in early December to realize that Christmas was mere days away and I might need to go shopping at some point. After cramming the stuff into gift bags, which are the greatest invention since Joey Logano (or sliced bread, take your pick), and celebrating the holidays pleasantly enough with my family and friends, it was actually nice to get back to a normal work routine.

The Cup Series stars still had a while to wait. Of course they have families to spend time with, and hobbies to enjoy. But while watching football and college basketball to pass the time is fun, we are race fans. Racing is what we love, and what we want. The drivers are just like us – only much, much worse. Their crew chiefs, engine builders and the rest of the team members get right back to work, preparing equipment and formulating strategies for the new season, but the only part of the car a driver generally puts his hands on is the wheel on race day. So how do they pass the time?

It should come as no surprise that many of them race, and we’re not just talking about computers, video games and the local go-kart track. These guys are accustomed to being at the top of their game, and that’s exactly where they head when they’re playing someone else’s game. In the case of a number of NASCAR’s biggest names, this is the Rolex 24 At Daytona.

The Rolex 24 is a round-the-clock drama that spins around and through DIS while the earth makes a complete revolution around its axis. The iconic 24-hour endurance race is the kickoff for Speedweeks, and the first major motorsports event of the year, with an impressive list of former winners whose names include Bobby Rahal; Buddy Rice; Al Unser Sr.; Mario Andretti; and A.J Foyt.

More familiar to NASCAR fans, guys like Rusty Wallace, Bobby Labonte, Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon have all competed in the prestigious event, and Casey Mears, “road course specialist” Scott Pruett and Juan Pablo Montoya have all been part of winning Rolex 24 teams. In addition to Pruett and Montoya, this year’s entry list for the Rolex 24 includes 2010 Daytona 500 champion Jamie McMurray; AJ Allmendinger; Kenny Wallace; and reigning NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson.

Johnson likes streaks; the five-time NASCAR champion will be competing in his fourth consecutive Rolex 24 At Daytona. His No. 99 GAINSCO/Bob Stallings entry, with teammates Alex Gurney and Jon Fogarty, has finished second in two of the past three years. That’s pretty good, especially in somewhat unfamiliar territory, but not good enough for Johnson. A win would add his name to the list of drivers who have won both the Rolex 24 and the Daytona 500. The current list is short, to say the least: Andretti and Foyt. That’s it.

It’s always fun to tune in to the Rolex 24 at various points during the race. For a NASCAR fan, it is an intriguing blend of the exotic and the familiar. Fords and Chevys are on the track, but now they are racing side by side with Dallaras, Porsches and Ferraris. Johnson and Wallace are competing against names like Jorg Bergmeister from Germany and Christophe Bouchut from France. Patrick Dempsey is there, and he’s not shooting a scene for “Grey’s Anatomy” – he’s racing one of the cars.

The bottom line is the Rolex 24 at Daytona offers us some of the world’s greatest drivers competing in a legendary event at a track so famous it is known simply as the World Center of Racing. Although it might not be exactly what we’re accustomed to as stock car fans, that scenario sounds awfully familiar.

A NASCAR race is like a rock concert, full of sound and lights and the sheer spectacle of intense, unrelenting performance. The Rolex 24 is more like a symphony, a series of crescendos and plateaus, which is played out over a longer period of time before reaching its dramatic conclusion.

Considered that way, perhaps racing, rather than music, is the true universal language – and thank goodness, intermission is ending at last.

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