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Daytona Test Days Roundup Day 2
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- A defending Rolex 24 At Daytona race winner was quick at Daytona Motor Speedway once again on Friday as No. 02 Target/TELMEX Chip Ganassi Racing Lexus Riley pilot Scott Dixon logged a lap time of 1:43. 997 (123.234 mph) Friday to lead the second day of testing at Daytona International Speedway for the Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series presented by Crown Royal Special Reserve.

Dixon's lap came during the first of three practices, and the 2003 IndyCar Series champion topped Lucas Luhr's 2006 polesitting time of 1:44.009 (123.220 mph) and was the fastest lap thus far during the three-day Daytona Test Days. Dixon is looking to defend his Rolex 24 crown alongside his IRL teammate, Dan Wheldon, as well as rising Mexican star Memo Rojas.

"The more you run here, the better off you are," said Dixon. "Just knowing how the race is run, driver changes, and all those little things that sometimes you might forget. The competition [in the race] is like nothing else. I'm happy to be back."

Defending Rolex Series GT class co-champion Andy Lally posted the fastest class lap time Friday in the No. 66 TRG Porsche GT3, completing the 3.56-mile, 14-turn Daytona circuit in 1:52.791 (113.626 mph). Rolex Series drivers also had the opportunity to get used to the lights at the "World Center of Racing," as the day's final practice was run at night. 

The cars and stars from the KONI Challenge Series also enjoyed considerable time on the track, as 2005 Grand Sport champion David Empringham proved quickest, logging a 2:01.681 (105.325 mph) in the No. 5 Blackforest Motorsports Mustang GT. Fellow Canadian Nick Wittmer was fastest in the Street Tuner class with a time of 2:11.589 (97.394 mph) in the No. 32 i-MOTO Racing Acura TSX.

In total, 63 Rolex Series machines and 64 KONI Challenge cars took to the track on the second day of testing, with the third and final day scheduled for Saturday.

Juan Pablo Montoya's participation in the 45th anniversary of the Rolex 24 At Daytona is now official. Owner Chip Ganassi announced his two-car effort for the Rolex 24 and will have Montoya team with Scott Pruett and Salvador Duran in the No. 01 TELMEX/Target Daytona Lexus Riley.

Defending Rolex 24 at Daytona champions Scott Dixon and Dan Wheldon--both Indy Racing League IndyCar Series champions--will return to the driver's seat of the No. 02 Target/TELMEX Lexus Riley, the winner of the 2006 Rolex 24, with Pruett's full-time 2007 Rolex Series teammate Memo Rojas. Montoya, who has previously visited Daytona International Speedway during go-karts events with his brother, is enjoying his first laps at "The World Center of Racing."

"It was pretty exciting to be out here," Montoya said. "It's great. I didn't even know where the road course went. It was nice. I took a ride in the car this morning. It's nice that we're using both banks. It's pretty good, actually helps me a little bit when I come back in the Cup car. It's quite bumpy. You kind of find where the bumps are.

"The car is a lot of fun to drive. As everybody said, I think we've got a winning package, but a lot of people do as well. We need to work hard and keep the car in one piece to bring it to the end. I think if we do a good job, there is definitely a decent chance of winning."

Montoya has a busy testing schedule at Daytona International Speedway. As he prepares for his rookie season in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series, the Colombian driver is slated to test his No. 42 Texaco Havoline Dodge in the second session of NASCAR Jackson Hewitt Preseason Thunder and will also participate in NASCAR Busch Series testing. He is hoping to kick off the 2007 racing season with a Rolex 24 victory on Jan. 27-28.

"It's nice to know coming here with a car that you know you can win with and that won last year," Montoya said. "It makes it really exciting. Yes, I've won big races and everything but Daytona, especially in America, is a big deal. You can't really say you're going to win it before you even start it, but so far everything looks pretty good."

Four-time NASCAR Cup champion and three-time Daytona 500 winner Jeff Gordon continued to familiarize himself with the No. 10 SunTrust Pontiac Riley he will co-drive with Rolex 24 At Daytona overall winners Max Angelelli and Wayne Taylor, as well as Danish sports car standout Jan Magnussen during the first two days of activity at Daytona Test Days. Gordon turned his first laps on the 3.56-mile Daytona International Speedway road course on Thursday and Friday in preparation for his maiden Rolex 24 At Daytona appearance at the end of this month.

"It's going really well," said Gordon on Friday morning. "Yesterday was the first time I ever had a chance to be in the car here. After the Homestead test (last month), I had a better idea what the car was capable of doing, but learning the track was definitely a challenge. We went through a lot of that yesterday. I felt like I was just starting to get the hang of everything right at the end of the day, which I ran about maybe six laps right there at the very end. I thought it went well."

While Angelelli turned the fastest lap in the No. 10 machine at 1:44.???, Gordon has already turned several laps in the 1:45 range, which is impressive considering his limited experience on the road course at Daytona. He readily admits that he will be counting on the sports car racing veterans with whom he is sharing the car during the twice-around-the-clock classic.

"I think we've got a great lineup," Gordon said. "Now I'm just trying to live up to my end of the deal. We've got three fast guys out there, a great race team. I feel like we really have the makings of what it takes to win this race. I just want to do my part to make sure that I contribute enough to get us a victory."

Gordon is looking to join A.J. Foyt, who is currently the only driver to win the Daytona 500 and a 24-hour race at Daytona overall.

Former Champ Car World Series teammates A.J. Allmendinger and Paul Tracy are together again, as both have signed to drive in the Rolex 24 At Daytona in the No. 6 Michael Shank Racing Lexus Riley with Henri Zogaib and Ian James.

Allmendinger, who makes his NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series debut at Daytona next month, drove for Shank in the 2006 Rolex 24, finishing second with Oswaldo Negri Jr., Mark Patterson and Champ Car's Justin Wilson in the No. 60 Lexus entry. The California native hopes to improve his finishing position in this year's twice-around-the-clock classic.

Michael Shank Racing has a formidable two-car Rolex 24 lineup including Helio Castroneves, Sam Hornish Jr., AJ Allmendinger and Paul Tracy.

"When you get as close as we did, you definitely want to come back," said Allmendinger. "There's a lot of luck that plays into this race, and you have to be around at the end to win the thing. Mike puts out great equipment and just overall a great program that allows us the chance to go out there and have a chance to win."

Tracy is also familiar with the Michael Shank Racing team, having driven for them twice in 2006. The Canadian led early in last year's Rolex 24 in the No. 6 entry, but the team was forced to retire early for mechanical problems. Tracy also competed in Round 2 of the 2006 Rolex Series season, finishing third with Mike Borkowski. The familiarity of the team brings confidence to Tracy.

The formidable lineup in the No. 6 Lexus compliments an already stellar Shank stable, whose No. 60 Lexus will be driven by former Indy 500 winners Sam Hornish Jr. and Helio Castroneves, in addition to regulars Patterson and Negri. The No. 60 team comes into the Rolex 24 with loads of momentum, having celebrating its maiden victory in the 2006 season finale at Miller Motorsports Park, one that clinched Patterson the Jim Trueman Award.

"I think the team chemistry is really good right now," said Shank. "I think we have a lot of confidence right now. This is our fourth year as a team coming here. Every year we're going to prepare ourselves better. We're here to win for sure. We've got lineups in both cars that are capable of doing that."

No. 00 Vision Racing Porsche Crawford owner/driver Tony George, who on Thursday estimated that he hadn't driven a race car since 2001, had a rough outing in his first time aboard a Daytona Prototype on Friday during Daytona Test Days.

George climbed aboard the No. 00 machine during the second of the day's three sessions this afternoon and completed three laps before running off-course in the Turn 1/Turn 2 complex coming off the superspeedway portion of the track and into the infield. He made contact with the guardrail, doing considerable damage to the front and right rear of the race car, and earning himself a quick trip to the infield care center at the track where he was examined and released with no injuries.

"I'm fine," George said. "Simply put, I just messed up Turn 1. I went off the track and hit the guardrail. Nobody was around me--at least I don't think anybody was around me--and it was my fault."

Vision Racing team manager Larry Curry said that the team will repair the car and resume testing on Saturday. One team that will not continue this weekend, however, is the No. 3 Southard Motorsports Lexus Riley operation with co-drivers Shane Lewis and Randy Ruhlman.

Shortly after George's incident, Ruhlman also brought out the black flag in the afternoon session with a heavy crash exiting the chicane at the end of the Daytona Superstretch. Ruhlman also went to the infield care center and was seen and released, but the team will return to its Ohio shop to repair the car.

In addition to returning to the Grand-Am KONI Challenge Series with five Ford Mustang GTs, Blackforest Motorsports is set to debut a Ford Mustang Cobra GT in the Rolex Series GT class.

"The car is going to be there, but it's brand new and we're going through a lot of teething pains," said lead driver Tom Nastasi. "We've tested three or four times, and have made a lot of changes to it. It's a work in progress right now."

The car was the first Ford Mustang built by Crawford Composites, and will be one of three different Crawford-built marques expected to compete in GT in 2007. Crawford also built an Infiniti for HLM and a Corvette for Stevenson Automotive.

Blackforest Motorsports had the quickest Grand Sport class car on Friday.
Blackforest has Nastasi joined by Champ Car World Series veteran Alex Tagliani, Lou Gigliotti and Guy Cosmo in the GT entry.

"We're all experienced, with a couple of champions," Nastasi said. "They're all very fast guys, and very reliable. I will run the car all season, with Alex my co-driver except for three races due to his Champ Car schedule. I've known Lou since 1991, and he'll be easy on the equipment. He knows how to win these races."

The test is Tagliani's first appearance at Daytona International Speedway.

"I was very lucky to meet Tom Nastasi when we raced at Trois-Rivieres," Tagliani. "He is a very passionate guy and loves racing. He was racing in Grand-Am Cup in Three Rivers. I was very surprised, qualifying on the front row in my first race in a sedan car. I wound up liking sports cars very quickly, and then Tom was looking to run a GT program the year after. That's when we started talking. I want to run as many races as I can that are not in
conflict with Champ Car. Daytona is an amazing place - it's very different from what I'm used to. I'm new, but I'm enjoying my time here a lot."

Blackforest missed the Friday afternoon session while the team worked on the car in the garage.

"We guessed on the gearing as best as we could, and we were off--especially our first gear," Nastasi said. "We're here, we know we can race," Tagliani said. "Now, we have to fix all the little glitches to make sure we're there at the end."

In 2005, Nastasi won at Daytona in the Grand-Am Cup Series, which has been renamed the KONI Challenge Series in 2007. For the test, he is entered in the No. 2 Mustang with Valerie Limoges and the No. 5 with David Empringham. Limoges is the only driver entered in the No. 4. Tagliani is entered in the No. 6 with Stan Wilson and Chris Brannon, while Scott Tucker and Ed Zaminski co-drive the No. 3.

"Last year, somebody hit me on the first lap," Limoges said. "Hopefully, this year it's going to be better. We have a good car, and it should be good for the race."

Four-time SCCA Trans-Am Series champion Paul Gentilozzi has been added to the lineup of the No. 12 RVO Motorsports Pontiac Riley, joining Jack Baldwin, Roger Schramm and Bill Lester. The leading winner in Trans-Am history with 31 victories, Gentilozzi got behind of the wheel of the Dave Watson-prepared Daytona Prototype for the first time on Friday afternoon.

"It all came together today," Gentilozzi said. "I was coming back from the Caribbean for a meeting in Orlando, so I stopped here and we worked it out. I called to have them send down my helmet."

Gentilozzi won the overall victory in the 1994 Rolex 24, joining Scott Pruett, Butch Leitzinger and Steve Millen in a Nissan 300ZX. He also won the GTS class in 2002, joining Pruett, Brian Simo and Michael Lauer in finishing fifth overall in a Jaguar.

"I raced against Paul for many years, and drove for him at the Rolex 24 in one of his Oldsmobiles," Baldwin said. "He's a real professional and a great friend."

RVO purchased the two Pontiac Rileys campaigned by Adrian Fernandez in 2006, and plans to race one car in most of the 2007 races.

"We have not had the car very long, but we're making progress and getting better all the time," Baldwin said. "The guys we are running against are pretty tough, but we're happy with our progress. Our goal is to have a good, solid car for the Rolex 24 that will take us to the distance."

A veteran of NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series competition, the race marks Lester's return to his racing roots.

"This is my first sports car race in six years," Lester said. "I started out in SCCA amateur racing in the mid-1980s, and did IMSA GTO, Trans-Am and World Challenge. I did the Rolex 24 four years in a row, but I never got to drive a DP or GTP. It's fun getting back to sports car. This is a whole lot of fun. It's good to get back behind the wheel of something that's light and nimble, and really responsive. Working with the guys at RVO has been a lot of fun, and we're looking forward to a good 24-hour race. We don't expect to be the fastest, but we expect to be competitive and hope that our work and preparation pays off."

Gentilozzi also is a Daytona Prototype owner, and hopes to run a few races in the No. 50 Rocketsports Racing Ford Crawford later in the season.

The Rolex Series machines got their first taste of night action on Friday, as the final test session of the day was run under the lights at the "World Center of Racing," with two-time Rolex Series class champion Bill Auberlen posting a 1:44.906 (122.155 mph) in the No. 05 Sigalsport BMW Riley.

Auberlen logged the lap late in the session, besting a lap at 1:45.021 (122.033 mph) by Patrick Carpentier in the No. 11 SAMAX Pontiac Riley. Light rains fell for a brief period during the night session, but the skies held up enough to give drivers a close replica to the conditions they will face for nearly half of the Rolex 24.

Bill Auberlen

"The team has worked hard this off-season, and it's definitely showed this weekend," said Auberlen, an 18-time Rolex Series class race winner. "I've been bugging (Team owner) Gene (Sigal) so much that he barely wants to talk to me. We've been trying to improve every aspect of the car. Driving at night doesn't bother me too much, and the traffic out there wasn't so bad that I was able to put down a pretty good lap."

The top nine Daytona Prototypes in the night session were within a second of each other, and with many Rolex 24 At Daytona's won and lost during the night hours, there will be plenty of teams ready to capitalize on even the slightest mistake.

On Friday, Jan. 5 and Saturday, Jan. 6, sports car fans will get all-access with the inaugural Roar Before The Rolex 24 At Daytona.

The Roar Before The Rolex 24 At Daytona will prep sports car fans for the 45th anniversary of the Rolex 24 on Jan. 27-28 with fan forums, displays, entertainment in the NEXTEL FANZONE and a technical talk about the Daytona Prototype from Howard Motorsports.

In addition, sports car fans will be able to view all the Rolex 24 At Daytona testing action from anywhere in the historic infield of Daytona International Speedway (with exception of the hot pits) and will have access to the garage area. Admission for the inaugural Roar Before the Rolex 24 At Daytona is $5 at the gate and children 12 and under are free. Gates open at 9 a.m.

Tickets for the 45th anniversary of the Rolex 24 on Jan. 27-28 are available by calling 1-800-PITSHOP or by logging onto www.racetickets.com. Grand-Am

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