DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Chip Ganassi hopes to improve on last year’s 24-hour race at Daytona International Speedway.
It hardly seems possible. Ganassi’s two-car team finished first and second in the twice-around-the-clock event, sweeping the prestigious endurance race at the hallowed track.
Two-time defending Grand-Am Series champions Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas, along with Joey Hand and Graham Rahal, ended up in Victory Lane after a one-lap sprint to the checkered flag. IndyCar stars Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti and NASCAR drivers Juan Pablo Montoya and Jamie McMurray celebrated alongside them after settling for second.
Pruett’s team will try to repeat when the 24-hour race begins Saturday afternoon. Dixon’s crew will try to flip the script.
“We want to be at the very front again, no question,” Ganassi said. “It’s going to be tough to top last year, but we can certainly try. That’s what we’re here to do. It’s as simple as that.”
There’s only one way for that to happen. The cars would have to avoid all the problems that threatened to derail the 1-2 finish.
The No. 01 BMW Riley, the one primarily driven by two-time defending series champions Pruett and Rojas, battled from two laps down to take the checkered flag. The No. 02 entry piloted by Dixon and Co. endured two flat tires early in the race.
Nonetheless, both Ganassi cars were at the forefront of the frantic finish. Pruett used a smooth restart to pull away from Dixon and win by the Daytona Prototype class by 2.42 seconds.
“That was a great finish last year, but it was not without mistakes,” Ganassi said. “A smoother race would be a lot easier for sure.”
Ganassi has a new tool that could help his star-studded teams.
The team owner created an electronic signal board that makes it clear to the driver of the No. 01 car when Montoya is in the other seat. Montoya’s aggressive — albeit effective — style ruffled feathers and fenders in last year’s race.
“We talked at length about that subject,” Ganassi said. “All eight of them need to hand the car off to their teammates like they would like to have the car handed to them. You’re racing for 24 hours, but the fact of the matter is all you can do is lose the race the first 22 hours if you do something to the car or you don’t hand the car off in a good condition. We certainly don’t want to do that.”
Ganassi said Montoya “has some work to do” in that area.
Franchitti, the three-time defending IndyCar champ, joked that it might not happen overnight.
“That reputation was earned years ago,” Franchitti said.
Montoya chimed in to defend himself.
“When I came to Chip and I was talking to some guy who was racing with us in the early years, he said, ‘You don’t come here to make friends. You’re here to get the job done. If you want friends, bring your friends.’ And I do,” Montoya said.
Patience could be as important as ever in the in endurance event.
The race could have 45 cars in the Grand Touring class, possibly putting as many as 59 cars on the 3.56-mile road course and setting the stage for tight racing and hairy situations.
“Dealing with the traffic is going to be the single biggest factor in this year’s race,” Franchitti said.
Ricky Taylor, who is teaming with IndyCar regular Ryan Briscoe and former Grand-Am champion Max Angelelli, offered details about what to expect from the slower GT cars that sometimes have inexperienced drivers.
“That’s the big variable,” Taylor said. “If it was one driver in each car, you would know what to expect when you get behind each guy. But you don’t know who’s in the car, whether it’s a good driver, a bad driver, what line they’re going to take, where they’re going to brake, if they even see you in their mirrors. That’s the real challenge. You have to make high-percentage passes. You have to real conservative I guess.”
Ganassi’s group certainly has the most experience, with seven of eight drivers having won at least one 24-hour race at Daytona. They have a combined 12 victories in the endurance event. With a win, Pruett can tie Hurley Haywood’s record of five victories at Daytona.
“You can’t fault them anywhere,” Taylor said. “That’s the problem. They’ve got the good drivers, great team, great engineers, well-prepared equipment. You really have a near-perfect race to beat them. That’s our goal — to have a perfect race.”
Ganassi’s guys have the same goal, especially after last year’s troubles.
Although Pruett and Rojas are beginning their quest for a third consecutive series championship, the drivers in the No. 02 entry haven’t forgotten the empty feeling they felt a year ago and want nothing more than to turn the tables on their teammates.
“No lying here, last year was good, but we felt like we should have won that race,” Montoya said. “I think we’re all here for a little bit of vengeance, to get that trophy.”