Tim Tuttle
Friday January 29th, 2010

The Daytona 24-hour -- the Rolex 24 -- is a true world-class race. Every driver who wins it is very proud to put it on his resume. Don't believe it? Where else can you see Jimmie Johnson racing against Scott Dixon or Sebastien Bourdais? Just look at the drivers in the field.

Chip Ganassi has put together two all-star lineups this year. His No. 02 Riley-BMWs, starting fourth, have IndyCar champions Dixon and Dario Franchitti and Sprint Cup drivers Juan Pablo Montoya and Jamie McMurray. Ganassi's No. 01 has three-time Daytona 24 Hour-winner Scott Pruett, Memo Rojas, Max Papis and IndyCar driver Justin Wilson.

Also entered in the top Daytona Prototype class: four-time Champ Car champion and former F1 driver Bourdais of France in a Riley-BMW, 2004 Indy 500-winner Buddy Rice and Sprint Cup driver Paul Menard (teammates in a Coyote-Porsche), Nationwide Series driver Colin Braun in a Lola-Ford, and IndyCar driver Ryan Hunter-Reay in a Riley-BMW.

In GT, Bobby Labonte is driving a Porsche GT3, Boris Said a BMW M6, former IndyCar driver Davy Jones a Corvette, and Patrick Long and Jorg Bergmeister (last year's GT2 champions in the rival American Le Mans Series) are in a Porsche GT3.

Johnson shook off a big hit on Thursday that destroyed the back half of Gainsco Racing's Chevrolet-powered Riley. Driving the Daytona Prototype for the first time in a year, Johnson came upon a slower GT entry at the fastest corner in the infield and hard braking sent him into a tire barrier at an estimated 100 miles per hour.

"He hit very hard," teammate Alex Gurney said.

The record-setting winner of the past four NASCAR Sprint Cup championships had a very sore back and, facing the prospect of five or six hours driving on the bumpy track, could have used the crash as an excuse to bow out. Nobody would have blamed him. The Daytona 500 is coming up soon, and that's his day job, the most important race of the year. Why risk getting beat up more in a race you're doing basically for the pure enjoyment of racing?

But Johnson got back into the rebuilt car at Friday morning's practice for the Rolex 24 at Daytona. He ran it hard, too, on the fast 3.56-mile, 14-turn course, and was third-fastest in the session.

Johnson's decision to continue is based partially on his integrity -- he committed to the race and was cleared to drive -- but primarily because the Daytona 24-Hour is a prestigious event that every race car driver in the world wants to win. It's the real International Race of Champions.

This is what Johnson said in the prerace media release: "It would be unbelievable to win the Rolex 24."

That's also the sentiment of an all-star list of drivers, a convention of champions.

Johnson is driving for a championship team in Gainsco, the winner in two of the past three Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car seasons with regular drivers Gurney and Jon Fogarty. The pair combined for four wins last year and 12 over the past three seasons, but Daytona -- the season opener for the Grand-Am -- isn't among them. Johnson drove for the team in 2008 when it finished second to Chip Ganassi Racing, and last year, when it had mechanical problems and was seventh.

Gainsco's fourth driver is 1996 CART Champ Car champion Jimmy Vasser, who has come out of retirement the past two years to drive in the 24 Hour with the team.

Johnson was angry with himself for crashing the car. "I hate it that I tore up equipment and put the guys in this spot," he said.

The team scrambled to put the Riley chassis back together overnight, straightening the frame and having a new rear structure flown in from Riley Technologies in North Carolina. Johnson provided use of his jet to retrieve the rear structure, which was welded into place at the firewall to the driver compartment. It was ready to go for the Friday morning practice and so was Johnson. The crash seems to have fueled his determination.

"The car was good, everything is just fine," he said after the practice. "I'm better, but not until this race is over. I'll finally forgive myself."

Gurney, the 35-year-old son of the legendary Dan Gurney, would like to join his father as a winner at Daytona. Dan Gurney won the first sports car race at Daytona in 1962, when it was a three-hour race and part of the world championship, and he also won it as a team owner and car builder in 1993 with All American Racers Eagle-Toyota GTP.

The AAR Eagle-Toyota had an all-American driver lineup of P.J. Jones, Rocky Moran and Mark Dismore, and was the last such team to win the 24 Hours at Daytona. Gainsco's four drivers also are American.

"Representing the USA gives us all a lot of extra motivation," Alex Gurney said. "It's something very rare these days in motorsports. We are definitely very proud that we are able to put forth such a competitive all-American effort."

SunTrust Racing's Max Angelelli took the pole in Thursday's qualifying in a Dallara-Ford. The Italian, a co-driver on the winning team at Daytona and the Grand-Am champion in 2005, will co-drive with the father-son duo of Wayne and Ricky Taylor and Portugal's Pedro Lamy, a former Formula 1 driver. Michael Shank Racing's team of Oswaldo Negri, Burt Frisselle, John Pew and Mark Wilkins starts second, and Shank's team of A.J. Allmendinger, Michael Valiante, Brian Frisselle and Mark Patterson starts third. They're in Riley-Fords.

The race begins Saturday at 3:30 p.m. ET.

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