Jimmie Johnson's first sports car race was the Rolex 24 at Daytona in 2004. The classic endurance run had been something he'd wanted to try for the pure enjoyment of it. He came back the next season, finished second and figured he'd gotten it out of his system.
The Sprint Cup star watched the 24-hour race on television in 2006 while close friend Casey Mears was a co-driver on Chip Ganassi Racing's winning team. It became an epiphany for Johnson: Just driving in the 24 Hour wasn't good enough any more.
"The first two years, it was more for fun," Johnson said. "Then I took a year off and I watched Casey Mears, a great friend of mine, win and I watched the event on television. I said, 'You know, I finished second in this thing and I've got to work hard to find a ride that I can do down there and have a chance of winning with."
Johnson has succeeded in that ambition, joining Bob Stallings' Gainsco Racing for next weekend's event. He'll co-drive with Alex Gurney and Jon Fogarty, the 2007 Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car champions, and semi-retired Champ Car driver Jimmy Vasser, the 1996 CART champion.
Gurney and Fogarty won seven races last season. They started from the pole at Daytona in 2007, but contact with another car that hit the outside wall and rammed into their Pontiac-powered Riley took them out of contention.
Johnson likewise didn't have much luck at Daytona last year, finishing 36th in a trouble-filled run with the Riley-Mathews team.
"I'm here strictly to win," Johnson said. "I will have fun during the event and all that but this team is a championship-winning team, a race-winning team and we're here to win the race. Being a lineup with guys like this, it's really a dream come true to come down here and compete and be a favorite for the event."
Johnson, NASCAR's Cup champion the past two years, is a prime example of what the Daytona 24 Hour has evolved into: an all-star race. As the first major race of the calendar year in the United States, the timing is right and the Grand-Am's regular teams need extra drivers to run all those laps.
Chip Ganassi Racing's Scott Pruett, Juan Pablo Montoya and Salvador Duran completed 668 laps in winning last season on the 3.56-mile, 14-turn circuit which utilizes part of those famous high banks. It's 100 more miles than the distance between Los Angeles and Detroit.
Ganassi has assembled a small army of drivers in his two-car effort. His full-season team of Pruett and Memo Rojas has been augmented by Montoya and Dario Franchitti, his Sprint Cup drivers. From his IndyCar operation, Ganassi has put together a lineup of Scott Dixon, Dan Wheldon and Alex Lloyd to drive with Duran in the team's Lexus-powered Riley.
"I think it's a fun race," Dixon said. "The only downside to it is the test you have to do in early January. But the race itself, I don't know anybody who doesn't really enjoy doing it. It's the only time you get to be in the car for a long amount of time and you get a ton of cars to pass."
Typical driver stints are two to three hours. Nobody cruises.
"You're pretty much nine-tenths the whole time," Dixon said. "It's almost a 24-hour sprint race."
But it doesn't carry the stress of the regular season.
"The thing with the 24 Hours, it's not as much pressure compared to your normal series," Dixon said. "You've got a combination of three or four drivers that take the load from everything. It's kind of like, in some ways, going into a go-karting event with a bunch of mates. You're passing people, you bump a little because the cars are pretty tough.
"It's a good atmosphere, it's pretty laid back. That's why I think everybody loves to do it. You get to see a lot of people you haven't seen for a while because it brings just about every man from every other series. But it's still competitive because everybody wants to win."
Daytona has also become an all-star event on a team level. Penske Racing has returned to the 24 Hour for the first time in 30 years with its IndyCar drivers Helio Castroneves, Ryan Briscoe and Cup driver Kurt Busch.
Penske, who runs a Porsche team in the rival American Le Mans Series, formed a Penske-Taylor Racing partnership with Wayne Taylor's SunTrust Racing for Daytona. It will run a Pontiac-powered Riley.
"The car was built by Penske people at the Taylor shops and using Taylor's information," Briscoe said.
Taylor's team won Daytona in 2005. He was surprised when team owner Roger Penske inquired about doing a joint effort last summer.
Taylor and Max Angelelli manage Briscoe's career in addition to driving.
"We were up at an event with him," Taylor said, "and Roger called me into the bus. We thought we were gong in there for a discussion about Ryan and he said, 'What do you think about us doing the (Rolex 24) together. I'll give you my guys, we can send them up to your shop, we'll integrate the two teams and we'll build a program.' That's how it started."
Other notable drivers joining teams for Daytona include Champ Car drivers Graham Rahal and Justin Wilson and Sprint Cup driver A.J. Allmendinger in Michael Shank Racing's two-car Ford-powered Rileys and Patrick Long in Alex Job Racing's Porsche-powered Crawford