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Rolex 24 kicks off Speedweek

Nevada Appeal Staff Reports

By Roger Diez

As you read this, the Rolex 24 hour race at Daytona will be winding down. Quick! Turn on Speed Channel and catch the checkered flag at 10 a.m. local time!

This year even more top drivers from other series will compete along with a few who are stepping out of the broadcast booth to get behind the wheel. Can you imagine Terry Bradshaw or Fred Dryer strapping on the pads and jumping into the middle of an NFL game? Yes, racing is unique among sports.

The most familiar names you’ll see on the leader board at the Rolex 24 are from the world of NASCAR. Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are sharing a Daytona Prototype, while Jimmie Johnson will co-drive a similar machine. Kyle Petty is sharing a Daytona Prototype with 79 year old Paul Newman, the movie star turned racer who can still hold his own in a racecar. Their entry is sponsored by the new Disney/Pixar animated feature “Carsa” which features Newman as the voice of one of the characters (or schould I say “car-achters”).

Christian Fittipaldi is also aboard a Daytona Prototype, and Boris Said (due to run his first Budweiser Shootout as a result of his Winston Cup pole at Infineon last season) is co-driving a BMW M3. Two-time Trans-Am champion and CART TV commentator Scott Pruett put his Chip Ganassi Racing Daytona Prototype on the pole with a new track record, eclipsing the old mark by more than four seconds. Stewart set fast time in Friday’s happy hour session, while “just bedding in brakes and trying to make sure we don’t have any problems tomorrow,” said Stewart.

His car started fourth yesterday morning. Fittipaldi is driving the third-fastest qualifying entry. Johnson is sixth on the grid, while Robby Gordon and IRL ace Stephan Gregoire started from the eighth position. Scott Goodyear (Indy car racer and TV commentator) was replaced in the ninth-place starting car by Tommy Riggins after breaking some ribs playing hockey last Monday (those Canadians, eh?). The Newman/Petty entry started 14th.

The Rolex 24 is the kickoff to Daytona’s Speedweeks celebration, also known in some circles as the “Redneck High Holy Days.” The most holy of all days in this homage to speed takes place February 15, with the running of the Daytona 500. Qualifying and the Twin 125 races lead up to the big event, which is one of the races the fans love and the drivers hate. Restrictor plate racing (only seen at Daytona and Talladega) features large packs of cars circulating inches apart at high speeds. It’s excitingc to watch, but extremely harrowing to perform, and of course the potential for the “big wreck” is what keeps fans interested and drivers nervous.

In recent years the Dale Earnhardt, Inc. (DEI) team has seemed to have a near lock on restrictor plate events, with either Michael Waltrip or Dale Earnhardt, Jr. ending up in the winner’s circle. However, there’s some unrest in the DEI camp this year. Ty Norris, longtime General Manager at DEI, resigned on Monday amid rumors of a major reorganization initiated by Teresa Earnhardt.

Later last week Richie Gilmore was named to replace Norris. Gilmore was previously in charge of DEI’s successful engine program. The DEI team has a few more question marks in its 2004 season, with no major sponsor for its third car, the No. 1 Chevy. John Andretti will drive this car at Daytona, with rising star Martin Truex scheduled to take the wheel in both the No. 1 Nextel Cup car and the team’s No. 8 Busch car (also without major sponsorship) at selected races this year.

Nextel Cup drivers tested this week at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, with 34 Nextel Cup Series and 20 Busch Series teams in attendance. Speaking of Las Vegas, radio station KPTL (1300 AM) is having a contest to send somebody to the NASCAR weekend March 5-7. Listen to KPTL and be the third caller when you hear the sound of a racecar, and you’ll qualify for the drawing for two all-expense-paid tickets to the races. I made the qualifying list myself on Friday. See you in Vegas!

Roger Diez is the Nevada Appeal Motorsports Columnist. Contact him at editor@nevadaappeal.com.