The Rolex Sports Car Series' premier (and premiere) event each season, the Rolex 24 at Daytona, draws some of the top drivers from across the world and across motorsport.
Besides series regulars like Scott Pruett, Alex Gurney, and Max Angelelli, plenty of sports car ringers, be they Porsche factory drivers or simply journeymen looking to get in a car, show up and find rides. IZOD IndyCar Series drivers use the event as a tune-up and a way to get back in a racecar before their Sebring test.
But perhaps most prominently, loads of NASCAR talent shows up. Perhaps owing to the fact that NASCAR and Grand-Am, the Rolex Series' sanctioning body, are both France family properties—or perhaps because the drivers are in Daytona for Preseason Thunder the week before anyway—some of the series' top drivers take the wheel of sports cars for a weekend and try to claim road racing glory.
No NASCAR drivers took the victory last year, when the upstart Action Express team (pictured) scored the win, and none has since 2008, when Juan Montoya won his second in a row for Chip Ganassi. So, will any NASCAR drivers be in the mix this year? You bet. Read on:
Johnson will return to the No. 99 Bob Stallings Racing Chevrolet/Riley, as he has for the past few years, alongside former series champions Alex Gurney and Jon Fogarty. The only difference this year is that 1996 CART champion and current IZOD IndyCar Series team owner, Jimmy Vasser, will not be back in the car.
Gurney and Fogarty had an off year last year, winning only one race, and have never won the Rolex 24, so they'll certainly be hungry for victory. But how will they—and Johnson—handle the increased driving responsibilities, when most other teams have four drivers and some even employ five?
One of the perks of driving for Chip Ganassi is your guaranteed employment for the Rolex 24 in his second, part-time No. 02 BMW/Riley. This car even took overall victory in 2006 with IndyCar drivers Scott Dixon and Dan Wheldon and ex-Ganassi NASCAR pilot Casey Mears behind the wheel.
McMurray is no stranger to winning at Daytona, having taken two of his six career Sprint Cup wins at the track, including last year's Daytona 500. He'll have one of the best teams behind him—not only will he have the sport's best, Ganassi's team, preparing the car, his teammates will be Dixon, defending IndyCar champ Dario Franchitti, and...
...the 2007 and 2008 race champion.
Of course, in those years Montoya was driving the No. 01 car alongside Scott Pruett and other assorted sports car specialists, but that changes little. Montoya is an intense competitor (remember his frustration with finishing second in 2009?) who has almost always elevated his Ganassi team's performance; consider last year's engine failure with him behind the wheel an aberration.
Long story short, as long as the car stays together, Montoya will challenge for the victory.
Allmendinger will drive, as per the usual, the No. 6 Ford/Dallara for Michael Shank Racing. What will be different is his new supporting cast—NASCAR journeyman Michael McDowell, and IndyCar driver Justin Wilson. McDowell drove full-time in the series for Rob Finlay in 2005 and 2006, taking one win; Wilson drove for Chip Ganassi last year, pulling into the pits on a false alarm that handed the overall victory to Action Express.
The three drivers should work together well, especially with Allmendinger and Wilson having been former Champ Car teammates at RuSport. Again, however, they bring up the question of how a three-driver team will fare against those with four or five—especially as none of these drivers are full-time sports car specialists.
Papis drove alongside Scott Pruett, Memo Rojas, and Justin Wilson in Chip Ganassi's runner-up No. 01 car last year. This year, he slides into the lone car that beat them—Action Express Racing's No. 9 Porsche/Riley, which took the victory in its debut after acquiring some of Brumos Racing's assets.
Joao Barbosa and Terry Borcheller return from the 2010 race-winning team, while Ryan Dalziel and Mike Rockenfeller have moved on. But the team replaced them with Christian Fittipaldi, who won the 2003 event, and J.C. France, the son of series founder Jim France, a former Brumos driver who has generally been out of the sport for the past couple years. The team certainly has the talent to defend their title; the only question is, will they gel?
While Braun is best recognized these days as a former Roush Fenway Racing development driver who impressed in the Trucks and somewhat bombed in Nationwide, he got his stock car opportunity by building up an impressive sports-car resume with Krohn Racing. This year he returns to his roots—although not with Krohn—by taking a ride in the No. 8 Starworks Motorsport Ford/Riley.
Braun will drive alongside defending race winner Ryan Dalziel, former IRL and Formula 1 driver Tomas Enge, and sports car specialists Mike Forest and Jim Lowe. The only questions are how the team will handle two entries this year instead of one—they will also field the No. 7—and how effective their switch from BMW to Ford power will be. (Unlike the car pictured above, this year's Starworks entry will carry the sponsorship of Corsa Car Care, which will give it a distinctive white, black, and yellow livery.)
The Racer's Group owner Kevin Buckler is no stranger to sports cars, having run a Porsche GT3 operation for years now and taking the victory in one of his own cars in the 2003 Rolex 24. Buckler's most recent challenge has been NASCAR, where he fielded cars for Bobby Labonte last season.
It has been this foray into stock cars that has enabled him to hire some solid NASCAR talent for his extra entries into this event. Kenny Wallace is first on that list; he will drive a No. 4 Porsche GT3 with sponsorship from the Children's Tumor Foundation. Wallace isn't the only one, though...
...as Brendan Gaughan will be one of five drivers to take the reins of Buckler's lead No. 67 Porsche GT3.
Gaughan and Buckler are no strangers; the Las Vegas native's most recent Sprint Cup attempts have come in Buckler-prepared Chevrolets. Unfortunately, those didn't pan out, probably a contributing reason—along with his family-owned South Point Casino sponsorship—to why Gaughan will see some extra Daytona seat time this year.
He'll have a solid surrounding cast that includes Wolf Henzler and Andy Lally, who drove to third in class last year. The No. 67 itself came second in class in 2010 to a Speedsource-prepared Mazda RX-8, but that car was prepared with Flying Lizard Motorsports, who have moved up to Daytona Prototypes for this year and taken all four of that car's drivers with them.
Though he's tried to reinvent himself as a NASCAR driver over the years, taking last year's Nationwide win at Montreal and coming close many other times, Said has always excelled in sports cars. He has a long history of driving for BMW-backed teams and took class wins at Daytona in 1997 and 1998.
Said will return to Turner Motorsport, with whom he placed eighth in class last year, and their No. 94 BMW M3 for this year's event. Alongside him will be Bill Auberlen and Paul Dalla Lana, returning from last year's event, and Matt Plumb, replacing the departed Joey Hand (now driving in Chip Ganassi's lead Daytona Prototype).
Another former road racing specialist returning to his roots, Marks will bring his Construct Corps sponsorship to Yellow Dragon Motorsports' No. 36 Mazda RX-8 for this year's event. None of the drivers competed in the Rolex 24 last year, nor did the team.
Marks is best known for bouncing between Toyota teams in NASCAR's lower divisions. His most notable rides have been with Germain Racing in Camping World Trucks and Braun Racing in the Nationwide Series. He also finished sixth in ARCA points last season while driving for Win-Tron Racing.
Remember Scott Pruett's brief NASCAR career? Yeah, me neither.
But to be honest, there's a bit of a shortage of top-level NASCAR talent in the Rolex 24 this year. Former Chase drivers like Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, and Greg Biffle haven't competed in the event in at least half a decade, while more recent competitors like Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, and Kurt Busch are sitting this one out. In fact, Jimmie Johnson is the only Chaser to be in the race this year.
But you probably want to read about winners, so let's close the slideshow with a proven one. Pruett made the Rolex Series beg for mercy last season, taking nine out of 12 victories in the same No. 01 BMW/Riley for Chip Ganassi Racing that he will drive this year. The team also led most of this race before a phantom issue with the car dropped them back to second.
Pruett's longtime co-driver, Memo Rojas, will return to the car with him, as will team newcomers Joey Hand and Graham Rahal. Their ultimate goal is to keep up a streak that has not seen the car finish worse than second since 2007. They won in 2007 and 2008, and incredibly finished on the lead lap the past two years.