DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Humbled a year ago when both its cars failed to make the podium, Chip Ganassi Racing returned to the Rolex 24 at Daytona determined to pick up another victory watch.
An eyebrow-raising lineup change that involved Juan Pablo Montoya showed just how serious the team was about winning, and it delivered Sunday with its fifth win in 10 appearances in the prestigious sports car race. The victory was the fifth for lead driver Scott Pruett, tying Hurley Haywood’s record for wins in the twice-around-the-clock race at Daytona International Speedway.
“Having gotten to know Hurley real well over the years by racing with him and just as a friend, and to have him there at the end was pretty special,” Pruett said.
The winning team of three-time defending Grand-Am drivers Pruett and Memo Rojas, along with Montoya and IndyCar driver Charlie Kimball, making his Rolex debut, beat the Max Angelelli-led VelocityWW team by almost 22 seconds.
It was Montoya who closed out the win, driving the final stint and waging a strong battle in the final hour with defending champion AJ Allmendinger. Ganassi’s No. 01 BMW Riley had a clear horsepower advantage, and once Montoya got past Allmendinger, the win was his for the taking.
But the Ganassi team figured it was four laps short on fuel, and Montoya needed to build a lead of at least 40 seconds to hold off Angelelli and Allmendinger when he was forced to stop for gas. The Colombian did it by turning laps close to qualifying pace, and breezed to his third Rolex victory.
“It was a lot of pressure; I thought we have a decent lead, we’re just going to go out there and ride for two and a half hours,” Montoya said. “And then you realize there’s a caution and another caution and another caution, and with the way the rules are and the speed the car had, it’s like you didn’t want to get into a … contest with anybody. You had to be smart about when you passed them.
“We were kind of concerned about the (Shank) car, what they were going to do with fuel because they told me they could make it until the end and that we were going to have to push, and we pushed like crazy and opened up a hell of a gap. It was fun.”
Montoya’s other two wins were with Pruett on the No. 01 car in 2007 and 2008, but he spent the last three years driving for the No. 02 Ganassi “star car” and came away empty-handed each time. When the Ganassi cars were left off the Rolex podium last season for the first time since 2005, team management went to work on the cars and setting up a lineup that gave them two chances to win.
Montoya admitted he thought the switch was “a weird move,” but owner Chip Ganassi and team manager Mike Hull insisted it wasn’t a demotion for the driver who has been stuck in a lengthy slump in his full-time NASCAR job.
Ganassi said the Montoya move was Hull’s call, but he also questioned it when the decision was made.
“I read that as you did, and I asked him about it, and he said it was to balance the thing out,” Ganassi said. “We needed to balance it out. We also had Charlie Kimball in that car, and we wanted to give those guys every opportunity to win, as well, and we thought the 02 car was obviously very strong, and so we thought we had two good shots at it here.”
The No. 02 car, driven by Indy 500 winners Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon, Daytona 500 winner Jamie McMurray and sports car ace Joey Hand, was strong until McMurray hit the wall exiting pit road following an early morning driver change. The damage to the steering may have contributed to the mechanical failure that knocked the car out of the race with four hours remaining.
“It’s hard. This is different than crashing in a regular event,” McMurray said. “When it’s just you, it’s not the same as having three other teammates and the amount of people we’ve had down here for testing. It is very embarrassing, very humbling, very heartbreaking to be the guy that does that. You don’t want to be that guy.”
In all, Ganassi’s two cars combined to lead an overwhelming majority of the 709 laps. The No. 01 team led 421 laps in a race that had 24 drivers combine for a record 77 lead changes.
But the attention was on Montoya, who is clearly under pressure to perform this year, the final year of his contract with Ganassi.
“I think you always race for your job. It’s normal,” Montoya shrugged.
He stepped up Saturday and Sunday as the No. 01 team had to balance out Kimball’s inexperience. It was the first time racing in a car with a roof on it for Kimball, who has diabetes and uses his fight with the disease as his platform.
“Having these guys as teammates takes a heck of a lot off my shoulders because I knew that I could settle in, and as long as I was smart and didn’t make too many big mistakes and kept us in the race, they’d put us in a position to win at the end,” said Kimball, who had one turn in the car for two late-night stints.
The Chevrolet team of Angelelli, defending IndyCar champion Ryan Hunter-Reay and Jordan Taylor finished second for team owner Wayne Taylor — redemption after an engine failure 22 minutes in last year’s event ended the team’s day. But Angelelli was bothered by engine restrictions to their Chevy that gave the Ganassi BMW’s a clear power advantage.
“We have something restricted, OK? Just like driving with handcuffs; you can’t do it, can’t drive,” he said. “Montoya and the 01 car is another league, is an A class. We are B class.”
Defending race winner Michael Shank Racing twice came back from seven laps down to finish third in a Ford. It was a disappointing finish for team owner Shank, but a moral victory considering the hole the team clawed out of to make it to the podium.
Allmendinger, racing at Daytona for the first time since NASCAR suspended him for failing a random drug test hours before the July race here, teamed with fellow NASCAR driver Marcos Ambrose, IndyCar driver Justin Wilson and Grand-Am regulars John Pew and Ozz Negri for the finish.
Ambrose was added to last year’s winning lineup after Negri broke his leg a month ago during offseason training, but Negri was able to return to the car this weekend for limited driving duties a mere six days after his cast was removed.
“We were saying that on the way over, John and I, how if you’d have told us after the first hour we could have a chance of finishing third, we would have been over the moon,” Wilson said. “As we were on the podium, we were thinking, well, there’s nothing quite like being first, but we just have to be grateful for the chance we had.”
Audi Sport Customer Racing won the GT class in an Audi R8 with drivers Filipe Albuquergue, Oliver Jarvis, Edoardo Mortara and Dion von Moltke.