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NASCAR's Ganassi floods Rolex 24 at Daytona

Photo by Mike Phillips

Photo by Mike Phillips

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla -- Chip Ganassi sent drivers to Victory Lane in three of the four most prestigious races in America last year.

The one that got away? A second-place finish in the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona.

Ganassi already has three victories in the twice-around-the-clock endurance event. But when his drivers collected the trophies in the Daytona 500, Indianapolis 500 and Brickyard 400, not having the Rolex watch suddenly became a glaring void.

"To finish second in that race didn't really hurt that much until we started to have that year we had after that race," Ganassi said. "It hurt a little more then. We want to go back and win the thing; that's why we're going back."

Ganassi goes back to the opening race of the Grand-Am season with an all-star lineup for the race that begins Saturday afternoon on the 3.56-mile road course that snakes through the infield at Daytona International Speedway. The course also includes about three-fourths of the high-banked NASCAR oval.

Ganassi brought eight drivers for two BMW Rileys. Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas, winners of two of the last three Grand-Am titles, team with Graham Rahal and Joey Hand in the No. 01.

The No. 02 BMW Riley boasts reigning IndyCar and Indianapolis 500 champion Dario Franchitti, Daytona 500 champion Jamie McMurray, Scott Dixon and Juan Pablo Montoya.

The two star-studded lineups give Ganassi a really good shot at a fourth title. Dixon, Franchitti, Montoya, Pruett and Rojas have all been on winning teams as Ganassi entries reeled off three-consecutive victories from 2006 to 2008.

"I think there's a lot of really good cars, but we have the most complete group of drivers you can find and that plays into our advantage a little bit," Montoya said. "But you've still got to run the race, you've still got to get the job done and you've got to have some things go your way."

The Ganassi streak ended last year when the No. 02 entry retired in the early morning hours with an engine failure after leading 139 laps.

The No. 01 entry was still in contention until then-Ganassi driver Justin Wilson made an ill-advised stop while leading with about three hours remaining because he thought something was wrong with his car.

That gave the victory to Action Express Racing, in its debut race. The team of castoffs formed after Brumos Racing cut its program to one car weathered both a rain-soaked start and the multiple issues that arise from racing 24 hours straight.

Joao Barbosa was behind the wheel of the No. 9 Porsche Riley when it stunningly crossed the finish line 50 seconds ahead of the Ganassi entry.

"It's a different feeling coming back, but it's the same motivation as last year," Barbosa said. "We're better prepared this year. Last year, we were kind of a surprise, and I think this year we're contenders based on what we've done so far."

But teammate Terry Borcheller, a two-time winner in the Daytona prototype class, isn't so sure they've got enough to beat the Ganassi cars twice.

"All those teams have speed. That's something we don't have yet, so we have to rely on a perfect race," Borcheller said. "They can have a hiccup and still recover. It's going to be very hard for us to do that because we don't have the outright pace that they've got yet.

"That's how we went through the race last year. We knew we didn't have the pace, so it had to be clean. We couldn't make one mistake. We're in that same position this year. I'd rather have it the other way. It's going to be very difficult for us."

Jorg Bergmeister will start from the pole in the No. 45 Porsche Riley for Flying Lizard Motorsports, while Max Angelelli of Sun Trust Racing will line up second. Pruett will start one Ganassi entry in third, Dixon starts the other entry in fifth and the defending champions will start 12th.

Although the goal for the Ganassi cars is to bring the title home for the boss, the cars are most certainly competing against each other come Saturday.

Pruett and Rojas are the defending Grand-Am champions, and their goal is to start their title defense with a strong run in the biggest race of the season. The No. 02 entry is made up of moonlighters, and winning is the only goal.

"The philosophy is quite different. For Memo and I, we're racing for a championship, so we're always heads-up with that," Pruett said. "The 02 car, they're here for one race, so the way you'll go after the race, the way you'll run the race, is very different.

"That gives Ganassi a very different two-prong thrust to win this thing, one being a little more aggressive and one being a little more conservative."

But Ganassi isn't counting on anything. The only owner to win both the Daytona 500 and the Indianapolis 500 in the same season isn't expecting automatic success, and came back to Daytona this week with the mindset that everyone is starting at scratch.

"It's a new scoresheet this year," he said. "The race we want to win and we're focused on is the next race, and that just so happens to be here at Daytona. The minute you start expecting things in this sport, I think you're going to be sadly disappointed."