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AUTO RACING ROUNDUP: Pruett delivers record, Rolex 24 win for Ganassi; reactions around garage vary to news Patrick dating fellow NASCAR rookie Stenhouse

Ganassi Racing team drivers, from front left, Scott Pruett, Charlie Kimball, Memo Rojas and Juan Pablo Montoya arrive in Victory Lane after winning the Grand-Am Series Rolex 24 hour auto race at Daytona International Speedway on Sunday.

Ganassi Racing team drivers, from front left, Scott Pruett, Charlie Kimball, Memo Rojas and Juan Pablo Montoya arrive in Victory Lane after winning the Grand-Am Series Rolex 24 hour auto race at Daytona International Speedway on Sunday.

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 in a race that had a record 74 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.”


Reactions vary about Patrick’s dating revelation

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Danica Patrick’s now-public personal life was a popular topic at Daytona International Speedway on Friday.

And there were varying opinions on how much attention, if any, Patrick’s admission should get.

Patrick told The Associated Press she and fellow NASCAR driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. are a couple, ending widespread speculation about the nature of their relationship. Patrick and Stenhouse waited until the end of a weeklong media tour to confirm they are dating.

Reaction ranged from well wishes to “oh, well.” The news also prompted plenty of jokes in the garage and in the grandstands.

“Who gets the (track) position getting into the corner?” NASCAR driver Clint Bowyer wanted to know. “‘You go. No, you go. No, no, you go.’ Who gets that position? There’s a lot of give and take in a relationship.”

Patrick and Stenhouse, both racing for Rookie of the Year honors in the Sprint Cup Series, insist their relationship will not affect how they drive or treat each other on the track.

That could be easier said than done.

“I think you’re going to have to wait about two weeks and ask them,” NASCAR driver Juan Pablo Montoya said.

Added defending IndyCar champion Ryan Hunter-Reay: “I wish them all the best. It’ll be an interesting side note to watch them compete against one another. If you’re boyfriend/girlfriend, there’s not even a variable out there. If you’re married, there might be some consequence when you come home. Two different boats.”

Some drivers scoffed at their admission.

“I thought there were much more important stories to report on than someone dating someone else,” NASCAR driver Jamie McMurray said. “That’s about where I stand on that.”

Patrick remains one of the most recognizable drivers in auto racing, even if wins have been few and far between. There was a belief that her advertising appeal had waned, but sponsor Go Daddy is featuring Patrick in the website domain provider’s commercials in the upcoming Super Bowl.

And because so much of her persona is attached to things outside of the male-dominated racing circuit, there naturally would be an interest in her dating life.

The 30-year-old Patrick announced in November that she and 47-year-old husband Paul Hospenthal were divorcing after seven years. Speculation immediately shifted toward her relationship with the 25-year-old Stenhouse. While her policy has always been not to talk about her personal life, Patrick said she made an exception this time to end the gossip and so the two could be open about their relationship.

“I think I am just finally excited to tell someone about this,” Patrick told AP.

Later in the day, she thanked fans for their support on her Twitter page.

“Thanks everyone for all of your nice messages, and the bump drafting jokes are cracking me up!” Patrick wrote. “Let the fun begin.”

Dating competitors is nothing new — not even in motorsports.

NHRA drivers Erica Enders and Richie Stevens dated for six years before getting engaged last year and married last month, and NASCAR Busch Series drivers Patti Moise and Elton Sawyer were married teammates in the early 1990s.

And then there are equally strong bonds from all those well-known racing families.

The Unser family raced against each other for years. Brothers Bobby and Al raced each other between 1965 and 1981, and Al Sr. raced his son from 1983 to 1993. Senior even edged Junior by a point for the 1985 IndyCar title.

Throw in the Andrettis, the Allisons, the Pettys, the Labontes, the Bodines and the Busches, and it’s hardly uncommon for people who care about one another to compete on the racetrack.

Sure, Patrick and Stenhouse are in a different situation. After all, what happens if they break up?

“Thanks a lot, Ricky,” Bowyer said sarcastically. “I’m down here enjoying the sunny weather in Daytona, at my first 24-hour race, and what do I get asked? About Ricky and Danica.”