By JENNA FRYER, Associated Press
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — 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.