Pruett off to strong start in Rolex 24 at Daytona

(AP) Pruett off to strong start in Rolex 24 at Daytona
By MARK LONG
AP Sports Writer
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.
Scott Pruett's chase for the Rolex record got off to a strong start Saturday.

Pruett and his Chip Ganassi Racing teammates were leading or near the front of the field during the early stages of the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Pruett started the grueling endurance race on the pole and was the fastest in the 57-car field. It was the perfect way for Pruett to begin his pursuit of Hurley Haywood's record of five Rolex victories.

"I don't know it we have enough for Ganassi," fellow driver Jordan Taylor admitted.

Pruett, a five-time series champion, maneuvered the No. 01 BMW Riley around the 3.56-mile road course without any problems _ something few drivers could say in the early going.

AJ Allmendinger, whose Michael Shank Racing team won the event last year, fell way behind in the first hour after breaking a left-front tie rod on the No. 60 Ford Riley. The part affected steering and suspension, and left the car seven laps back.

Allmendinger was suspended by NASCAR last season for failing a random drug test and sent home hours before the July race at Daytona. He was hoping to make a triumphant return while defending his Rolex title.

Instead, Allmendinger and teammates Ozz Negri, Justin Wilson, John Pew and Marcos Ambrose could have a tough time catching up. Then again, anything can and often does happen in the twice-around-the-clock test that kicks off the racing season.

"Luckily, it happened in the kink," Allmendinger said. "If it'd happened in the banking, I'd have killed myself. It was big. So once I got in the grass, I just tried to get it whoa'ed down, but still not dig the nose in the grass. At least it's early."

The team can gain a lap back with every caution, but those have been few and far between through the first five hours.

"There's no hanging back there," said Negri, racing with a broken right foot. "We need to be pedal to the metal, and we need cautions."

Allmendinger wasn't the only driver who ran into trouble early, either.

Fellow Daytona Prototype drivers Stephane Sarrazin, Ian James and Bruno Junqueira fell laps behind. Sarrazin had a transmission problem. James had a gearbox failure. Junqueira spun off the track. Emmanuel Anassis also had issues.

So, five of the 17 cars in the DP class were seemingly out of it.

And considering that the six Corvettes in the field were so slow in qualifying that Grand-Am officials gave them an extra five horsepower Friday, the two Ganassi cars are the clear-cut favorites. Grand-Am officials previously stripped the Chevrolets of power.

"It cost us dramatically," said Alex Gurney of Gainsco/Bob Stallings Racing. "Really, I don't understand why they did it. I mean, I think they felt that a lot of guys were sandbagging, and it turned out that they weren't. In my view, they put a penalty on the slowest car on the straight. I don't get that."

Pruett and his teammates could be the beneficiaries.

"The (car) is running really good," Pruett said. "It's fun to drive. The car is really fun. You can carve your way through traffic. You need to be heads-up, as we see out there. It can be a little wild with some of the GT cars. They'll get racing four or five abreast, and you really have to pick your way through those guys. Short of that, it's been trouble free."

Pruett gave way to longtime teammate Memo Rojas after 2 1/2 hours behind the wheel. Rojas lost a spot on the driver change, but overtook Sebastien Bourdais around the three-hour mark. NASCAR driver Juan Pablo Montoya and IndyCar regular Charlie Kimball also drove stints in the No. 01 car.

Ganassi's other car, the No. 02, also spent considerable time near the front. But four-time IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti lost several positions on a restart that left him trying to make up spots as the sun set on the famed speedway. IndyCar's Scott Dixon, NASCAR's Jamie McMurray and sports-car specialist Joey Hand were teamed with Franchitti.

The star-studded field, which started with 57 cars split into three classes, included several NASCAR drivers and nearly a dozen IndyCar regulars.

Clint Bowyer, the runner-up in NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series last season, provided plenty of levity after his stint in the No. 56 Ferrari for AF Waltrip. Making his Rolex debut, Bowyer hit the kill switch getting into the GT car and drove through the chicane.

"My biggest worry being here is just staying out of the way and not ruining one of the DP cars," Bowyer said.

He also had concerns about the schedule.

"I don't know what you do now," he said. "I guess we have like a five-hour break. Twiddle our thumbs? What time is it anyway? 7:30? We're almost to halfway, right? Who came up with the idea of a 24-hour race anyway?"

Um, NASCAR founder Bill France Sr., which someone quickly pointed out.

"Oh, that's pretty cool then," Bowyer responded, drawing laughter.

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