Drivers get back on track in sports cars

Posted: Thursday, January 31, 2002

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- While some NASCAR Winston Cup Series drivers are complaining about the demands of the 38-race season, a handful can't seem to get enough.

At least six stock car specialists will participate in this weekend's Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona sports car race at Daytona International Speed way. For most, it's a relaxing way to get ready for the grueling season that starts a week later with the Budweiser Shootout all-star race.

''I was sitting at home watching this, and I thought 'Hey, those guys look like they're having fun.' Let's go down there and try it,'' Kyle Petty said.

Petty will be joined by Tony Stewart, Robby Gordon, Wally Dallenbach, Derrike Cope and Kevin Harvick in the twice-around-the-clock race on the speedway's 3.56-mile road course.

Petty said the sports car race provides a better transition from the off-season to the start of Speed Weeks.

''It's pretty tough to come down here and have your Gatorade 125s (qualifying races for the Daytona 500) be your initial race and the Daytona 500 be your next race,'' Petty said. ''There's a lot of pressure on those races. The 24-hour race kind of takes some of the butterflies from it.

''The only disadvantage is, you're racing out of your league. You stand the chance of coming down and looking like an idiot. We're not road-racers by any stretch. I wouldn't put myself on par with the guys on my own team, much less with James Weaver, El liott Forbes-Robinson or Jack Baldwin. People get to a point where they build a name for themselves. They got an ego, and you stand a good chance of coming down here and getting your ego bruised. Maybe I don't have much of an ego, or I don't care.''

Gordon will be paired with Jim Matthews, Scott Sharp and Guy Smith in a Ford-powered Riley & Scott Mark III-C; Stew art will work with Jan Lam mers and Johnny Mowlem in a Judd-Crawford; Petty will drive with Leo Hindrey and Peter Baron in a Porsche GT3 R; Dallenbach will be in another Riley & Scott with Steve Knapp, George Robinson and Baldwin; Bill Auberlen, Cort Wagner and Costantino Bert uz zi will share driving duties with Cope in a Ferrari 360; and Harvick is with Dave Liniger, Rick Carelli and John Metcalf in a Chevrolet Corvette.

''The whole goal here is to have fun,'' Harvick said. ''We still want to win the race, but the main objective is to have a good time and relax and get into the groove for the (Winston) Cup season.''

Like Petty, Harvick is happy to have the opportunity to work out the kinks in a sports car before he embarks on a stock car schedule that doesn't end until the Sunday before Thanksgiving.

''There's no reason we shouldn't start a week earlier,'' Harvick said. ''You don't have to work the jitters out in the Winston Cup car. When you get done with this race, you will have been in the car for quite awhile, hopefully working out the kinks.''

The 24-hour race starts at 1 p.m. Saturday.

EARNHARDT MEMORIALS: The plywood walls in front of Daytona USA are supposed to keep the project secret, but news that a statue of legendary driver Dale Earnhardt will be added to the motorsports attraction was too hard to keep quiet.

Earnhardt was killed on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, and speedway officials have wrestled with several ideas on how to honor the seven-time champion.

They have kept quiet about the project, but city records show the speedway obtained a $375 building permit for a sculpture valued at $60,000.

In addition to the sculpture, a pedestrian bridge in front of the speed way will open in time for this weekend's Rolex 24 Hours of Day tona.

The bridge was named

The Dale Earnhardt Memorial Bridge with a unanimous vote by the city commission.

State funds were used to pay for the $4.2 million bridge that will allow fans to cross busy six-lane-wide U.S. High way 92 without interrupting traffic on race day. The speedway donated about $1 million worth of land for the project, while the city will pay for the memorial plaques at both ends of the bridge.

PIT STOPS: The old Galaxy Motorsports team might be back in business. Team owner Darwin Oordt got a new partner recently in former Min nesota Vikings coach Dennis Green, and the two plan to return to the Winston Cup series later this year. ''We won't be at Daytona, but I wouldn't rule out racing at some point not too long afterwards,'' Oordt said. The team is pursuing a full-time sponsor. Busch Series cars testing for the NAPA 300 at Daytona were about 2 mph faster than Win ston Cup cars testing for the Daytona 500. Hooter's, which has been off the Winston Cup Series for five years as a sponsor, will return for the Daytona 500 with driver Kirk Shelmerdine.

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