NASCAR drivers making waves in Daytona

Posted: Sunday, February 01, 2004

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) NASCAR stars Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. combined with sports car ace Andy Wallace to hold the lead in a heavy rain nearing the halfway point in the Rolex 24 endurance race.

''It was fun,'' Stewart said after a late-night stint Saturday in the team's Chevrolet-powered Crawford Daytona Prototype. ''I was pretty nervous. I knew Dale was running good times and I knew the car was capable of going fast. I just didn't know what to expect.''

NASCAR's stock cars, with their slick tires and racing mostly on ovals, don't run when it gets wet. Stewart laughed when asked if he has any experience driving in the rain.

''Driving to the grocery store and back,'' the 2002 Winston Cup champion said.

Earnhardt had a spin in the rain but lost very little ground.

Earnhardt said he gave Stewart a few tips about the worst parts of the wet course but added, ''He's a natural. you could dump snow out here and he'd probably get around here better than any of us.''

As for his own drive in the rain, Earnhardt said he was having fun.

''Once I got comfortable, I just felt pretty good,'' he said.

Daytona Prototypes, in only their second year of Rolex Series competition, held down the top six spots as the wet Sunday morning began in the twice-around-the-clock event. They were separated by nine laps on the 3.56-mile Daytona International Speedway road course.

There were only six of the new prototypes entered here in 2003 and a GT class car won the event when most of the prototypes had mechanical problems. This year, there are 17 prototypes and it is anticipated that one of them will win.

Second, two laps behind, was the pole-winning Lexus Riley of reigning Trans-Am champion Scott Pruett, Max Papis and defending Indy Racing League champion Scott Dixon, with the Pontiac Doran of defending prototype series champion Terry Borcheller, Andy Pilgrim, Christian Fittipaldi and Forest Barber on the same lap.

Jimmie Johnson, another NASCAR Nextel Cup star, and teammates Butch Leitzinger, Elliott Forbes-Robinson and David Brules were fourth in another Chevrolet Crawford. They were followed by the Pontiac Riley of Wayne Taylor, Max Angelelli and Emmanuel Collard and the Porsche Fabcar prototype of six-time Daytona winner Hurley Haywood, J.C. France, Scott Sharp and Tommy Riggins. The rain began early in the third hour of the race and kept coming down, sometimes in windblown sheets.

''I'm not very happy running in the wet,'' said Fittipaldi, nephew of longtime Formula One and Indy-car star Emerson Fittipaldi. ''There's very little grip, but the car is running beautifully and I guess the conditions are the same for everybody out there.''

There were a series of full-course caution flags brought out by accidents or off-course excursions in the wet conditions.

One of the yellow flags waved when NASCAR star Robby Gordon slid into the concrete wall on the backstretch as he came out of the chicane put in to slow the cars on the portion of the course that is part of NASCAR's famed 2 1/2-mile oval.

''We just got into a puddle coming on through the chicane and the thing turned around on me,'' Gordon said.

The team was able to repair the damage and get the car back on track, but it was running close to the rear of the field.

Fifty-three cars, divided among three classes, were in the starting lineup that took the green flag at 1:12 p.m.

Most of the pre-race attention was concentrated on a group of famous names, including Earnhardt, Stewart, Johnson, Kyle Petty, Gordon, Fittipaldi and Paul Newman.

Newman, the actor-driver who turned 79 last Monday, found the rain less to his liking than some of the other drivers, spinning twice during his first driving stint on Saturday.

''I couldn't see the puddles,'' Newman said. ''The wipers weren't working.''

A little while later, the Porsche Fabcar prototype co-driven by Newman, Petty who also spun once Gunnar Jeannette and Michael Brockman, went out of the race, victim of an engine failure.

Pruett, a three-time Daytona winner who put Chip Ganassi Racing's first-ever sports car entry on the pole on Thursday, said, ''It's all patience in this kind of racing, especially in the rain.

''You have to stay close, but you don't want to tear up the car too much in a 24-hour race. We have a pace in mind for the early hours and, hopefully, that will help us be there on Sunday.''

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