3-time NASCAR champ looking for endurance victory
Published: Friday, January 23, 2009 at 5:30 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 23, 2009 at 5:30 p.m.
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Jimmie Johnson took part in a photo shoot Friday in Victory Lane at Daytona International Speedway, a place where he's spent time before.
But everything looked a little different this time for the 2006 Daytona 500 winner. Nearly two-dozen drivers surrounded the three-time reigning NASCAR Sprint Cup champion for the "racing legends" picture, most of them known as sports car endurance racers or IndyCar drivers.
Johnson is out of his element a bit this week, taking part in the Grand-Am Rolex 24, a race run on a 3.56-mile road circuit that winds through the Daytona infield and also uses about three-fourths of the 2½-mile NASCAR oval.
This is a one-off event for Johnson, but his Gainsco-Stallings Racing team finished second here a year ago, whetting the NASCAR star's appetite for what would be his first road-racing win.
"It's fun, but I keep reminding myself that these guys are running for a championship, too," Johnson said.
"Knowing how big this race is and how bad I want to win it, that all plays into it and makes me awfully serious," he added. "As the race is getting closer, I'm treating it more like a Cup weekend and a championship race for myself, like a normal race weekend."
The twice-around-the-clock event begins Saturday at 3:30 p.m., with Johnson starting 11th in a Pontiac Riley Daytona Prototype he will share with former IndyCar champion Jimmy Vasser and sports cars veterans Alex Gurney and Jon Fogarty.
NASCAR has banned most offseason testing because of the reeling economy, so Johnson hasn't spent much time in a race car since the 2008 Cup season ended in November. He said the 24 is a great way to get the new season started.
"It's in some ways more relaxed, but being with a team that's so focused on winning this race, it still does feel like a normal Cup race to me in many respects," he said.
PRIZE RIDE:@ One European racer can land a fully paid ride in a Daytona Prototype for the 2010 Rolex 24 through a special season-long driver challenge program in 2009.
The competition includes the British GT Championship, the Radical UK Cup, the Speed series and the British F3 International series. It is being sponsored by Anglo American Oil Company, the European distributor for Sunoco race fuels.
The competition will award 100 points for a victory, 80 points for second, 75 for third and so on through 15th place. In addition, 25 points will be given to both the pole winner and the driver with the fastest race lap. The driver who scores the most points will win a seat in next year's Grand-Am Rolex Series season opener.
The winner will also be given a flight to and accommodations for next year's race, and participate in the January Test Days.
Sunoco will provide race fuel for the prize winner's entry throughout the Rolex 24 weekend and test. The 2010 Daytona Prototype team will be determined at a later date.
RACING PASSION:@ This year's Rolex 24 is anything but just another race for Max Papis.
Papis, who has raced IndyCars, sports cars and stock cars since coming to America from his native Italy, is co-driving a Ferrari 430 Challenge in this weekend's race, along with two other drivers from Italy, one from Portugal and one from San Marino.
"It's kind of going back 10 years in a way," Papis said Friday. "When I came over here, nobody knew who I was. Now I'm back again in a Ferrari and people know who I am. It's kind of overwhelming to see how everything has changed in such a short time period."
Papis, who will drive a partial schedule in NASCAR's Camping World Truck Series and Sprint Cup this year for Germain Racing, pointed out that the owner of the team he is racing for this week is from his hometown, "a very small village in the north of Italy."
An official for the team is former racer Giancarlo Gagliardi, who Papis said, "is the reason I started racing."
When Papis was 10 years old, Gagliardi sold his father a go-cart in the shape of a Formula One car.
"I kept driving it around in the garden until one day I went to the racetrack and the passion started," Papis said. "I still have the go-cart in my house."
Papis, who has 11 NASCAR races to his credit — two in Cup, seven in Nationwide and two in trucks — will get started with his new team in the truck race at Auto Club Speedway in California in February. He is also entered in the Cup race at Las Vegas.
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