Hes A Jolly Good Fellows

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Dale Earnhardt has been to victory lane at Daytona 34 times.

Well, 35 now. Except this time, he was mostly spectating and congratulating others.

Most of the prerace attention focused on the Earnhardts - Dale and Junior - and the No. 3 Corvette they would co-drive with Kelly Collins and Andy Pilgrim in the 24 Hours of Daytona. But it was their sister car, the No. 2 led by Ron Fellows, that stole the show.

The lesser-known half of the two-car Corvette factory effort outlasted the 80-car field over the weekend to win the 39th running of Daytona's annual Speedweeks-opening endurance race.

"I'm gonna remember it for as long as I can remember stuff. It's damn important to me," said Chris Kneifel, part of the four-man driving team that nurtured, tip-toed and, at times, horse-whipped the No. 2 Corvette for 24 soggy hours around Daytona's 3.56-mile course.

Coming in, the Corvette squad was simply gunning for class win - to finish first among the 14 entries in the GTS division. But when the front-running Dyson Racing Ford - fastest among Grand Am's marquee division, the open-cockpit SportsRacer Prototypes - blew an engine less than four hours from the finish, the No. 2 Corvette found itself in the overall lead.

And a few hours later, they'd had the overall win, following in the footsteps of another American production car - the Dodge Viper, which won overall honors last year. The winning driving team consisted of Kneifel, Fellows, Johnny O'Connell and Franck Freon.

"I am so proud," said Fellows, the road-racing ace and personable Canadian who held the trophy aloft in victory lane and declared it "better than winning the Stanley Cup."

The "Earnhardt" Corvette was hardly a disappointment, finishing fourth overall.

"It was great to have a 1-2 GTS class finish for the Corvette," said Earnhardt Jr. "We're happy about it, but if you're a racer, you're never satisfied."

His father, who joined the victory celebration and the accompanying champagne showers, was relieved and satisfied, and generally pleased with the experience.

"I'm proud to have made it to the end of a great race like this 24-hour race," he said. "It was a great privilege to be able to drive with these guys. I'm sure glad we made it to the end."

Time Machines: Kneifel, at just 39, has now won races in four different decades. He first won in the late-1970s in the Formula Ford Series, and has won races in sports cars and Trans-Am cars over the following few decades.

His last win came in 1995, in a Trans-Am race in New Zealand.

Kneifel raced Indy cars in the early-1980s until he became too big for the sport - literally.

The CART series changed body styles prior to the 1984 season, switching to carbon fiber, which resulted in tighter quarters, and the 6-foot-6 Kneifel would no longer safely fit inside the cars.

"Best thing that ever happened to me when I look back at it," says Kneifel.

Different Strokes: The 24 Hours is different in a lot of ways, especially on race morning.

At any of the handful of NASCAR events here during February, the garage marauders have their caps set for that all-important picture of Mark Martin, or that autograph from Bobby Labonte.

But on the first Saturday of Speedweeks - for a delightful change of pace - the automobiles are the stars of the show. And that fact is noticed favorably by a man more accustomed to spending prerace hours posing for photos and signing T-shirts.

"This is a car group," said NASCAR veteran Kyle Petty, on hand to wheel a Porsche. "It's a different crowd. The intensity is the same. These guys want to race. The fans out there, their intensity is the same, too; it's just focused on something different. It's not focused on the individual. I enjoy this part of it."

Petty pointed out across the way to a man carrying a big yellow flag with the familiar logo of the prancing pony.

"Look at the guy going there with the yellow Ferrari flag," said Petty. "How many people would you see walking through the (NASCAR) garage area with a Dodge flag or a Chevy flag? It would have a big 3 on it, or a 24. You'd know where their allegiance was. That guy's allegiance over there is to the car, more so than to the personality."

Miracle Worker: To Jim Michaelian, this past weekend's 24-hour race was part miracle, part relief.

Michaelian is a 57-year-old part-time racer out of Southern California who was the object of many double-takes. Simple reason for that: You're not accustomed to seeing a guy whose driver uniform includes a patch over his left eye.

Michaelian had his eye removed about a month ago after a rare form of cancer was found enveloping the eyeball. In a few months, after sufficient healing and reduction in swelling, he'll be fitted for a glass eye. Until then, it's the black patch. Either way, however, he only sees out of his right eye, and in case you haven't noticed, the world isn't flush with one-eyed racers.

But Michaelian did well in last month's test session, and landed a ride for his fourth Daytona 24-hour race, sharing duties in the No. 68 Porsche in the GT division.

"My times were competitive, and I felt good," he said of the January test. "I ran at day and I ran at night, so we put together a deal to run here."

He doesn't bother trying to convince anyone there wasn't an adjustment to be made.

"I found myself having to concentrate more," he said. "You don't let your eyes wander... your eye, that is - I've gotta get used to that. And you've gotta focus and be aware of your circumstances."

Obviously, the buzz of race morning meant more to Michaelian than most others.

"I'm thankful to just be here, quite frankly," he said. "Then, to be able to participate in the race is even an added bonus. First thing you think about is preserving your life, and the next thing you do is try to re-establish it as normally as you can. To be able to do both of those... I'm very excited about being able to compete."

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