The 24 Hours Of Earnhardt

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - All the press releases call it the 39th running of Daytona's endurance race, which anually kicks off Speedweeks and, therefore, the racing season.

But for all intents and purposes, this weekend's event should be known as the inaugural 24 Hours of Earnhardt.

The sports-car world has spent a decade or more trying to recapture a sliver of the fan interest and the accompanying glory that came during its 1960s heyday, when men like Gurney and Holbert and Donohue were household names, and when fans road-tripped to places like Watkins Glen and Sebring and Lime Rock instead of Darlington and Talladega and Martinsville.

The 24 Hours of Daytona - known officially as the "Rolex 24 at Daytona" - has long been considered one of the two most important endurance events in racing, with the other being that little get-together in France.

Many of the world's greatest sports-car drivers have won this race, and most of the sleekest hot-rods ever engineered have negotiated the 3.56-mile road course, which incorporates Daytona's famed tri-oval and its snaking infield layout.

None of that seems to matter this week. Why? Two words: Dale Earnhardt.

Sure, there are other names in the field that we recognize from more visible racing forums - Buddy Lazier, Scott Pruett, and Paul Gentilozzi among them. And Paul Newman is back again, still going through the gears at age 76. And Kyle Petty is moonlighting here for the first time, looking right at home among the "wine and cheese" crowd.

But a handful of North Carolina newspapers didn't send their motorsports writers to Daytona Beach to keep tabs on Buddy and Kyle. General Motors didn't ramp up the public-relations campaign because Johnny O'Connell will help drive a factory entry. And ticket-sales reps weren't shaken from their early-February slumber due to a sudden surge in the public's embrace of Porsche, Ferrari, and Saleen Mustangs.

Nope. This weekend, it's all about Earnhardt. Both of them, to be specific. Dale and Dale Jr. make up half the driving roster of the No. 3 Corvette, part of a two-car factory Corvette pairing in the 24 Hours. The Earnhardts are teamed with veteran road-racers Andy Pilgrim and Kelly Collins. The other Corvette is driven by Ron Fellows, Chris Kneifel, Franck Freon and O'Connell.

More than 80 cars will take the green flag Saturday at 1 p.m. (ET), and roughly half will still be around 24 hours later when the checkered flag makes its merciful appearance.

Aside from the length of the race, there are other unique characteristics of sports-car racing. For instance, where else can you find five different teams celebrating victory? It'll happen here, since the field features cars in five different divisions.

The wide variety of automobiles - the marquee open-cockpit prototypes, muscular Corvettes and Camaros, BMW, Porsche, Lola, Ferrari, etc. - running at a wide variety of speeds, leads to an endless string of tense laps through a minefield of traffic. No one escapes unscathed - cars nor drivers.

When it ends, nearly all involved look like they've just marched through several days of combat. The winners smell like a mixture of fuel, sweat, and drying champagne.

Due to the presence of the Earnhardts, more people will pay attention to it this year, and will likely see a type of racing they've never witnessed before. The same thing, no doubt, will be true of the Earnhardts themselves. As for a pure physical and mental whipping, Bristol has nothing on this marathon.

Note:Earnhardt's team qualified 19th fastest, is expected to take the team's second shift in the car - which means he should be getting in the car somewhere between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m... The No. 3 Corvette was third fastest in the GTS class.

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