NASCAR Invades Rolex 24

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DAYTONA - The Winston Cup season, many will tell you, has become unbearable. Just too damn long. Thirty-six full-field races, two other exhibition events.

Too much.

With that in mind, why would anyone want to add two weekends of racing to his schedule? Well, for starters, it beats golf.

“There’s no pressure. The whole goal here is to have fun.”

Those are the words of Kevin Harvick, who's among a handful of Winston Cup drivers moonlighting in sportscars for this year's Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona. Several of the good ol’ boys joined the sophisticated ol’ chaps for a few days of testing this past Thursday through Saturday at Daytona.

When race weekend rolls around Feb. 3-4 to kick off Speedweeks, Harvick will be taking turns in a Corvette fielded by Daytona-based Flis Motorsports. His teammates include John Metcalf, Dave Liniger and NASCAR Truck Series driver Rick Carelli.

The entry that raises the most eyebrows, but probably shouldn't, is that of Tony Stewart. He’ll be in a Judd-powered Sportsracer Prototype, the marquee division of the Grand American series. Consider this to be another notch in the belt of North Americ’s most versatile racer.

“Everybody knows that if I get an off weekend and can go race somewhere, I’ll go race,” Stewart said between sessions this past week. “I’ve always driven so many different racecars in my career, it’s nice to add this to the list.”

Robby Gordon and Wally Dallenbach are also part of sportscar teams for this year’s 24 Hours. Gordon is hardly new to this race. He was co-driver on four straight class winners between 1990-93. This year, Gordon is in a strong contender for overall victory – a factory-backed Riley & Scott prototype owned by Jim Matthews. One of Gordon’s co-drivers is another crossover driver, Scott Sharp from the Indy Racing League.

Dallenbach, who may do some Cup racing this year in addition to his NBC announcing duties, has also posted four class wins in previous 24 Hours events at Daytona. He too will be in an overall contender – a Riley & Scott prototype owned by George Robinson, who will share driving duties with Dallenbach, Jack Baldwin and another IRL driver, Steve Knapp.

Kyle Petty is back for a second consecutive year, co-driving a Porsche that finished seventh last year. His testimonials may have helped lead to the increase in NASCAR crossovers this year, which may lead to more in the future.

“I had a blast last year,” said Petty. “I told my father when I went home last year that it's hard to believe that Winston Cup racing used to be like that – where you just enjoyed going and having fun.”

As for the actual driving, Petty faced a readjustment period.

“I still wanted to drive it like a Winston Cup car on a road course,” said Petty. “That’s not the way you drive these cars. After I’d run about four or five laps, it began to come back a little bit.”

Harvick, who moved to the Daytona Beach area last summer, didn't wait long to discover the joy of wheeling a well-muscled Corvette around Daytona's 3.56-mile road course.

“Man, that thing is fun,” said Harvick. “It drives a lot different than a Cup car. The acceleration in that car is incredible. You get the tires warmed up on that Corvette and it really sticks going through the turns.”

The Top 5 Rolex Sports Car Series Speeds for Saturday were: 1. No. 27 Doran Lista Racing Judd Dallara - Fredy Lienhard, Didier Theys, Max Papis, 127.942 mph; 2. No. 36 Jim Matthews Racing Ford Riley & Scott - Jim Matthews, Scott Sharp, Robby Gordon, Guy Smith, 127.192 mph; 3. No. 2 Judd Crawford - Jan Lammers, Tony Stewart, Johnny Mowlem, 126.722 mph; 4. No. 16 Dyson Racing Ford Riley & Scott - James Weaver, Butch Leitzinger, Oliver Gavin, 126.579 mph; 5. No. 49, Ascari, 125.859 mph.

Other notables included: 31. No. 90 Flis Motorsports Corvette - Dave Liniger, Rick Carelli, Metcalf, Kevin Harvick, 111.896 mph; 38. No. 43 Orbit Racing GT3 R - Leo Hindery, Kyle Petty, Peter Baron, 111.061 mph.

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