NASCAR Drivers Invade Rolex 24

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Top NASCAR NEXTEL Cup drivers have invaded Daytona International Speedway this weekend as the annual Grand American Daytona Test Days for the season-opening Rolex 24 At Daytona got off to a fast and furious start Friday at "The World Center of Racing."

No less than nine full-time NASCAR NEXTEL Cup stars are slated to drive Daytona Prototypes in the season-opening Rolex 24, February 3 - 6, and six of them were in action Friday as three-day testing got underway on the 3.56-mile Daytona road course.

Reigning NEXTEL Cup champion Kurt Busch, Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle, Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, Casey Mears, Jamie McMurray and brothers Bobby and Terry Labonte will all drive top-of-the-line Daytona Prototypes in the 43rd annual running of North America's premier endurance race. Busch, Kenseth, Biffle, Mears, McMurray and the Labonte brothers all got behind the wheel Friday, some strapping into a Daytona Prototype for the very first time. Stewart will miss testing this weekend while he competes in the Chili Bowl midget race and Johnson is scheduled to arrive on Sunday.

NASCAR Cup Champions Bobby and Terry Labonte will share driving duties with IRL IndyCar Series driver Bryan Herta and sports car ace Jan Magnussen in the No. 44 Doran Racing Pontiac Doran. The two were among the drivers taking their first laps in the Daytona Prototype.

"It's a race you always watch and you always want to be a part of," said Bobby Labonte, who drives the No. 18 Interstate Batteries Chevrolet in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series. "We've always watched it on TV and we always know who wins from the Al Holbert days on back. It's kind of cool. Terry's driven this race before years ago. It's my first time and I'm really looking forward to it."

Terry Labonte, who is driving a limited NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series schedule in 2005, was a regular competitor in the Rolex 24 in the 1980s. Labonte made seven starts between 1981 and 1987 and posted an overall best finish of sixth.

"This is exciting," Terry Labonte said. "Bobby and I have been talking about this for a while. Bobby really did all the work putting this together. We've got a good team. I think it's a great series. I've been following the series for a while and it's really come a long way."

Terry Labonte said the biggest challenge in the grueling twice-around-clock challenge will be handling all the shifting duties on the Daytona Prototype, which is the premier division of the Rolex Sports Car Series.

"The biggest difference is shifting the transmission," Terry Labonte said. "This transmission is completely different than what I'm use to running. I think that's going to be the biggest thing to get adjusted too is upshifting and downshifting. They don't use a clutch where we use a clutch some in ours."

"It's quite a mix of people that come here for the 24 hours," Bobby Labonte said. "Obviously this race has been going on for a long time. It's definitely a neat program getting a lot of different people here to do this."

Casey Mears was another driver who made his Daytona Prototype debut in the No. 03 Target Lexus Riley.

"The Daytona Prototypes are similar to the Indy Cars that I used to drive, yet they stick a little better than the stock cars," said Mears who joins McMurray in a three-car, nine-driver powerhouse line-up from reigning Daytona Prototype champions Chip Ganassi Racing. "This is a totally different discipline. Talking to everyone, you run 85 or 90 percent pretty much the entire 24-hour race. The real objective for the first three-fourths of the race is to stay out of trouble and stay in contact with the leaders and try to be in a good, safe place and not be too hard on the car."

Mears will join fellow Ganassi teammates Darren Manning and 2003 IRL Champion Scott Dixon who carry similar Target sponsorship in the IndyCar Series.

"It's really fun that Target got the two Chip Ganassi cars together," Mears said. "We've got a Target super team here this weekend, so I'm looking forward to the run. This series just a couple years ago was having a hard time just staying alive, and they did a good job recreating it and bringing a lot of things back in to the sport. They made it attractive for guys from other areas of motorsports to come to the series. It's really cool and there's a lot of depth. It's interesting, and I get to race against some old friends."

The Labontes and Mears are part of the All-Star cast competing in the Rolex 24. In addition to the NASCAR standouts, other notable star drivers from other forms of motorsports competing in the Rolex 24 include Paul Tracy, Dario Franchitti, Buddy Rice, Scott Sharp, Stefan Johansson, Scott Dixon, Boris Said and Wally Dallenbach.

Grand American Rolex Sports Car Series regulars returning for the international event that kicks off the motorsports season include five-time Rolex 24 winner Hurley Haywood, Scott Pruett, Terry Borcheller, Wayne Taylor, Andy Wallace, Darren Law and Max Papis.

Rolex 24 At Daytona testing continues on Saturday and Sunday. Testing sessions are free and open to the public with access to the Oldfield Grandstand available through the lobby of DAYTONA USA. Tickets for the Feb. 5-6 Rolex 24 At Daytona are available online or by calling 1-800-PITSHOP.

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