Pruett still gets goose bumps at Daytona

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Scott Pruett will be making his 30th career start in the Rolex 24 at Daytona. Pruett won the pole for Sunday's race on Thursday with a fast lap of 127.455 mph.   JOHN RAOUX/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Scott Pruett will be making his 30th career start in the Rolex 24 at Daytona. Pruett won the pole for Sunday's race on Thursday with a fast lap of 127.455 mph.

Scott Pruett vividly remembers the first time he drove through the fourth turn tunnel and saw the colossal Daytona International Speedway for the first time.

“I got goose bumps,” he said. “I was 8. I was going to race my go kart. I remember it like it was yesterday.”

Even if was 45 years ago.

Pruett, now 52, is back at Daytona for today’s start of the Rolex 24 at Daytona for his 30th start in the sports car marathon. With four overall victories, he’s just one win short of Hurley Haywood’s all-time record of five.

And since his BMW-powered Riley Daytona Prototype will start on the pole (3:30 p.m., SPEED), there’s a growing sentiment throughout the garage area Haywood’s record is destined to eventually fall.

“He’ll probably break it,” Haywood said.

Although he’s stalking racing immortality, Pruett said the challenges of keeping his sports car at full speed for 24 hours is the only thing that matters. He’s done everything else, including a record five Grand-Am Road Racing championships and the most victories (38) in Grand-Am history.

All that’s missing is tying Haywood’s record as the biggest race of the year, and everyone at Chip Ganassi Racing is committed to making it happen.

Pruett won the pole Thursday with a fast lap of 127.455 mph. The car also was fastest in Friday’s final practice session. Baring mechanical problems or a run-in with another car on the 3.56-mile road course, Pruett fully believes his fifth win will come as early as Sunday.

“It looks pretty good so far,” he said. “Short of contact, we can run these cars hard. We’ve shown over the last few years we can run a very aggressive sprint pace. We will and we do. They’re meant to go thousands of miles.

“It’s going to be an epic race.”

Memo Rojas, Juan Pablo Montoya, Charlie Kimball and Scott Dixon will share the driving duties with Pruett.

“Our attitude is to run hard and run smart,” Pruett said. “We can go hard. To be here as many times as I have, it never gets old. I still get goose bumps.”

A second Ganassi entry will start on the outside pole with drivers Dario Franchitti, Jamie McMurray, Joey Hand, Dixon and Pruett.

Grand-Am allows drivers to work with two cars, but Pruett can only receive points toward another Daytona Prototype championship in the pole-winning entry. He can, however, get credit for another 24-hour win in the second car.

Given Ganassi’s impressive sports car record at Daytona – his cars are tied with Jacksonville’s Brumos Racing with a record four team victories – Pruett essentially has doubled his chances to make history this weekend.

“I do expect to beat him,” Pruett said. “I can do this race for a lot more years.”

Haywood expects the same. He knows Ganassi is driven to win the biggest sports car race in America every year, and more than anyone else, he understands what drives Pruett.

“What makes all of us good is the passion,” Haywood said. “We love to do this. I know how he feels. I was the leader while I was active. I can’t defend that number any more since I’ve retired. For 40 years I was the luckiest guy alive when I did this.”

Pruett feels the same way.

“I’ve been blessed with a great career,” Pruett said. “If it’s meant to be, it will be. I wake up every morning and pinch myself. I think the good Lord as blessed me with a great career.”

Surviving 24 hours on a mixture of Daytona’s high banks and twisting road course isn’t easy, especially with 40 slower cars from the GT and GX classes on the same track. The 17 prototypes in the field will start up front, including the BMW-Riley for Dan Cameron, Simon Pagenaud, Wayne Nonnamaker and Bruno Junqueira in third and the Ford-Riley for Michael Valiante, Chris Cumming, Jorge Goncalvez and Gustavo Yacaman in fourth.

The defending race winning Ford-Riley for AJ Allmendinger, John Pew, Oswaldo Negri Jr., Justin Wilson and Marcos Ambrose will start sixth.

The fastest GT car – a Porsche 911 GT3 Cup for Nick Tandy, Michael Christensen, Christian Engelhart and Lance Willsey – will be 18th on the grid. The top-qualifying GX Porsche Cayman for Shane Lewis, Jim Norman, David Donohue and Nelson Canache was 52nd-fastest in time trials.

Pruett will start lapping the slower cars during the first hour.

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