Originally created 02/03/05

Daytona endurance race still going strong

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Contrary to Rusty Wallace's own words - and a slick advertising plan calling the 2005 racing season "Rusty's Last Call" - he will be back in a race car in 2006.

"I want to do the 24-hour race next year," he said. "It looks like a pretty neat deal."

He'll follow Terry Labonte, whose "Shifting Gears" retirement tour starts this season, into the annual Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona. Terry shares the driving duties with his brother Bobby, IndyCar driver Bryan Herta and road racer Jan Magnussen in this weekend's race.

A race on the brink of collapse four years ago suddenly has transformed itself into one of racing's better all-star events.

Labonte is a two-time Nextel Cup Series champion. His brother has won a Busch and Nextel Cup championship.

Other Rolex all-stars with championship pedigrees include: Tony Stewart (IRL Indy Car and Nextel Cup), Matt Kenseth (Nextel Cup), Greg Biffle (Craftsman Truck and Busch), Paul Tracy (CART Champ Car), Scott Dixon (Indy Car), Scott Sharp (Indy Car), Max Papis (Grand American Road Racing) and Hurley Haywood (IMSA).

Haywood, the most celebrated sports car-endurance driver in the world with five 24-hour wins at Daytona and three more at LeMans, likes the competition.

"This is undoubtedly the best driver lineup I've seen for a 24-hour race, anywhere," he said. "It has representation from all of the different fields of motorsports and it's going to be a heck of a show."

Throw in Academy Award winner Paul Newman, a former class winner at Daytona, with NASCAR stars Jimmie Johnson, Jamie McMurray, Justin Labonte and Casey Mears and Indy Car drivers Dario Franchitti, Dan Wheldon and Buddy Rice, and it's easy to see why so many are confident the 24-hour race has restored itself as one of the premier races in the world.

"It's got a big feel to it," NASCAR President Mike Helton said. "It's got a special event feel to it again. In this business, that's a big thing."

Officials from the Grand American Road Racing Series expect as many as 31 prototypes in this year's race.

"The car count is one reason why it's appealing to a driver," Bobby Labonte said.

"Three or four years ago, winning the 24 hours was beating four guys. What's the challenge in that? Now you've got to beat 30 guys, just like a Cup race. That's the kind of challenge we all like."


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