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Ganassi Team Leads at Rolex 24 Race

January 29, 2006

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) _ Chip Ganassi Racing was in control as the 44th Rolex 24 sports car endurance race hit the halfway mark a few minutes after midnight Sunday.

``We had some problems early, but we got rid of the gremlins and things are looking good right now,″ said team owner Ganassi as he watched his two Lexus Riley Daytona Prototypes battling it out for the top spot on Daytona International Speedway’s 3.56-mile, 14-turn road circuit.

As the new day dawned, the car driven by Indy Racing League champion and Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon, former IRL champion Scott Dixon and NASCAR’s Casey Mears was out front, trailed just over a lap back by teammates Scott Pruett, Max Papis and Luis Diaz.

It was a great comeback for the second-place car, which was in 53rd place, four laps down after the first hour because of a mechanical problem.

``We just need to be consistent and keep our focus as we move through the night,″ Pruett said. ``We had one little problem after another starting this weekend, going through qualifying, and the first hour of the race. But the engine is performing great. Lexus power has been outstanding for us to this point and that’s key for us.″

Pruett, part of the winning team in the 1994 Rolex 24, was also co-champion of the Grand American Series Prototype division with Papis in 2004.

At halfway, attrition had taken a heavy toll among the 31 500-horsepower prototypes that started at the front of the 66-car field. The top nine cars were prototypes and separated by just 12 laps, with the top seven just five laps apart.

Third place belonged to the Lexus Crawford of open-wheel veterans Eddie Cheever, a former Indy winner, Patrick Carpentier and Christian Fittipaldi, just 1 1/2 laps behind the leaders.

``We haven’t even warmed up yet,″ Cheever said. ``We’ve got a long way to go. But the car is running well. Our Lexus engine is doing great and the crew’s done a good job. We’ve just got to keep plowing away.

``We have to stay on our pace and not get carried away with anything else, and we’ll be fine.″

Fourth, another lap back, was the pole-winning Porsche Crawford shared by Lucas Luhr, Mike Rockenfeller and Patrick Long, who overcame a broken axel early in the race to charge back into contention from nine laps down. Luhr and Long posted the two fastest laps of the first 12 hours.

They were followed by the Lexus Riley of Champ Car teammates A.J. Allmendinger and Justin Wilson and Oswaldo Negri and Mark Patterson, and the Porsche Fabcar of Darren Law, David Donohue _ son of former Indy 500 winner Mark Donohue _ and Sascha Maassen.

The Pontiac Crawford shared by recently retired NASCAR star Rusty Wallace, Indy Racing League sensation Danica Patrick and former Formula One drivers Allan McNish and Jan Lammers got as high as third in the 10th hour before an overheating problem and a blown head gasket retired their Pontiac Crawford.

``We had a really good race car,″ said Steve Nelson, the team’s crew chief. ``Jan got out of the car and said man this car is really good. We were just trying to buy our time. We knew we had a problem and it stabilized for about three hours and we thought wed be all right.″

Wallace and Patrick, both newcomers to sports car racing, both had a great time.

``This is supposed to be my last race and probably will be,″ Wallace said. ``I tell you what, having fun like this makes you want to come back a couple of times.″

Patrick, the only female driver to lead the Indy 500, was wowed by the intensity of the racing.

``It’s awesome, but that traffic is incredible,″ she said. ``You’re just passing cars all the time. Things were really going good, though. It’s really a shame we couldn’t go on.″

Defending champions Max Angelelli, Wayne Taylor and Emmanuel Collard were out of the race after crashing during the fifth hour. Collard was at the wheel of the Pontiac Riley when one of the GT cars spun in front of him and collected the contender. Neither driver was injured, but the damage to the car was too extensive to repair.

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