Tombarello Back On Top At Lee

Tombarello Back On Top At Lee

Second All-American Series Crown in Four Years

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Tommy Tombarello Jr. is enjoying a quick rise in one of short track racing’s fastest cars.

Tombarello, 31, of Haverhill, Mass., won his second small block Supermodifed track championship at Lee (N.H.) USA Speedway in 2012. Because his 2010 title came before the division became Lee’s NASCAR Division I, the 2012 championship is his first in the track’s top NASCAR Whelen All-American Series division.

“I’ve been around my brother-in-law Justin Belfiore’s Supermodifieds since I was 13 or 14,” Tombarello said. “His dad (Jim) builds Belfab Supermodified chassis. I learned these cars inside and out before I ever drove one.

“Justin let me try his car out in a test session seven or eight years ago. I was chomping at the bit for a long time before I finally got my own car.”

Tombarello was the Lee’s divisional rookie-of-the-year in 2009; won the championship in 2010; finished third in points in 2011; and won the championship again in 2012.

He unseated three-time defending track champion Wayne Helliwell Jr. by a 25-point margin at season’s end. His racing record included three wins, 12 top fives and 14 top 10s in 15 starts. Helliwell won the Late Model division at Canaan (N.H.) Fair Speedway, and his two-track record was good enough to win the NASCAR state championship.

“Wayne and I raced very, very hard,” Tombarello said. “We had a lot more competition at Lee this year. Wayne was the first to congratulate us on winning the championship… he congratulated us before our final point race.”

The key moments of Tombarello’s season came two weeks before the season started, when he sensed his car just wasn’t right.

“We wrecked the car during Lee’s Oktoberfest races at the end of 2011,” Tombarello said. “We took the car apart, when through everything and put it back together as usual over the winter. I just knew there was still a problem, but I didn’t see it. Two weeks before the 2012 season opened, I was checking the car out. I stepped down on the back bumper, and it didn’t spring back up. That’s when I knew we had a problem.

“We took it apart again and found the rear torsion bar was bent. We powder coated everything, put a whole new rear clip on, and put it back together a second time. That took a lot of dedication from the team. That saved our season before we even started.”

Tombarello is an owner-driver. Belfiore is crew chief. Team members include Craig Arvo, Al Castro, Adam Douphinette, Garrey Pinheiro, and the driver’s wife Jeanette Tombarello. The car uses a Belfab chassis and is powered by a Butler McMaster-built engine. Sponsors include Old State Campground, Little Caesars Pizza, and Price Rite Auto. The driver operates Thomas Tombarello Jr. Electrical Services.

Tombarello was honored in December for his track championship during the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series Awards event at the Charlotte Convention Center’s Crown Ballroom at the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

A driver’s best 18 results through Sept. 16 counted toward their states and national point totals, and the champions are decided on overall point total. Once a driver reaches 18 starts, their total would increase incrementally as they replace some poorer runs with better results.

Under the point structure for the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series, the race winner receives two points for every car in the event up to 20 cars. Second place receives two fewer points and so on through the field. Race winners receive an additional five points. For example, if 20 cars are in the field, the winner receives 45 points, second place 38 and third 36. If there are 15 cars, the winner receives 35 points, second 28 and third, 26.

McDaniel Looks To Build On Success

McDaniel Looks To Build On Success

Hickory Late Model Champ Plans Multi-Track Effort in 2013

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Austin McDaniel advanced from top rookie in 2011 to top of the points in 2012 at Hickory (N.C.) Motor Speedway. McDaniel, 18, of Harrisburg, N.C., won the NASCAR Late Model title at Hickory a year after being the state’s NASCAR rookie-of-the-year.

“We were lucky enough to have things go exactly like we needed,” McDaniel said. “We just wanted to finish one spot better in track points than we did in 2011.”

In his rookie season McDaniel placed second to Jesse LeFevers in the track point race. The two swapped positions in 2012.

With his single-car family-owned team, McDaniel tripled his 2011 win total of three into nine feature wins in 2012.

“It was important to have that year of experience under our belt,” McDaniel said. “It made me a better driver.”

“We focused on Hickory,” McDaniel said. “We have one car and we didn’t want to risk tearing it up and missing a chance at the Hickory championship.

“We’d like to get out to some other NASCAR tracks this year,” McDaniel said. “We’d like to get more experience at adapting to different tracks like Greenville-Pickens, Motor Mile and Kingsport.”

McDaniel steadily built his racing career. He was 12 when he competed in Quarter Midgets for the first time. He moved to Legends racing in 2008-09, before advancing to Hickory’s Limited Late Model division in 2010. With four wins he placed third in track points and was the division’s rookie-of-the-year. His career hit the fast lane in 2011-12.

Many of NASCAR’s all-time greatest drivers including Ralph Earnhardt, Junior Johnson and Ned Jarrett won Hickory championships while they were establishing their careers. The complete list is displayed at the main fan entrance to the track, and McDaniel’s name is the latest addition.

“Being on the list of Hickory champions is prestigious,” McDaniel said. “It feels good to be part of it.”

Despite racing only one night a week, McDaniel’s performance at Hickory got him to 32nd place in the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series top 500 for 2012. His 22 race record included nine wins, 20 top fives and 21 top 10s.

McDaniel’s car is owned by his father, Brian and grandfathers David Traylor and James McDaniel. The crew chief is Jonathan Morrison while Chris Harrington is the engine specialist and tire specialist Terri Ellis. Also supporting the effort are the driver’s mother Stephanie, sister Madison and girlfriend Ashlyn. Brian McDaniel is general manager at Honda Cars of Hickory, one of their team sponsors. Hendrickcars.com and Autotrader.com also support the effort.

McDaniel is studying mechanical engineering at Rowan-Cabarrus (N.C.) Community College.

McDaniel was honored in December for his track championship during the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series Awards event at the Charlotte Convention Center’s Crown Ballroom at the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

A driver’s best 18 results through Sept. 16 counted toward their states and national point totals, and the champions are decided on overall point total. Once a driver reaches 18 starts, their total would increase incrementally as they replace some poorer runs with better results.

Under the point structure for the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series, the race winner receives two points for every car in the event up to 20 cars. Second place receives two fewer points and so on through the field. Race winners receive an additional five points. For example, if 20 cars are in the field, the winner receives 45 points, second place 38 and third 36. If there are 15 cars, the winner receives 35 points, second 28 and third, 26.

New Lineup At Gibbs May Mean Better Performance, Perhaps More

The newest member of Joe Gibbs Racing is Matt Kenseth, a former champion who brings a wealth of experience to the team and could help power it to better performances in 2013.

Consider, for a moment, this piece of speculation:

Joe Gibbs Racing has a new lineup for the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup season and that might, just might, be the catalyst that brings the team its first championship since 2005.

Incidentally, that title was won by Tony Stewart, which was followed by the dominance of Jimmie Johnson, who ran the table for the next five consecutive years.

Ironically, it was Stewart that broke Johnson’s stranglehold in 2011, but he was no longer with Gibbs. He has his own organization, Stewart Haas Racing.

While it is very true that Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports held sway for five years – and Stewart Haas turned the trick in 2011 – no one can say that during that time the Gibbs organization had been a doormat. Hardly.

With multiple drivers it won 57 races. It had at least one driver in the Chase, often more.

Good stuff. But then, there is the thought that this year, that good stuff could be even better.

There’s a new Gibbs lineup for 2013 and it features veteran drivers, including one who has already won a championship and two others who – let’s face it – should have.

Matt Kenseth moves over from Roush Fenway Racing to Gibbs and joins established drivers Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch.

Gone is Joey Logano, the youngster who raced with Gibbs for four seasons. He’s settled in at Penske Racing.

With absolutely no disdain for Logano – a winner who will win again at Penske – for him to be replaced by Kenseth simply creates an older, more experienced, seasoned Gibbs lineup.

It’s one that matches, oh, say, the Hendrick squad of Johnson, Gordon, Kahne and Earnhardt Jr.

Which would seem to bode well for JGR.

Why? Kenseth has something to do with it.

Kyle Busch has been one of the most productive drivers at Gibbs. But he had something of a stumble in 2012 and he hopes the new team lineup helps him return to form.

“I think that when I started winning multiple times in the course of a year, it started when Kyle came over in 2008,” said Hamlin, who finished sixth in the final 2012 point standings. “He pushed me. I remember going to a test and him pushing me to be faster. I was like, ‘He knows my game.’

“And I think Matt is going to do something very similar to that for our race team. We’ve never had all three cars running good at the same time. We’ve always had one team that would struggle and another would be running up front and maybe two up front at the most.

“So, I think we’re going to have all three cars in the Chase and we’re going to have a very, very good year as far as Joe Gibbs Racing is concerned.”

Busch would agree. Fact is, his 2012 campaign with Gibbs was hardly reflective of what he had done earlier. He won only once and failed to make the Chase, giving way to Jeff Gordon at Richmond in September.

Prior to last season, Busch and Hamlin combined to earn 42 of Gibbs’ 57 victories since 2005.

“We just need some luck on our side,” said Busch, who won eight races in 2008, matched by Hamlin in 2010. “Realistically, most times you win a championship you have to have it all together. You have to have good equipment. You have to be a good, smart racer. You have to have your crew chief making good calls, but you also have to have some racing luck go your way.

“You look at the Chase last year – Brad Keselowski had some racing luck. He missed my wreck at Kansas. He missed the wreck that Gordon and (Clint) Bowyer were in right there at Phoenix and some other instances also.

“You’ve got to have some of that go your way in order to win these things and it’s not something that you can control. It’s just a matter of the racing gods looking down on you.”

That may be true. But then, luck aside, how does the addition of Kenseth, for Busch, affect performance?

“Matt’s a great competitor and I’ve known him for years,” Busch said. “Now that it gets to be more on track, we get to work with one another. Matt’s really good at the feel of the car and explaining the car and things like that.

“Hopefully, he can really tell us what some of the significant differences are from the Roush stuff to the Gibbs stuff, which has been good so far.

“We’ve had some communications about that here since we’ve had a couple test sessions and I can only look forward to working with him throughout the race weekends.”

Both Hamlin and Busch made it abundantly clear Kenseth’s experience should be of immense value to Gibbs, especially in terms of technological improvement.

Which means there would appear to be a sizable burden on Kenseth’s shoulders – it seems he has to make Gibbs better.

He thinks he can.

“The goal after you win a championship is to always win another championship,” said Kenseth, the 2002 champion who won 24 races with Roush and was seventh in the 2012 standings.

“I was really intrigued by this opportunity when it came up for a whole bunch of reasons. One of them I felt like was, I wasn’t starting a fourth team, I wasn’t starting with a crew chief that has never done it.

I wasn’t starting with someone who has never been over the wall.  It is an established team that has won races and has won championships.

“I felt like I was putting myself in the best position I could to win races and hopefully run for a championship.

“I always feel like you help each other as much as you can during the off-season, you help each other as much as you can throughout the weekend and once the green drops on Sunday, it’s one against 42.

“I really think you help each other as much as you can during a week testing, try to learn from them and help them, do all that stuff.  Then you try to put the best three race cars on the race track every week.”

Given the numbers it would appear Gibbs is indeed in a position to put its best three race cars on the track every week.

And men who know how to win and contend for a championship will drive those cars.

Of course, that guarantees nothing.

But it does indeed suggest tremendous potential.

Thorn Prepares For First Trip To Daytona

Thorn Prepares For First Trip To Daytona

West Coast Driver Headed To UNOH Battle At The Beach

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – For many competitors heading to Florida for next month’s inaugural UNOH Battle At The Beach, it will mark their first trip to Daytona International Speedway.

Among those making a cross-country trek for his first visit to the “World Center of Racing” is Derek Thorn – a 26-year-old driver from Lakeport, Calif., who is coming off his first full season in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West.

“I’ve never been to Daytona before,” said Thorn. “So it’s kind of neat. It’s neat (to) be in such an historical place.

“All the guys on the team are pumped about going,” he said of the crew on the No. 6 Sunrise Ford/Lucas Oil/Eibach Ford of car owner Bob Bruncati. “I’m pretty excited about going. I think the race itself will be interesting. The trip will mean a lot to us. It will be a lot of fun to go back and do it.”

Action in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series is just part of the competition in the prestigious first-year event, which will be contested on a .4-mile oval on the backstretch at the Daytona track on Feb. 18-19. The NASCAR Whelen All-American Series Late Models will have qualifying races and a 150-lap feature on Feb. 18, while the racing on Feb. 19 will include a similar schedule of qualifying races and 150-lap races for both the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tours and K&N Pro Series.

Thorn, who finished third in the championship standings for 2012, is locked into the NASCAR K&N Pro Series feature at Daytona by virtue of his win last April at Havasu 95 Speedway in Lake Havasu City, Ariz. He collected another win later in the season at NAPA Speedway in Albuquerque, N.M.

Thorn is eager for the opportunity for drivers from the East division and West division of the NASCAR K&N Pro Series to battle it out on a short track.

“It seems like the West guys always struggle against the East on the bigger tracks,” said Thorn, who ran a partial schedule in the K&N East in 2008. “It’s nice to go back with these guys and run a short track. Hopefully, the short track stuff will be a little different deal.”

Nevertheless, Thorn knows the competition will be a challenge.

“It will be tough,” he said. “There’s no two ways about it.”

And Thorn knows the race may get rougher as the laps wind down. He anticipates drivers may choose to muscle their way around in the late stages of the event.

“Irwindale (Calif.) was the kind of race you never wanted to be leading with five to go and I think even more so at this one – it’s even shorter and harder to pass,” Thorn said. “I think you’ll find guys using up front and rear bumpers quite a bit. I hope that’s not the case, but I’ve got a gut feeling it might be.”

From a technical standpoint, meanwhile, Thorn says the Daytona course does not compare to any other event on the circuit.

“There’s really no place like it,” he said. “It’s going to be so flat. I don’t think there’s a race track that looks like that, not that I’ve seen.”

When it comes to flat short tracks, however, some long-time West Coast racers recall the old Saugus (Calif.) Speedway – a third-mile oval that ended racing operations in 1995. It’s where Thorn’s crew chief, Bill Sedgwick, honed his skills as a champion.

“He was pretty good at Saugus,” Thorn said. “That place was flat as a pancake. I think all of his experience on real flat tracks is going to help.”

Success at Daytona, meanwhile, is something that could benefit a team heading into the 2013 season, Thorn acknowledged. For the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West, that season kicks off with a season-opener at Phoenix International Raceway less than two weeks later.

“I think momentum’s always a good thing,” Thorn said. “Whether you go back there and wreck and wad it up or you go back there and win it – it’s one of those things where it can reflect. If you do good, you could carry some momentum into Phoenix.”

BATTLE NOTES
Double Duty: Among the non-locked-in drivers already entered for the UNOH Battle At The Beach are NASCAR Whelen Modified and Whelen Southern Modified Tour competitors J.R. Bertuccio, Patrick Emerling, Eric Goodale and Woody Pitkat.  All four have plans to pull double-duty while they’re in Florida as they have also filed Tour-Type Modified entries to compete in the World Series of Asphalt Stock Car Auto Racing – a nine-night series – at nearby New Smyrna Speedway, which recently joined the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series program … Dylan Kwasniewski, the reigning NASCAR K&N Pro Series West champion who is locked-in to the UNOH Battle At The Beach, also has an entry in to compete during the New Smyrna World Series in the Super Late Models, which is the track’s NWAAS Division I.

TV Coverage: All three features in the UNOH Battle At The Beach will be carried live on SPEED while supplemental event coverage will be provided at www.nascarhometracks.com.

Additional info: For more information, visit www.daytonainternationalspeedway.com. Grandstand and garage admission can be secured via the website or by calling 1-888-PITSHOP.

NASCAR Sprint Cup Generation 6 race car changing racing

NASCAR Sprint Cup Generation 6 race car changing racing
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Martin’s new facility offers edge

CONCORD, NC

With the expectation that the new Generation 6 car will make competition even closer in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series this season, teams will be more dependent on pit crews to gain an advantage.

BOOGITY! BOOGITY! BOOGITY!

Mark your calendars now and get ready to “reach up and pull those belts down tight one more time!” The Daytona 500 on FOX is set for Feb. 24.

Imagine Mark Martin’s satisfaction when he received the green light on a state-of-the-art training facility for Michael Waltrip Racing.

The long-time fitness guru, who set the standard for the next generation of NASCAR racers, acknowledged he’s been on a “seven-to-eight-month crusade” with the owners of MWR to develop a center which would rival any in the sport. While the program remains in the planning stages, now that MWR has signed off on the project, Martin will devote his time to bringing it to fruition.

“We needed a building, we needed a room,” Martin said. “I didn’t want to take it too much further, I didn’t want to put more time and effort and planning into it until we got that. But the coaching staff, having an equipment list that I received (on Tuesday), so now we have a layout of the equipment and where it goes. But it takes a long, long time if you want to build a state-of-the-art training facility and if you want to have the premier program in NASCAR, it doesn’t happen in six months and it won’t be in place six months from now, it will be a work in progress. It is a long-term thing.

“Based on the commitment levels that MWR are willing to make on it will determine if we achieve that goal and how quickly we get there. But it’s going to take a long time. We may have a gym in six or seven months with the equipment in it, but we’ll still be in a building process of making the program bigger, better and stronger.”

Dakar Rally

TRUE TEST

NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers tried out the new-model car at Daytona. Take a look!

Martin says MWR will use the existing space in the former movie theatre turned race shop — just outside of the reception area where the souvenir shop currently stands — and “put a second level on it as well.” There are also plans for an outside training facility for sled pushing.

Martin has firsthand experience in what it takes to build a championship organization in NASCAR, having worked with Roush Fenway Racing and Hendrick Motorsports prior to joining Michael Waltrip Racing in 2012. This season, pit crews could have an even greater impact.

“It’s just become insane,” Martin said. “I remember when a 21-second pit stop was the norm. Now a 12-second (stop) is the norm. Hopefully, 11- or 10-second stops are out there in our future. If we get this thing going and keep working, the sky is the limit.”

Team owner Michael Waltrip understands the necessity of a strong pit crew. In the last seven seasons since MWR expanded to a multicar Cup operation, the first priority was getting the cars up to speed. After last season, when both Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr. qualified for the Chase for the Sprint Cup, ownership realized it was time to fine-tune the pit crew element as well.

“To win the championship, you have to be the best team all the way around,” Waltrip said. “In order to have the athletes that it takes, to be the best, you have to have the best training facility. We don’t have the best training facility in NASCAR today. We have a gym. The guys that train our athletes do the best with what they have to work with. The same individuals that change the tires and jack the cars up today can perform better if we give them a better facility to train in.

“It’s always been a vision of mine to have the athletes that can do amazing things when they jump over the wall with an air wrench – for the fans to be able to see them work out. That’s what my shop is sort of all about, the fan experience. It’s very interactive. They can see the guys work on the car. When the new gym is done, it will be a place where fans can see what all the athletes do, how they work out, how they train to prepare to go over the wall and change tires – and hopefully, as Mark says, ‘in 10 or 11 seconds one day.’

“I think it will be a great addition to our shop, to the experience that you get when you visit Michael Waltrip Racing. That’s what I love about our sport. It’s parallel tracks – one is entertainment and one is competition. We can do both at the same time. You don’t have to focus on one to do the other, they’re exactly coexisting. Our fans will be entertained when they come see the guys work out and our guys will perform better pit stops because they have a better gym to work in.”

Martin, 54, says he’s feeling “better than he ever has” and it’s clear that his fitness regimen has extended his career considerably while most of the drivers his age have retired. Last year, while running just 24 of 36 races, Martin still finished 26th in the points standings, which is astonishing considering that he outraced four drivers that completed the entire season.

In 2013, he’ll run a similar schedule. Beyond that, he’s admitted his plans are up in the air.

Considering that Martin has worked out diligently for the past 25 years, he’s familiar with what it takes for an athlete to be his physical best. He also feels the existing training staff at MWR is stout. But once Martin becomes committed to designing the ideal physical fitness program for the race teams, he’s not going to stop until the system is perfected.

“It’s fun,” Martin said. “You know it’s my second passion.”

When team owner Rob Kauffman was asked whether Martin would remain with MWR as an advisor following retirement from the cockpit, he replied, “He’s going to help. Mark’s an inspiration for all the guys. His dedication gets everyone to stand up straight.

“We knew (stepping away from his schedule in the No. 55) was basically the plan. He’s going to continue to work with us and help and advise the team. We’re just happy to have him with us. He has so much experience. His attitude is awesome. Who wouldn’t want Mark Martin helping out?”

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Skora Captures Elusive Lake Erie Title

Skora Captures Elusive Lake Erie Title

Single Point Title Loss In 2008 Kept Late Model Driver Motivated

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — A 10 year racing veteran won his first NASCAR Whelen All-American Series track championship in 2012.

George Skora III, 27, of Eden, N.Y., captured the NASCAR Late Model title at Lake Erie Speedway, a .375-mile paved oval in North East, Pa.

Skora coveted the title for several years. He missed it by a single point to his brother-in-law Will Thomas in 2008.

“After we missed that championship by one finishing position, I’ve been motivated to win the title,” Skora said. “Will went on to win it three years in a row, then Glenn Gault Jr., won it in 2011.

“In years past we’ve started our seasons out slow,” Skora said. “This year we built a new Hamke race car and tested with it. We came out of the box hot, and won four in a row to start the season.”

Skora won the track championship with a record of five wins, 10 top fives and top 10s in all 11 starts. Adding four starts at Motordrome Speedway in Smithton, Pa., he placed ninth in state NASCAR points with an overall tally of five wins, 14 top fives and top 10s in each of his 15 starts.

After the hot start, there was a cool down. It took a few races to diagnose issues with the car.

“At Lake Erie you run the middle and top grooves and pass on the bottom,” Skora said. “It wouldn’t stay on the bottom.

“We went all through the car after a wreck at another track and put it back together but it still wasn’t right. We back-tracked through it and found a bent right front shock. Once we fixed it, we ran second at Motordrome and then won the last race of the year at Lake Erie.”

Skora grew up going to races with his dad, George Jr., who won the 1985 Charger division championship at Holland (N.Y.) Motorsports Complex. He also raced Late Models there.

Skora III raced go-karts until age 15 when he moved to Super Stocks in 2000. He began his NASCAR Late Model career at Holland in 2001 and placed second to Mark Bliss in the 2006 track point race. He began focusing his efforts at Lake Erie in 2007.

A career highlight Skora enjoyed was winning a 100-lap Late Model feature over visiting driver Kyle Busch at Lake Erie in 2011.

“We ran door to door. I passed him on the outside and won. Kyle was driving the car Will Thomas won three championships with, and he arrived at the track ready to race. He sent a couple of his guys up early to get the car the way he likes it.”

Skora’s dad is his car owner and his crew chief is Karl Kruger. Team members include his fiancée Lisa Marie Kania and Tommy Winter. 

Skora was honored in December for his track championship during the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series Awards event at the Charlotte Convention Center’s Crown Ballroom at the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

A driver’s best 18 results through Sept. 16 counted toward their states and national point totals, and
the champions are decided on overall point total. Once a driver reaches 18 starts, their total would increase incrementally as they replace some poorer runs with better results.

Under the point structure for the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series, the race winner receives two points for every car in the event up to 20 cars. Second place receives two fewer points and so on through the field. Race winners receive an additional five points. For example, if 20 cars are in the field, the winner receives 45 points, second place 38 and third 36. If there are 15 cars, the winner receives 35 points, second 28 and third, 26.

Rolex 24: Pruett ties wins record

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP)

Humbled a year ago when both its cars failed to make the podium, Chip Ganassi Racing returned to the Rolex 24 at Daytona determined to pick up another victory watch.

Rolex 24

RACE OF CHAMPIONS

See the best photos from the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

An eyebrow-raising lineup change that involved Juan Pablo Montoya showed just how serious the team was about winning, and it delivered Sunday with its fifth win in 10 appearances in the prestigious sports car race. The victory was the fifth for lead driver Scott Pruett, tying Hurley Haywood’s record for wins in the twice-around-the-clock race at Daytona International Speedway.

The winning team of three-time defending Grand-Am drivers Pruett and Memo Rojas, along with Montoya and IndyCar driver Charlie Kimball, making his Rolex debut, beat the Max Angelelli-led VelocityWW team by almost 22 seconds for the victory.

It was Montoya who closed out the win, driving the final stint and waging a strong battle in the final hour with defending champion AJ Allmendinger. Ganassi’s No. 01 BMW Riley had a clear horsepower advantage, and once Montoya got past Allmendinger, the win was his for the taking.

But the Ganassi team figured it was four laps short on fuel, and Montoya needed to build a lead of at least 40-seconds to hold off Angelelli and Allmendinger when he was forced to stop for gas. The Colombian did it by turning laps close to qualifying pace, and breezed to his third Rolex victory.

Montoya’s other two wins were with Pruett on the No. 01 car in 2007 and 2008, but he spent the last three years driving for the No. 02 Ganassi ”star car” and came away empty-handed each time. When the Ganassi cars were left off the Rolex podium last season for the first time since 2005, team management went to work on the cars and setting up a lineup that gave them two chances to win.

BOOGITY! BOOGITY! BOOGITY!

Mark your calendars now and get ready to “reach up and pull those belts down tight one more time!” The Daytona 500 on FOX is set for Feb. 24.

Montoya admitted he thought the switch was ”a weird move,” but owner Chip Ganassi and team manager Mike Hull insisted it wasn’t a demotion for the driver who has been stuck in a lengthy slump in his full-time NASCAR job.

Clearly the pressure is on Montoya to perform this year, the final year of his contract with Ganassi, and he stepped up Saturday and Sunday as the No. 01 team had to balance out Kimball’s inexperience. It was the first time racing in a car with a roof on it for Kimball, who has diabetes and uses his fight with the disease as his platform.

The Chevrolet team of Angelelli, defending IndyCar champion Ryan Hunter-Reay and Jordan Taylor finished second for team owner Wayne Taylor — redemption after an engine failure 22 minutes in last year’s event ended the team’s day.

Defending race winner Michael Shank Racing twice came back from seven laps down to finish third in a Ford. It was a disappointing finish for team owner Shank, but a moral victory considering the hole the team clawed out of to make it to the podium.

Allmendinger, racing at Daytona for the first time since NASCAR suspended him for failing a random drug test hours before the July race here, teamed with fellow NASCAR driver Marcos Ambrose, IndyCar driver Justin Wilson and Grand-Am regulars John Pew and Ozz Negri for the finish.

Ambrose was added to last year’s winning lineup after Negri broke his leg a month ago during offseason training, but Negri was able to return to the car this weekend for limited driving duties a mere six days after his cast was removed.

Audi Sport Customer Racing won the GT class in an Audi R8 with drivers Filipe Albuquergue, Oliver Jarvis, Edoardo Mortara and Dion von Moltke.

Rolex 24: Pruett ties wins record
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Danica says she’s dating Stenhouse

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP)

Danica Patrick‘s personal life is no longer a secret – she’s dating a fellow driver.

Patrick revealed to The Associated Press she and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. are a couple, ending widespread speculation about the nature of their relationship.

”I have a boyfriend, his name is Richard,” she said during an exclusive telephone interview with AP.

”I think I am just finally excited to tell someone about this,” Patrick laughed, sounding almost giddy as she said the two-time Nationwide champion’s middle name is Lynn and he prefers she use his first name.

BOOGITY! BOOGITY! BOOGITY!

Mark your calendars now and get ready to “reach up and pull those belts down tight one more time!” The Daytona 500 on FOX is set for Feb. 24.

The couple waited until the end of Charlotte Motor Speedway’s weeklong annual media tour to go public with their relationship, which started as a friendship as they raced each other the last two seasons in the Nationwide Series. Stenhouse became a mentor of sorts to the 30-year-old Patrick, who left IndyCar after the 2011 season to make the full-time switch to NASCAR.

”We are dating, and I know there’s been a bit of a runaround this week at the media days and poor Ricky got grilled (with questions),” she said. ”It was out of respect to NASCAR, to all the manufacturers, the new cars, the teams, the sponsors, just to allow the news of the day to be about racing and not let anything interfere with that. So, it’s Friday now, so that’s why we waited until the end of the week to be up front about each other.”

Stenhouse confirmed the relationship.

”Yes we are dating,” he said. ”I don’t normally say too much about my private life, always been focused on the track. I didn’t want to confirm at media day so that we could keep the focus on the season, the Gen-6 (car), my sponsors and team. That’s what it’s all about for me.”

Patrick remains one of the most recognizable drivers in auto racing, even if wins have been hard to come by. There was speculation that her appeal with advertisers had waned, but sponsor Go Daddy said Patrick will again appear in the website domain provider’s commercials during the Super Bowl next month.

Patrick announced in November she and husband Paul Hospenthal were divorcing after seven years, and said in the Jan. 3 filing that her marriage to the 47-year-old Hospenthal was ”irretrievably broken.”

Speculation immediately shifted toward her relationship with the 25-year-old Stenhouse, who has never been married. While her policy has always been not to talk about her personal life, Patrick said she made an exception this time to end the gossip and so the two could be open about their relationship.

”I think that moving forward into the year, it’s a matter of do you say anything at all, or do you just carry on?” she said. ”As opposed to speculation and people making up their own stories or talking amongst themselves or us feeling uncomfortable walking into each other’s (motorhomes) moving forward, or around our teams or anything, it’s just easier to be up front and get it out of the way then to have any kind of awkward speculation.”

Stenhouse was asked during the media tour’s stop at Roush Fenway Racing if he was dating Patrick. He dodged the question, saying ”we’ve got a great relationship” and then turned attention back to racing.

The subject will be hard for the two to avoid as they compete against each other this season for rookie of the year honors in NASCAR’s top Sprint Cup Series. Both are moving up from the second-tier Nationwide Series at the same time.

Patrick said she won’t race Stenhouse any differently.

”Obviously, we’ve been racing together for a couple years now, him and I have always gotten along, we’ve always had a lot of respect for each other on the track, there’s never been an issue out there,” she said. ”I always say I’ll race people how they race me until they do something to make me change my mind. I don’t anticipate that changing at all, or us having any issues on the track.”

Stenhouse echoed that attitude.

”It won’t affect how I race on the track. I want to go out and win, I race everyone hard,” he said.

Patrick rocketed to worldwide prominence when she challenged for the Indy 500 win as a rookie, becoming the first woman to lead laps while finishing fourth in 2005. She finished a career-best third in 2009. She began dabbling in NASCAR in 2010 in the Nationwide Series, and moved full-time last year leaving IndyCar and the 500 behind.

best of danica

DANICA’S BEST

There’s no one like Danica, both on and off the track. Check out some of our favorite photos of Danica in action.

Patrick has struggled in stock cars, notching just seven top-10s in 58 Nationwide races since 2010. Still, she was voted by fans the series’ most popular driver last year.

In the Sprint Cup Series, where she’ll drive this season for Stewart-Haas Racing, team co-owner Tony Stewart handpicked 10 of the hardest tracks for Patrick last season to force her to learn on the fly in preparation for this year. Her average finish in the 10 races was 28th and her best finish was 17th in her season finale at Phoenix.

Stenhouse has won eight races over the last two seasons to become the first driver since Martin Truex Jr. in 2004-05 to win consecutive Nationwide titles. He was promoted this year by Roush Fenway to the Cup Series to replace 2003 NASCAR champion Matt Kenseth.

Danica says she’s dating Stenhouse
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Bowyer: Rolex 24 debut ‘lot of fun’

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.

For Clint Bowyer, it’s a small world after all.

RACE OF CHAMPIONS

See the best photos from the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Although Bowyer promised to bring his redneck ways for his debut at the Rolex 24 at Daytona, ultimately, the Emporia, Kan. native decided to leave his cowboy boots in the motorcoach during his first stint for AF Waltrip Racing.

And it didn’t take the Rolex rookie long to learn a valuable lesson when he entered the pits in the No. 56-GT.

“I guess I hit the kill button or something getting in and obviously couldn’t get going so we lost a lot of track position there,” said Bowyer, who dropped to 26th in the process. “I’m super bummed out about that. The biggest thing is just getting used to the car and getting to know the car. Man, it’s hard to be consistent out there. You can’t ever get a clean lap, and then about the time you do, you’ll go in the chicane, and there’ll be dirt everywhere — you kind of revisit your dirt-track experience — and then you’re back to dodging . . . there’s some debris out there. I think there’s trunk lids — nothing too big. There’s stuff everywhere, to be honest with you.

“Thank God we have spotters out there. We were here to test and didn’t have any spotters. They’re lifesavers, with the DP cars coming on. That’s my biggest worry being here, just staying out of the way and not ruining one of those DP car’s day, especially costing them a good finish.”

Bowyer took over for his teammate Rui Aguas two hours and 19 minutes into the race. He was impressed with the Portuguese driver, who competes for AF Waltrip in the FIA World Endurance Championship tour along with Michael Waltrip Racing co-owners Waltrip and Rob Kaufmann.

“He did a great job early,” Bowyer said of Aguas after his 90-minute turn. “He was super fast in the car, drove up through the field. It was neat to watch that, and, unfortunately, I put us back to 12th or something and just kind of maintained there.

BOOGITY! BOOGITY! BOOGITY!

Mark your calendars now and get ready to “reach up and pull those belts down tight one more time!” The Daytona 500 on FOX is set for Feb. 24.

“I don’t know what you do now. I guess we have our five-hour break or something and twiddle our thumbs. What time is it anyway? 7:30? We’re almost to halfway, right? Who came up with the idea of a 24-hour race anyway?”

“Bill France Sr.,” replied GrandAm Series flack Herb Branham.

“That’s pretty cool then,” Bowyer exclaimed. “It’s a lot of fun. The cars are a lot of fun to drive. They’re lightweight . . . They’re pretty loose. They’re light on their feet getting in (into the corners). You can downshift it too quick and kind get yourself in trouble, kind of like wheel-hopping our cars . . .

“I’ve gotten myself in trouble a few times. I actually had to shoot through the chicane and had to have a conversation with myself and make me calm down a little bit. Then I was slow, and I had to have another conversation with myself to pick it back up. The guys that talk to you (on the radio), I can’t understand ’em, other than ‘Pit!’ You can understand ‘Pit’ and that’s pretty much it. I asked them for lap times, and you might as well just carry on a conversation with yourself.”

With Italian engineers overseeing the adjustments on the Ferrari 458 RK (Rob Kaufmann) Motors, Bowyer has moments when his instructions are lost in translation. Waltrip believes his concern in the team forces him to focus on deciphering the information to a greater degree.

“You just have to have an interest in what they’re talking about,” Waltrip said. “I think Clint can do it overnight, he’s amazing. It’s a lot of fun.”

For Bowyer, who finished second in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series last year, fun is something that seems to follow the driver. Like many of NASCAR’s top performers who have ventured into sports cars before him, Bowyer quickly acclimated to the relaxed environment around the paddock and enjoyed the festivities on the grid.

“There was body paint,” Bowyer said. “I certainly liked the body paint. I thought that was a great addition to the day. Some of them had umbrellas. It was fun!

“It’s really, really cool, the atmosphere and the excitement in the air before the race, the pre-race ceremony, the starting grid. There’s definitely, in my opinion, some room to improve with our sport, after what I saw. But, nonetheless, this is their biggest race of the year. I think our Daytona 500 is exactly like that, with the thrill and the excitement in the air like that, especially down on the starting grid. I guess this is their biggest race of the year as well. It’s kind of comparable.”

Bowyer grew up driving on dirt ovals in the Midwest but has become quite proficient on road courses. Still, the combination of racing on a road course along with racing under the lights might take a while to adjust to since Bowyer is accustomed to having decals instead of real headlights on his stock car.

“The headlights, as you can see right there on the TV, those headlights come at you, and you can’t hardly see through the rear-view mirror, and then they get real big real quick,” Bowyer said. “That’s probably our biggest concern. Those lights get large.”

If Bowyer is lucky, he should only have to endure one more tour under the lights. In the meantime, he was off to refuel as Kauffman, Waltrip and Aguas took turns in the car.

As for napping before his return, Bowyer said, “No. I don’t think so. The guys on the pit box, they don’t sleep. I was asking them, ‘What stint do you guys take a break?’ They don’t. They have an espresso machine. I was going to try that out. I’ve got a case of 5-Hour, and we’ll charge on.”

Bowyer: Rolex 24 debut ‘lot of fun’
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