Signing Juan Pablo Montoya is already paying dividends for Chip Ganassi, and the start of the NASCAR season is still three weeks off.
Montoya, co-driving a Lexus Riley Daytona Prototype with veteran road racer Scott Pruett and Mexican phenom Salvador Duran, is in elite company. He and racing great Mario Andretti are the only drivers to have won the Indianapolis 500, an American open-wheel championship, a Formula One race and, the Colombian's latest conquest, a sports car endurance race at Daytona International Speedway.
"I'm back here for the Daytona 500 in a couple of weeks," said Montoya, set to begin his first full season in NASCAR's Nextel Cup series. "Hopefully, we can do something about that one, too."
Andretti won that NASCAR race in 1967.
Ganassi was asked if the win in the Rolex 24 bodes well for Montoya's move back to the U.S. after several successful but unfulfilling years in F1?
"It's a good start, I'll tell you that," said Ganassi, for whom Montoya won the CART title in 1999 and Indy in 2000.
Montoya gave his team the lead Sunday morning and Pruett kept it to the finish. This is the second straight year that Ganassi's team has won the grueling 24-hour event. Former IRL champions Dan Wheldon and Scott Dixon combined with NASCAR driver Casey Mears to win the 2006 race.
"This was just a total team win," said Ganassi, the first team owner to win this race back-to-back since Al Holbert in 1986 and 1987. "Al was somebody I wanted to be like when I was growing up and I'm going to think about this for a long time."
The winning car covered 668 laps and 2,378 miles. The race was slowed by 13 full-course caution flags and a 78-minute red flag stoppage at the halfway point after a GT class car knocked down 80 feet of guardrail.
Two cars finished on the lead lap. With only three hours to go, three cars were nose to tail for the lead, separated by less than 6 seconds, with Montoya third and battling Scotland's Ryan Dalziel and Italy's Max Angelelli.
"It's amazing," Montoya said in the tumultuous Victory Circle. "It's incredible after 20 hours there are three cars on the same lap. It was like qualifying every lap. Very exciting."
Dalziel, a rookie in the Champ Car World Series this season, held off the two veterans until he pitted during the 24th hour. That gave the lead to Angelelli, but the former Daytona winner was quickly passed by Montoya and the eventual winners led the rest of the way.
During the 25th hour, Pruett took over the cockpit from his Colombian teammate, while Dalziel gave up his seat in the Pontiac Riley prototype to longtime open-wheel racer Patrick Carpentier, and road racing ace Jan Magnussen took over the third-place Pontiac Riley for Angelelli.
Magnussen managed to put the car he shared with two-time Daytona winner Wayne Taylor and four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon into second place. But he wound up third, two laps down, after brake problems sent him on an off-course excursion and forced a long pit stop during the final half hour.
It was still a great showing considering their problems. Among them, the team had no clutch for most of the race and had to be push-started by the crew after every pit stop.
Carpentier, also driving with Darren Manning and Milka Duno, one of only two women in the 70-car race, finished second _ 1 minute, 14.749 seconds behind Pruett.
"This is very cool," said Pruett, who added the overall win here in 1994 to six other class victories. "It's huge for Ganassi. The car never missed a beat. I was getting a little nervous there at the end, but the car was just rock solid the whole time. We never spent any time in the pits. The car was flawless."
Montoya agreed, adding, "We all three kept the car on the road all the time, and I think that was the secret."
Ganassi's other car, shared this year by Wheldon, Dixon and Mexican driver Memo Rojas was not as fortunate. That trio challenged for the lead through the night, came back to race in the top five after Rojas knocked off the nose cone and then went out of the race when Rojas spun on a wet track and hit a tire wall after daylight Sunday. They finished 41st.
Gordon, who fared considerably better than several other stock car stars in the race, got the full experience in his first endurance race. He spun in the grass on his first stint and drove another stint in a downpour during the night.
"I want to be faster the next time so I can help this team be even more competitive," Gordon said, grinning. "But I don't know how I could prepare for the monsoon I was in last night."
Bobby Labonte, the 2000 NASCAR champion, was part of the team that finished 10th, while the teams with reigning Nextel Cup champion Jimmie Johnson and two-time champion Tony Stewart wound up 36th and 48th after numerous mechanical problems.
Prototypes took the first 10 spots, with a Porsche GT3 driven by Jean-Francois Dumoulin, Carlos de Quesada, Scooter Gabel and Marc Besseng finishing 11th, 42 laps behind the overall winners.
A Porsche Fabcar prototype driven by Formula One test driver Gaston Mazzacane of Argentina slid off track and hit a barrier protecting a light pole in the infield portion of the 3.56-mile road circuit Saturday night.
Mazzacane was briefly unconscious and spent the night under observation at a hospital. Officials said he had no serious injuries and was expected to be released Sunday.