Scott Dixon brought the #02 Target Chip Ganassi Lexus Riley to the chequered flag to secure victory in the 44th running of the Rolex 24 at Daytona - giving Chip Ganassi his first win in the race.

Dixon shared the car with IRL team-mate Dan Wheldon and Ganassi's NASCAR driver Casey Mears as the three 'ringers' beat the Rolex Series regulars to take victory in the most prestigious race on the calendar.

With Mears behind the wheel - and just under six hours remaining - Patrick Long was forced into and extended stay on pit lane as the Alex Job Racing/Emory Motorsports team changed the half-shaft on the #23 Shred-It/XM Satellite Radio Porsche Crawford and it proved to be the defining moment of the race as Mears took a lead the team would hold until the flag - taking victory by a lap over the #60 Flight Options Lexus Riley of Oswaldo Negri Jr, Mark Patterson and Champ Car World Series team-mates AJ Allmendinger and Justin Wilson.

The #02 team led a race-high total of 272 laps, and overcame various mechanical issues that dropped them as low as 20th in the overall running order. Lexus Riley fell two laps down to the leaders on three different occasions, but the Ganassi team battled to the front following each setback to score a hard-earned victory.

Mears led the Ganassi squad with 109 laps at the head of the field, and celebrated his first-ever major league race victory. He also became the first full-time active NASCAR driver to earn an overall Rolex 24 at Daytona victory.

"I just can't believe I'm sitting here right now as a winner of this race," he said. "I honestly didn't think this would happen like this, so I'm very excited to have this one. First off, what a team Scott, Dan and I had behind us. I just can't explain it.

"These Ganassi guys went over the wall and back all night to keep this car running. Without them there's no way we could have accomplished this. I talked to Benny Parsons in Victory Lane and he said to me now that I've been to this place and seen Victory Lane; you're allowed to come back and visit. Hopefully that's exactly what I'll be doing when I come back here in a few weeks in the NEXTEL Cup Series car."

Wheldon, the 2005 Indianapolis 500 winner and IRL IndyCar Series champion, became the first driver to win the Rolex 24, the IndyCar championship and the Indianapolis 500 in the span of less than one year. The British driver also joined AJ Foyt, Mario Andretti, Al Unser, Bobby Rahal and Al Unser Jr as the only drivers to accomplish all three in their careers.

"There are some great names associated with the Rolex 24 at Daytona, and some even more impressive ones that go hand in hand with Chip Ganassi Racing," he said. "This is simply one of the biggest races around, and to be a part of winning this for Team Target and the whole crew is something I've very proud of for sure. This team prides itself on winning the big races, and now I can say I'm a part of delivering one for those for the whole organisation."

Dixon, the 2003 IndyCar Series champion, started the car from the outside of the front row and led a total of 105 laps himself. It was Dixon's third start in the Rolex 24 at Daytona, and was his first overall victory after finishing sixth in the Daytona Prototype class in each of his previous two appearances.

"The race started well for the Target Team off the front row, but shortly thereafter we had a brake failure that we had to overcome," he said. "After that, we had to replace a gearbox and an alternator - things that usually take quite a while to fix under any circumstances. The guys just continued to amaze me with their work under pressure and their ability to keep the car running at all costs. The whole effort is a credit to Chip Ganassi Racing and the kind of team we have."

As is the case every season, the keys to success in the 2006 rendition were the ability to run consistent lap times, avoid trouble on the race track and minimize the amount of time spent in the pits or in the garage area making repairs.

The second-placed #60 team did just that, making just two unscheduled stops, as the car remained a fixture in the top ten throughout - leading 47 laps en route to a podium finish.

"I'm really thrilled," Patterson said after his best ever Rolex finish. "This team is so well prepared, and it showed when we had two small problems that stayed just that - small problems. We were able to get back on track right away and keep getting the laps in. This was a fantastic and humbling experience for me to be teamed up with drivers of this caliber and to come away with a second place in the biggest race of the season. Now, we just need to go win one of these things."

For Negri, the second-place result matched his Rolex Series career best set in the August race at Watkins Glen in 2004. Considering that Mears, Wheldon and Dixon - as well as Allmendinger and Wilson - will not compete full-time in the 2006 Rolex Series, Patterson and Negri effectively find themselves atop the Daytona Prototype championship standings heading to Round 2 at Mexico City next month.

"I am so happy for this team, for [team owner] Mike Shank and for Mark Patterson," Negri said. "Everything went almost perfectly, and to come so close to winning this race really gives us a lot of confidence looking to the rest of the season. To be racing with this team and with Mark is an opportunity that I am very thankful for, and I just can't wait to get the rest of the season going."

Champ Car World Series RuSPORT teammates Allmendinger and Wilson competed in the Rolex 24 at Daytona for the first time. Both drivers immediately expressed an interest in adding the twice-around-the-clock classic to their annual racing calendars, and were undoubtedly pleased with their performance.

"I was really impressed with Mike Shank and his team," Allmendinger said. "They have the same total devotion to winning that RuSPORT does, and obviously they know a lot about how to prepare and run in these 24 hour races. This was a great way to get the season started and hopefully we can come back again next year and go one better."

"It's great to come here and be able to compete," Wilson added. "There were a lot of fast cars here, the racing was close and everyone was going for it in the early stages. Other teams had their problems, but Michael Shank Racing gave us a fast car and it ran faultlessly. I had a couple of close shaves in traffic, including a Porsche that spun in front of me, but other than that it was just a case of putting in the lap times and taking care of the car. It's a fine achievement for the team, and I'd certainly love to come back again next year and do one better."

One car that made a big splash in its Rolex 24 at Daytona debut was the #23 Porsche Crawford of Alex Job Racing/Emory Motorsports. Lucas Luhr started the car from the pole position, and Luhr and his fellow Porsche factory drivers Mike Rockenfeller and Long were viewed by many as one of the strongest driver line-ups.

However the #23 machine was forced to the garage for the first time in the race's third hour with suspension problems, dropping seven laps off the pace and into 17th place overall. Once the car returned to the track, however, it was clear that the Porsche Crawford was the quickest race car on the circuit and the trio soon started making up laps.

Just past the 16-hour mark, Rockenfeller capped a monumental charge as he took the lead from Scott Pruett in the #01 CompUSA Chip Ganassi Racing Lexus Riley. Rockenfeller led a total of 59 laps before handing the car and the lead to Long, with the American leading eleven laps before further suspension problems in the 19th hour dropped the car five laps off the lead and out of contention for the victory. However, the AJR car continued to battle to the end and wound up in third place, three laps behind the overall winners.

To reach the podium, the #23 team took advantage of a late flat tyre on the #58 Red Bull Porsche Fabcar. The tyre problem put a damper on an outstanding run for the resurgent Brumos Racing crew and drivers Darren Law, David Donohue and Sascha Maassen. The #58 led a total of 57 laps.

Rounding out the top five with another spectacular run was the #75 Krohn Racing Pontiac Riley team of Tracy Krohn, Nic J?nsson, J?rg Bergmeister and Colin Braun. The #75 machine did not participate in qualifying on either Friday or Saturday, forcing it to start last on the Daytona Prototype grid. However, while many front-runners fell out of contention one-by-one, the #75 team managed to avoid major trouble to score a fifth-place result.

Finishing sixth was the #19 Playboy/Uniden/Palms Ford Crawford of Memo Gidley, Michael McDowell and Alex Barron. The trio combined to lead 36 laps, but mechanical problems in the first half of the race prevented the team from challenging for the victory, while the #77 Kodak/Feeds The Need Ford Doran of Terry Borcheller, Forest Barber, Harrison Brix and Michel Jourdain Jr finished seventh. Borcheller led four laps and the car was another early contender before a crash and its attendant mechanical issues removed the #77 from consideration for the victory as well.

Several pre-race favourites found their way to the front of the field, only to fall out of contention due to various problems.

The brand-new #39 Crown Royal Special Reserve Lexus Crawford of Cheever Racing was a force to be reckoned with in its Rolex Series debut. Co-drivers Christian Fittipaldi, Patrick Carpentier and Eddie Cheever combined to lead 74 laps and were poised for a podium finish before an engine failure ended the team's bid a few hours from the finish. The #39 wound up eleventh in the Daytona Prototype class and 17th overall.

The #01 team of Pruett, Max Papis and Luis Diaz had alternator problems just after the first hour, sending the car to the garage for lengthy repairs. Much like the #23 team, however, the #01 trio worked its way back to the front, with Papis and Pruett combining to lead a total of 88 laps. An oil pump failure removed the #01 from the race shortly before daybreak, and the car wound up 20th in the Daytona Prototype class and 39th overall.

The #89 Playboy/Vonage/Pacific Coast Motorsports Pontiac Riley was also an early front-runner with drivers Ryan Dalziel, Alex Figge, Jon Fogarty and David Empringham - who led one lap - before a series of technical issues removed the car from contention. The #89 quartet wound up 23rd in the Daytona Prototype class and 44th overall.

Much of the pre-race hype was devoted to the #2 Callaway Golf Pontiac Crawford driven by NASCAR champion Rusty Wallace, IRL IndyCar star Danica Patrick and road racing hotshoes Jan Lammers and Allan McNish. The quartet did not disappoint early on, as McNish and Lammers combined to lead eight laps. However, the car suffered a blown head gasket in the eleventh hour, relegating the #2 to a 24th-place Daytona Prototype class finish and 50th overall.

Patrick Huisman led seven laps in the #8 Racing Porsche Doran that he shared with Burt and Brian Frisselle, but the team encountered terminal engine problems and wound up 25th in the Daytona Prototype class and 51st overall.

While their team-mates celebrated a second-place result, it was a difficult outing for the #6 Graydon Elliott Fusion Racing with MSR Lexus Riley team of Mike Borkowski, Paul Tracy, Paul Mears Jr and Kenny Wilden. Borkowski and Tracy led a combined total of 33 laps, but mechanical problems removed the car from contention just prior to the eleven-hour mark. The team was credited with 27th in the Daytona Prototype class and 54th overall.

The defending race champion #10 SunTrust team of Max Angelelli, Wayne Taylor, Emmanuel Collard and Ryan Briscoe were disappointed in their title defence. After starting from 27th on the Daytona Prototype grid following a technical infraction in qualifying, the #10 Pontiac Riley worked steadily forward early in the race and Taylor would lead two laps. However, Collard collected a spinning Jacob Shalit in the #24 Matt Connolly Motorsports BMW M3, and the SunTrust team was forced to retire before the six-hour mark with damage to its front end. The #10 was credited with 29th in the Daytona Prototype class and 57th overall.

The 734 laps completed was a new Rolex Series record, topping the previous record of 723 in the 2000 event. However, the 762 laps completed in the 1992 Rolex 24 at Daytona remains the overall race record. The race featured 13 different leaders and a total of 39 lead changes, which was the second-most lead changes in Rolex Series history, just behind the 44 times the lead swapped hands last season.

Using early patience, Porsche-powered reliability and a race-winning driver line-up, the #36 TPC Superchargers Porsche GT3 completed 691 of the 734 overall laps to take the GT class win, a perfect start to the 13-race season for team owner/driver Michael Levitas and co-drivers Randy Pobst, Spencer Pumpelly and Ian Baas.

After exchanging the lead numerous times during the middle part of the 24-hour classic with the #65 TRG/F1 Air/Alpine Bagel/iRise Pontiac GTO.R - which finished second - the Porsche inherited the lead for good after a series of pit stops in the 15th hour, holding the top class spot for the final 252 laps for the win, and finishing ninth overall out of the 66-car Rolex Series grid.

"It takes all the right people and all the moves to pull this off," said Levitas, now a three-time Rolex Series class race winner. "This is by far the biggest race we've won. Every person on this team contributed everything they had to help this team. From the jack man - which I was at one point - to our sponsor Ajilon Consulting who brought 150 people here to root us on, it was a total team effort."

The car started eighth on the class grid, and all four drivers avoided major trouble during their stints to keep the car on the track and in contention.

"Last year, we ran second all night, and then late in the race, we tangled up with a Daytona Prototype," said Pobst, the 2001 Rolex 24 at Daytona GT winner. "The year before, we ran as hard as we could for all 24 hours and finished second. This year, everything came together. Michael put together a great car and a great team that ran clean virtually all day."

The biggest break that the #36 Porsche caught was when Kelly Collins - in the #64 TRG/iRise Pontiac GTO.R and holding a two-lap lead over the rest of the class field - spun off-course into the grass inside turn one. The spin caused damage to the machine that yielded a lengthy stay in the car's garage where crew members fixed the damage - effectively ending their chances.

"That was the turning point in the race," Pobst admitted. "They had two laps on us, and they were hooked up. They had a real fast package and were lightning around the track. Their miscue really helped us get back into the race."

Baas, making his first Rolex Series start, was quick to point to strategy and focus when describing how the team pulled of the win.

"Our strategy was to run our race and not their race," he said. "We had a good, calculated plan going in. We sized up our competition pretty good, and we were dead on. Winning here at Daytona is awesome."

The two TRG Pontiac GTO.Rs - both making their Rolex 24 at Daytona debuts - proved to be fast in the early stages, but as the hours wound down, bad breaks hurt their chances. In addition to the spin by the #64 machine, the #65 GTO.R overcame electrical difficulties and gearbox problems to still finish second.

The #65 machine was co-driven by Andy Lally, Marc Bunting, RJ Valentine and Johnny O'Connell, while Collins shared the #64 Pontiac with Paul Edwards, Jan Magnussen and Andy Pilgrim.

"I've finished second here and I have won here, I like the latter better," said Lally. "We were able to lead and we had a really good TRG prepared car. The GT pace was pretty fast, but we were able to run at the front in the most competitive field of the year."

Finishing third in the #82 Farnbacher Racing Porsche GT3 were Dirk Werner, Philip Peter, Dieter Quester and Luca Riccitelli. The #82 machine - one of two team entries for the Rolex 24 - took the lead after the #64 Pontiac's incident, and held the position for roughly three and-a-half hours, before losing the lead during pit cycles around 11pm Saturday night.

Finishing fourth in the #66 TRG Porsche GT3 were Stephane Ortelli, Robert Nearn, Cyrille Sauvage and Steve Johnson. Rounding out the top five were Wolf Henzler, Robin Liddell, Johannes van Overbeek and Graham Rahal in the #74 NEC/Rembrandt Charms Porsche GT3 for Tafel Racing.

Henzler qualified the car on the GT pole, and Rahal - son of legendary open-wheel driver Bobby Rahal - showed promise and had a good result in his first Rolex Series start.



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