Multiple leaders and changing weather conditions marked the first six hours of the 2008 Rolex 24 at Daytona, with six cars contesting the lead lap and some of the pre-race favourites already falling away as the race headed into darkness.

Once grand marshal Dan Gurney had given the traditional command for drivers to 'start your engines', Michael Shank Racing made the most of its front row qualifying sweep, with AJ Allmendinger sweeping the blue-and-black #6 Riley-Ford into the lead. The American immediately found himself under pressure from pre-race favourite SunTrust Racing, however, and the pair spent much of the opening hour duelling for - and swapping - the advantage as they encountered traffic from lap nine.

There had been some pre-start confusion, however, as the conditions caught teams in two minds over which tyre to start on. Those who opted to switch to slicks at the last minute were forced to start from pit-lane, leaving several key players - including both Ganassi entries, AIM Autosport and reigning champions GAINSCO Bob Stallings - starting at the tail-end of the DP field.

There was early trouble back in the pack, meanwhile, with the #29 Alegra Porsche suffering a puncture as the field lined up to take the green flag. With control compromised, the GT runner made heavy contact with two class rivals, sending the #14 Autometrics Porsche into a spin.

Debris from the clash continued to cause tyre problems for others, not least for Helio Castroneves, whose #9 Penske-Taylor Racing entry picked up a puncture on the half-hour which caused front-end damage to the Riley-Pontiac.

With the usual round of pit-stops prompted by a full-course caution for the hobbled #9, the opening hour ended with the unlikely figure of Sigalsport's Matt Plumb - who had run third for most of the stint - leading the field, with Alex Gurney having brought the #99 GAINSCO Riley up into second, ahead of Max Angelelli and the battling SunTrust entry. The pole-sitting #60 MSR Riley of Oswaldo Negri and the #61 AIM car of Mark Wilkins completed the class top five.

The GT class was headed by the #81 Synergy Racing Porsche, from the #87 Farnbacher equivalent, but it was not all good news for the big German squad, with reports that the #83 sister car had suffered a driveshaft problem approaching the hour mark

When Plumb eventually pitted, Gurney became the fourth leader of the day in the #99, but quickly ceded top spot to Angelelli with his own routine stop. The pit rotation continued to alter the head of the field through the opening minutes of the second hour, with Negri replacing Angelelli and holding P1 for 20 minutes, before Wilkins took his turn. With the AIM car on a slightly different schedule to the majority, however, the black-and-gold machine continued to hold sway until a full-course caution - caused by the #40 HyperSport Mazda stopping on track - saw the lead change again. When the green flag flew, it was the #02 Ganassi car of Scott Dixon out front, from the AIM and Riley-Matthews entries.

Despite the conditions continuing to change, there was relatively little incident in the hour, although both Cheever Coyotes struck trouble - the #51 catching light with Tommy Erdos at the wheel - and the #09 Spirit of Daytona FABCAR lost a wheel, with Guy Cosmo doing well to keep the car out of the wall. Doran Racing also went behind the wall with wheel problems.

The GT class was led through the two-hour mark by Nick Ham's #70 Mazda, as the #56 Mastercar Ferrari hit both trouble and the wall with Matt Marsh at the wheel, but the advantage was not SpeedSource's for long, as the #67 TRG Porsche of Emmanuel Collard took over on track shortly afterwards, with the #86 Farnbache rand #64 TRG Porsches and #07 Banner Pontiac completing the top five.

Dixon continued to lead overall until almost the end of the third hour, the Ganassi car running beautifully until the Kiwi handed over to IRL team-mate Dan Wheldon. Brian Frisselle, who had been shadowing the Ganassi car throughout, assumed control of the race for AIM, with Justin Wilson brining the pole-winning car into second, ahead of Ryan Briscoe's Penske-Taylor entry and the #6 MSR of Ian James.

Behind the dominant Dixon, however, the DP field had continued to rotate, with regular and not-so-regular pit-stops taking their toll on the running order. The #03 Vision Racing Crawford went behind the wall, as did the #12 RVO Riley and #23 Alex Job/Ruby Tuesday Crawford, the #12 quitting without Derek Bell getting a chance to race..... There was also a drive-thru for the #7 Sigalsport car that had lead through the opening hour mark.

The GT lead also changed hands late in the hour, with Ham regaining the point from Collard.

Frisselle eventually gave up AIM's lead on the three-hour mark, allowing Wilson to take the lead MSR entry back to the front and the sister car sandwiching Briscoe in second. With the top three all opting to pit roughly together, however, young Ricky Taylor assumed control of a Grand-Am event for the first time at the wheel of the SunTrust entry - albeit for two minutes before having to make his own routine stop.

That allowed the #76 Krohn Riley of Ricardo Zonta into the lead, and the Brazilian - who crashed the team's new Lola chassis early in pre-race testing - held sway through to close to the end of the hour, opening out a near eight-second lead over Wheldon, and becoming the eleventh leader of the race. Andrew Ranger (AIM), Jimmie Johnson (GAINSCO) and Graham Rahal (MSR) filled out the top five after Juan Montoya pitted from third in the #01 Ganassi car, with the Canadian assuming the lead when Zonta finally pitted. Briscoe then returned to the lead on the hour mark as Ranger both pitted.

There was little incident of note in the hour, save for Stephane Gregoire spinning the Sigalsport Riley-BMW, although the RVO car was officially retired and the Vision Crawford remained behind the wall with gearbox problems.

The Spirit of Daytona car also continued to run into problems, opening hour five with Marc-Antoine Camirand bringing the Porsche-powered FABCAR behind the wall with smoke emitting from the engine. Although the Canadian was able to resume after a lengthy repair, trouble struck elsewhere, with Rahal having to pit with an equally smoky MSR car, this time the result of a blown tyre.

The DP lead changed hands again as the routine stops played their part, Briscoe handing to Michael Valiante (SunTrust) and the Canadian quickly passing the baton over to Montoya. The sister Ganassi machine, however, was soon into the pits, after an off-track moment for Salvador Duran, while Montoya's routine stop handed the lead to Colin Braun in the AIM machine.

The youngster continued to hold the point through various yellows, mainly for debris, but eventually lost out during a mass pit-stop which saw Darren Turner get the #76 Krohn Riley off pit-road fastest of all. Braun dropped to fourth behind the Riley-Matthews and GAINSCO entries, but there was worse news for Valiante, who stalled the SunTrust car at the end of pit-lane and could not restart, the dark blue machine sitting forlornly as the driver sought the source of the problem.

Conditions continued to be changeable, and forecast of sustained precipitation brought about another reshuffle as various teams pitted for rain tyres. Ryan Hunter-Reay assumed the lead when the green flag eventually flew again, but promptly spun out, handing the lead to the #59 Brumos Riley of Terry Borcheller. The veteran was under pressure from the #23 AJR Crawford, however, and had to give best to Joey Hand within a matter of minutes.

The #23 continued to lead through to the six-hour mark, ahead of Braun (AIM), Turner (Krohn), Jimmy Vasser (GAINSCO) and Dario Franchitti, the Scot having taken over at the wheel of the defending Daytona champion #01 car. The #2 SAMAX entry crewed by Lucas Luhr, Allan McNish and Mike Rockenfeller, however, joined those behind the wall after Rockenfeller pitted with smoke emitting from its underside.

The GT field was the domain of Leh Keen in the #86 Farnbacher Loles Porsche, although Robert Doornbos had the #81 Synergy example that had led early on close on the American's tail. Polewinner Sylvain Tremblay holds third in the SpeedSource Mazda, from the #07 Banner Pontiac of Paul Edwards and the leading TRG Porsche, in the hands of Richard Westbrook.

 

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