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15183It may be debatable whether good things or bad things come in threes, but, for Lexus, it's definitely been the former. First, 2008 marks the <A HREF="http://my.is/forums/f42/lexus-is350-engine-threepeats-one-ward-s-10-best-2008-revised-4-jan-2008-a-349792/">third year the IS350 powerplant is selected as one of Ward's 10 Best Engines.</A> And now, we are very pleased to report, another Lexus threepeat has taken place: the marque's third victory in the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Entering the 2008 Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series season, the big Lexus-centric news, as reported in <A HREF="http://my.is/forums/f47/upcoming-08-grand-am-daytona-series-tale-lexus-desertions-revised-11-dec-348199/">a recent my.IS Front Page story,</A> was the exodus from Lexus to Ford power by the Michael Shank Racing and AIM Autosport teams; and the all-star driver lineup that the Chip Ganassi with Félix Sabatés team put together for its two cars for the season-opening race.

The first clues of what can be expected during the 2008 Daytona Prototype racing season came during January Test Days, which took place between Friday the 4th and Sunday the 6th at Daytona International Speedway. The Friday midday test session saw the #01 TELMEX Chip Ganassi with Félix Sabatés Racing Lexus-Riley, with Scott Pruett behind the wheel set the fastest lap of the entire weekend: 1:41.232 at 126.60 mph. Interestingly, that was but the fastest among 17 Daytona Prototypes during this year's Test Days that actually beat Alex Gurney's 2007 Rolex 24 pole time of 1:43.475. Much if not all of the credit goes to the Pirelli P-Zero tires that will be used on all Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series racers starting this season and until the end of the 2010 season, replacing the previous Hoosier tires. Overall, the Ganassi squad continued to run strong throughout the weekend and had at least one car in the top three in every session of the weekend, and in the top two in all but one.

Also announced during January Test Days was the decision by the other Lexus-powered team, Southard Motorsports, to have veteran racer Bill Lester join Shane Lewis in the No. 3 Lexus Riley for the full 2008 Rolex Series season.

Qualifying for the Rolex 24 at Daytona race on Thursday 24 January saw a sight that surely made a Lexus fan's heart sink: the formerly-Lexus-now-Ford-powered Michael Shank Racing #60 and #6 cars were the fastest qualifiers and, as a result, started at the head of the pack on Saturday at 1:30 PM. Even the third Lexus deserter, the #61 AIM Autosport Ford/Riley qualified fifth, just ahead of the sixth position attained by the #01 TELMEX Chip Ganassi with Félix Sabatés Racing Lexus-Riley. Its stablemate, the #02 Target car qualified 10th, and the third Lexus-Riley, the Southard Motorsports #3 car, placed 18th on the starting grid. As <A HREF="http://www.grand-am.com/rolex/news/index.cfm?cid=13653">the official Grand-Am Press Release announcing the qualifying results</A> reminds us, however, the pole isn't necessarily a barometer of success in a 24 hour race. After all, Scott Pruett started the #01 car from the 12th position on the grid at last year's Daytona race and still went on to win...

So, how did the race turn out for the three Lexus cars? We'll tell you, in reverse numerical order:

15186The #3 Southard Motorsports car
The Southard Motorsports team may not have the big bucks backing of the Ganassi team, but they are still a feisty, hard-working crew, and are to be commended for their continuing commitment to Lexus power. Southard is one of only two Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series teams to have raced in every event since the 2003 Daytona Prototype season finale. For the 2008 Daytona race, they augmented their full-time '08 season driver team of five-season Grand-Am veteran Shane Lewis and NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series standout Bill Lester with NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour veteran Ted Christopher and IndyCar Series racer Alex Barron.

From its 18th place start, the #3 car managed to place as high as 8th overall during the late night before adversity reared its ugly head in the early morning. A combination of cold weather and cold tires caught Christopher off guard when he took over for the second time at approximately 2:30 AM Sunday morning. The resulting spin and contact forced the car to the garage area where the rear bodywork was repaired. A second stop followed later when gearbox damage was detected. The car would return to the track and begin the fight back towards the front of the pack.

A bit past 9:30 AM Sunday, just minutes after the 20-hour mark, a painful accident ended the #3's valiant drive. Lewis was preparing to enter the "Bus Stop" chicane on the backstraight of the 3.56-mile, 17-turn course when, according to communications immediately following the incident, the car failed to respond to Lewis' input on the steering wheel. The #3 veered quickly off course and dug deep into the rain-softened soil just off the race circuit. The quick deceleration tore the nose from the car and dragged it to a violent stop causing heavy damage. Lewis stepped from the car moments later and was taken to the infield medical center. After reporting some neck and back pain Lewis was transported to Halifax Medical Center in Daytona Beach for x-rays and observation. Fortunately, no broken bones or serious 'soft tissue' injuries were observed and Lewis was released from the hospital late Sunday.

At the time of writing, Southard Motorsports Crew Chief Richie Howe was examining several theories as to the mechanical failure that led to the rare "off" by Lewis. No definitive answer has been determined.

The No. 3 Southard Motorsports Lexus-Riley completed 527 laps, 1,876 miles over the 20 hours in which the car was running. Lewis set the car's fastest race lap (one minute, 44.932 seconds) on the 25th lap.

Team owner Steve Southard had this to say about how the race went: "First, we are obviously happy that Shane was not more seriously injured. It was a very violent impact. We are currently looking at what caused the accident. Richie is examining scenarios. Unfortunately, until we get the car to the shop and can properly exam every component and study the data, we can't be sure what happened to the car. As for the race, we put a strategy together to shuffle the driver lineup a little based on experience and when the drivers would get their first stint. Shane being the most experienced, we knew we wanted him to start. We put Bill in late in the day because he was the second most experienced and we felt he could go out for his first stint in the dark without any problem. Ted and Alex have less experience here or in these cars so we decided to have them run doubles in the daylight so they could be more comfortable when they had to get back in at night. Everyone went through their first couple of stints really well. I think if we had continued to run without problem we would have had a good result. We had a really great driver lineup but race situations present themselves and things happen. Unfortunately, a whole series of events happened and we'll never know what might have been. We just have never had that good of luck at Daytona. I am very happy looking ahead. We have a good driver combination in Shane and Bill and a car that works pretty well. I think we are going to have a good shot at doing well this year."

New Southard driver Bill Lester adds: "I was most impressed by the great determination of the team. They overcame many obstacles this weekend. It makes the driver feel really good to have a crew that puts a good car under you and to know that they stand behind it. I appreciate Steve and Martha for putting together such a strong team. I ran fast and consistent laps. The team gave me feedback that they were happy and that gives me a lot of pride. We were never the fastest out there but we continued to make progress. We need to get faster. We are going into the season and we need to find some more speed. I think that working with Shane is tremendous. He and I want the same things out of the car. I can't wait for us to get to Miami."

15184The #02 Target Chip Ganassi with Félix Sabatés Racing car
This Ganassi car is expected to follow the same pattern it did last year, making its sole appearance at the Daytona season opener. Its all-star driver lineup includes two of its co-drivers from Daytona 2007: Scott Dixon, 2003 Indy Racing League Champion and 2007 runner-up in that series; Dan Wheldon, the 2005 Indy Racing League Champion; Salvador Durán, who co-drove the #01 TELMEX Ganassi car to victory last year, and Alex Lloyd, the 2007 Indy Pro Series Champion.

Scott Dixon led 34 of the first 87 laps and registered the overall fastest lap of the race. The team continued to run in the top-two into the fifth hour before changing weather conditions contributed to Salvador Durán going off-track with the car suffering substantial damage to the front end. Indeed, seeing the front hood/fender unit fly off the #02 car was a wince-inducing moment that was replayed several times throughout the race telecast. The team re-joined the race 12 laps down, but could never climb higher than 11th and eventually retired early in 18th-place after a separate incident.

15185The #01 TELMEX Chip Ganassi with Félix Sabatés Racing car
The 2007 Rolex 24 at Daytona-winning car returned with its full-time driving team of Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas intact, plus two very famous guest drivers: Dario Franchitti, the current Indianapolis 500 Winner and Indy Racing League Champion and Juan Pablo Montoya, the Formula 1 driver-turned-2007 NASCAR Rookie of the Year.

After qualifying sixth, the No. 01 team started from the pit lane after making the decision to change from wet weather tires to slicks, dropping all the way back to the 18th position. First Pruett and then Montoya helped carry the team into the top-five by the fifth hour. After that, the quartet of drivers never fell outside of the top-five over the final 19 hours of the event (a feat they also managed last year at Daytona), never putting a wheel wrong as both the Lexus engine and car ran flawlessly. The team was never forced to pit for more than brake pads, fuel or tires, despite sometimes treacherous wet conditions.

For Pruett, the victory gave him a record-setting eighth Rolex 24 class victory, while it was the second for Montoya and the first for both Rojas and Franchitti.

Team co-owner Chip Ganassi expressed his feelings on achieving the threepeat: ""It's hard to put into words what winning does to you and what it feels like. You can't touch it, you can't feel it, but it sure does feel good. One thing a lot of people don't consider are the conditions that these guys had to drive in. They were just miserable. Particularly between three and six this morning. The track was very wet, your vision is limited...just to keep these cars on the asphalt was a huge task, and I want to give credit where credit is due to the guys that drove in those conditions in Dario and Memo. They drove in the conditions that were the most horrific out there. Just to stay in the game under those conditions is a huge challenge."

Driver Scott Pruett said: "Just like last year, we had zero problems. There's just one little mark on the car. Otherwise it's totally clean. We didn't touch anybody, we didn't hit anybody. We could run fast without getting ourselves in trouble. I think it's awesome that we came back here for three in a row. It's exciting for me to be a part of two in a row. Winning the 24 hours here is a true test of man and machine and a big part of that is the Lexus engine. It's just never missed a beat."

Memo Rojas added: "I'm very excited to be a part of this line-up. It was an honor to race with Scott, Juan and Dario. To win this race, it's something I'll never forget the rest of my life. The engine was great. Lexus has been developing this engine ever since Utah last year. We came to the test here with some issues, but Lexus went back to work immediately and you can see the result right here - a three-time Rolex 24-winning car. I'm just particularly happy to be a part of this with my first 24-hour win, and happy to be a part of this Lexus program and this victory."

Juan Pablo Montoya stated: "I thought we were in a really good position even before the #6 had their problem because we had already pitted and we had a lot more fuel. We knew we could just follow them around and we'd be fine. The only thing was we were picking up a lot of dust from the other cars and the temperatures started to come up. Once the 6 car had its problem, I just got out of it the gas. Once we came in for Scott to get in, we got all cleaned up and the temps came down and then we just rolled. When you have a five-lap lead, you just make sure you don't hit anything, you don't go over any curbs."

And Dario Franchitti, when asked if he had any second thoughts due to his busy NASCAR schedule that requires him to test in Las Vegas on Monday, said: "I know that by Friday, I'm really going to be run down because we've got to really full week, but I just couldn't turn down an opportunity like this. Chip actually asked me last year, but I couldn't do it because I had a conflict - and then they went out and won the race. This is a race I've watched for a very long time, so to win it means a lot to me."

Race facts, figures and commentary
In a race that featured Grand-Am Rolex Series and Rolex 24 records for car leaders (15), driver leaders (25) and lead changes (60), as well as running under caution flags for over a quarter of its 24-hour duration, the Ganassi team stayed out of trouble to complete 695 laps and march to a two-lap victory over defending series champions Alex Gurney and Jon Fogarty's #99 Pontiac Riley, co-driven by Jimmie Johnson and Jimmy Vasser. The Ganassi team led the final 101 laps and three hours and 19 minutes Sunday. Overall, the team led 252 laps, while Lexus-powered cars were in front for 286 of the 695 circuits. Over the three-year victory run, Lexus-powered cars have now led 1,257 laps - more than 60% of the laps run at Daytona during that span. And that three-year victory run, by the way, is the first for any carmaker since Porsche last accomplished a similar feat from 1985 to 1987. Also, that third victory comes on the fifth year of Lexus competing in the Rolex 24 at Daytona race (quite a contrast to corporate parent Toyota's Formula 1 efforts) and is its 18th overall Daytona Prototype victory since entering the series in 2004.

In another curious "coincidence of threes", Dario Franchitti becomes the third Indianapolis 500 winner to then go on to win the following 24 Hours of Daytona race.

Does this mean that the Lexus-powered cars will breeze to easy victories throughout the 2008 Grand-Am Rolex Series Daytona Prototype season and clinch the title early? Hardly. Yes, the Lexus racers have the right stuff when it comes to stamina, durability and reliability in the longer races, such as Daytona, Watkins Glen and Utah, but, as <A HREF="http://www.autoweek.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20080128/FREE/298657765/-1/newsletter01">AutoWeek's story on the 2008 Daytona race</A> reminds us, Michael Shank’s two Riley-Fords, which monopolized the front row of the grid, were the fastest cars around Daytona both in qualifying and in race trim, helped by the Robert Yates-prepared Ford V8 and the latest low-drag Riley bodywork, which only three teams chose to run. Thus, on shorter races, they appear to be the team to beat. Then again, it's quite telling that the #01 Lexus-Riley was followed by a quartet of Pontiac/Rileys and then, in 6th place, came the first of the Ford/Rileys. Yes, 2008 promises to be another nail-biting cliffhanger of a racing season...
 

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Scott Pruett is so fast, he doesn't have time for autographs!

 
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Discussion Starter #4
Jruhi4, were you there at the race? Sure looks like it!
:lol: :lol: Thanks for the compliment, but no, I wasn't at the race. I saw what I could on SPEED TV and read up on the stuff on the official Grand-Am and AutoWeek websites to write that article.

If you're referring to that picture of me that Al posted, that was actually from the 2007 Homestead Grand Am race, which he & I attended together along with a buddy of his...
 

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Hopefully we are doing it again this year!

I have a work thing the Wed-Friday before in AZ, but I should be back in time for the race. Josh you should come down, it is a lot of fun and pretty cheap.
 

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