By Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- To the sports car aficionado and casual fan alike, perhaps the most immediate and obvious aspect of the merger that created the new TUDOR United SportsCar Championship will be the depth of the field and the variety of vehicles competing in the 52nd running of the Rolex 24 At Daytona.
At 2:10 p.m. ET Saturday, pole winner Alex Gurney -- a driver whose name is steeped in motorsports lore -- will lead a field of 67 cars to the green flag in what is arguably the most anticipated sports car race ever held in North America.
When the GRAND-AM Rolex Series and the American Le Mans Series consummated the merger that united them under the International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) sanction, the union brought together under one banner the best drivers, the preeminent manufacturers and the foremost technology in the sports car universe.
Accordingly, the 2014 Rolex 24, contested over the 3.56-mile road course at Daytona International Speedway, will feature four classifications of race cars running at distinctly different speeds, piloted by seasoned professionals as well as -- in the case of two of the classifications -- talented amateurs who typically are referred to as "pro-ams."
Gurney made the pole-winning run in the No. 99 GAINSCO Corvette DP owned by Bob Stallings. That car will pace the marquee Prototype classification, and though Gurney will start the race, teammates Jon Fogarty, Memo Gidley and Darren Law all possess the talent and pace to keep it up front.
After turning the fastest lap to win the pole at 130.416 mph, Gurney addressed the size of the field and the issues the Prototypes might face with the variance in speed between classifications. (The fastest qualifier in the GT Daytona class, for example, ran 119.806 mph, more than 10 mph slower than Gurney's pole speed).
"We've had quite a few sessions to run together, and I think everyone has a feel for where they're going to be," Gurney said. "I don't expect things to be massively different [from previous years]. Obviously, there are some bigger closing speeds.
"On the banking, I'd like to see [slower] cars stay low more often; sometimes, when a guy stays in the middle, you don't know which way he's going to go. For the Prototype cars that have more top speed, that can be a little more tricky. There are a lot of really good drivers in this field, and it should be OK."
Gurney will have to contend with the defending champion Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates No. 01 Ford EcoBoost/Riley team led by Scott Pruett, the most successful driver in North American sports car endurance racing history.
Pruett, who teams with customary partner Memo Rojas, as well as Jamie McMurray and Sage Karam, will try to win a record sixth overall Rolex 24 title. He and Hurley Haywood currently are tied with five victories each.
Ganassi's switch to Ford power this year (from BMW) adds a dimension to the battle between manufacturers. The Corvette DPs dominated qualifying, but the Ford camp has two strong Ganassi teams (with the No. 02 including Scott Dixon, 2013 Indianapolis 500 winner Tony Kanaan, Marino Franchitti and NASCAR wunderkind Kyle Larson) as well as the 2012 overall winning team of Ozz Negri, John Pew, AJ Allmendinger and Justin Wilson fielded by owner Michael Shank.
The GT Le Mans class also will feature a fierce battle for bragging rights among the car makers. Marc Goossens put the No. 1 SRT Viper GTS-R on the pole in SRT's return to competition in the Rolex 24 with a factory-backed effort after a 14-year hiatus.
The two SRT entries, however, will face stiff competition from Corvette, Porsche, Aston Martin BMW and Ferrari.
In the GT Daytona class, German driver Christopher Haase paced the field and put an Audi on the pole at Daytona for the first time in track history. The number 48 pro-am team, whose pole-winning time originally was disallowed because of a ride height issue and then reinstated after a re-examination of data, also features Rene Rast (who distinguished himself in last year's race), Bryce Miller and Matthew Bell.
Ferrari, Aston Martin and SRT all showed strength in Friday's practice, but the session left the Porsches looking for speed. Magnus Racing, the 2012 GT winner of the Rolex 24, was 15th fastest in practice with a cast of proven drivers -- Andy Lally, John Potter, Wolf Henzler and JF Dumolin.
It's no surprise that Colin Braun will lead the field to green in the pro-am spec Prototype Challenge Series. Though an accomplished road racer, Braun has considerable track time on the high banks of Daytona from his NASCAR days with Roush Fenway Racing.
Another car to watch is the No. 08 entry owned by Paul Gentilozzi and featuring Canadian star Alex Tagliani in a cast of consistently solid drivers that includes Chris Cumming, Rusty Mitchell and Conor Daly.