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Wheldon, Dixon, Mears lead Ganassi to Rolex 24 win

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Chip Ganassi has another winner.
While his teams have struggled the last few years in NASCAR and
the Indy Racing League, Ganassi's sports car team has been
prospering.
The IRL team has not won a race since Scott Dixon won in 2003 on
the way to an IRL championship. The NASCAR team's last win was by
Jamie McMurray near the end of the 2002 season.

But Ganassi, whose team won an unprecedented four straight
championships from 1997 to 2000 in the CART series, started his
sports car team two years ago and gained quick success.
Two years ago, Scott Pruett and Max Papis combined to win the
Grand American Road Racing Daytona Prototype championship, grabbing
four race wins. Last year, they won three times and finished
second.
And on Saturday and Sunday, Dixon and new teammate Dan Wheldon
joined Ganassi NASCAR driver Casey Mears in co-driving a Lexus
Riley to a hard-earned victory in the Rolex 24, America's most
prestigious endurance race.
"Let's hope this is just the start of a lot of good things for
this team," said Wheldon, the reigning IRL champion and
Indianapolis 500 winner, who won in his first start since leaving
Andretti Green Racing.
All three drivers contributed to the Daytona win, but it
appeared Dixon and Wheldon took the lead and were particularly
comfortable as teammates.
"We get on pretty good. But we've sort of been teammates for
years," said Dixon, noting he was the CART driver for the PacWest
team in 2001 while Wheldon drove for the PacWest's Indy Lights
team.
"This race is so difficult, so hard to win," Dixon added. "I
can hardly believe we won it. But Chip gives us a great team and
great equipment. Dan and I were also fast in the Phoenix [IRL] test
earlier this week and I think there are going to be a lot more wins
this year."
Wheldon agreed that the two will be good teammates.
"He's been on a different team the last couple of years, but
there is a good rapport in IndyCars," the Englishman said. "As
close as we drive together, you've got to trust one another.
"Scott won the 2003 series championship and he's just had a
serious [engine] power deficit the last couple of years. It will be
a good relationship for sure, especially if we continue as quick as
we have been."
Avoiding major trouble was the key in this grueling
twice-around-the-clock battle that saw seven different leaders, all
of them among the 31 Daytona Prototypes that started at the front
of the 66-car field at 12:10 p.m. Saturday.
Not even the winning car was immune to the mechanical problems
that plagued many of the top teams.
"We had brake issues to start with, then a gearbox, then brakes
again," Dixon said. "Then we had some engine belts fall off three
or four times. Yeah, and we couldn't select some gears. I thought,
eventually, it was going to knock us off the lead, but the team
seemed to have an answer every time."
The winners covered 734 laps and 2,613.04 miles on Daytona
International Speedway's 3.56-mile, 14-turn road circuit and
averaged 108.826 mph. That was good for a one-lap victory over the
Lexus Riley of Champ Car teammates A.J. Allmendinger and Justin
Wilson and Oswaldo Negri and Mark Patterson.
For Mears, the first driver to be part of a winning Rolex team
while still racing full-time in NASCAR, it was the biggest win of
his career.
"It's always been well known in racing that this is one of the
biggest races around," he said. "It's a big honor to come here
and represent NASCAR and win it."
It appeared for a while Saturday night that the battle would
come down to the two Ganassi entries. They were 1-2, with the Lexus
Riley driven by Pruett, Papis and Luis Diaz close behind the
leaders at the halfway point.
That team also came back from an early mechanical problem that
put it four laps behind, but wound up sidelined early Sunday
morning when a broken oil line blew the engine.
It was an amazingly close competition for a 24-hour event, with
four cars separated by just four laps at the end.
The Porsche Fabcar of Darren Law, David Donohue -- son of the
late Indy 500 winner Mark Donohue -- and Sascha Maassen was on its
way to third place when a flat tire forced Law to drive nearly a
full lap at slow speed. He was able to get the car to the pits for
a tire change, but lost third place to the pole-winning Porsche
Crawford of Lucas Luhr, Mike Rockenfeller and Patrick Long.
Most of the biggest names in the star-studded field were far
behind or out of the race at the finish.
The Pontiac Crawford shared by retired NASCAR star Rusty
Wallace, IRL sensation Danica Patrick and former Formula One
drivers Allan McNish and Jan Lammers got as high as third in the
10th hour before an overheating problem and a blown head gasket
retired their Pontiac Crawford.
Reigning Nextel Cup champion Tony Stewart, whose team was denied
victory the last two years by mechanical problems late in the race,
fell out of contention early this time.
Paired with three-time Rolex race winners Andy Wallace and Butch
Leitzinger, Stewart's team had a series of mechanical problems and
wound up far off the pace in 30th, 141 laps behind the winners. The
two-time NASCAR champion took his scheduled driving stints
throughout the race even though his ribs, injured in a sprint car
crash two weeks ago, were throbbing.
"I wish they were teeth so I could have them pulled," Stewart
said, wincing as he watched the race from the pits. "The only time
they don't hurt is when I'm in the race car."