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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Thirteen years ago, Dale Earnhardt's first sports car race in a Chevrolet Corvette was the last race he completed.

Earnhardt, son Dale Earnhardt Jr., Andy Pilgrim and Kelly Collins finished fourth overall and second in the GT classification in the 2001 Rolex 24 At Daytona. A Corvette driven by Ron Fellows, Johnny O'Connell, Chris Kneifel and Franck Freon took first place overall.

By the end of the weekend, Earnhardt had endeared himself to his teammates, thanks not only to his talent behind the wheel but also because of the indefatigable generosity of his personality. Two weeks later, Earnhardt's life was cut short in a last-lap crash in the Daytona 500, and the motorsports world mourned.

A forceful confluence of circumstance in this year's 24-hour race at Daytona International Speedway can't help but evoke memories of the Earnhardts and 2001. A new Corvette, the C7.R, is making its competitive debut in the Rolex 24, competing in the GT Le Mans class that grew out of the merger between GRAND-AM and the American Le Mans Series.

The first race of the newly formed TUDOR United Sports- Car Championship also marks the first appearance of the Corvette CR.7 in its traditional "velocity yellow" racing paint. The significance of the Corvette debut isn't lost on IMSA President and CEO Scott Atherton, in part because of the purity of the technology transfer involved.

"I think it goes back to the Detroit Auto Show – the North American International Auto Show – where they introduced both the C7 road car and the C7.R race car," Atherton said. "For us, it is the benchmark example of connecting racing technology that's being introduced and developed on the race track and then directly transferred back to the road car.

"And to have Mark Reuss, outgoing president of General Motors, make the presentation he did and make comments that this road car has more race car DNA in it than any car [GM has] ever produced, for us as a racing platform, as I say, that is the benchmark example. The fact that they're competing in the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship and back at the Rolex 24 At Daytona, it's the best of all worlds combined together into one. We're very fortunate, I think, to have a company and a car of that ilk so deeply involved."

In fact, as Atherton spoke, Reuss was landing at Daytona, eager to watch the debut of the Corvette C7.R in person.

Not that the Corvette wouldn't face some formidable competition from other factory-backed teams in the GTLM class in the inaugural run in the Rolex 24 for that division. SRT, for example, is returning to the Rolex after an absence of 14 years.

"To have the factory Corvettes, the factory SRT Vipers, the factory BMWs, Ferraris, Porsches – all of them competing in that GTLM category, all with full-blown factory-backed programs – from a racing perspective, as a sanctioning body and an organizer, that's what you work for, to create the platform that attracts that level of talent and investment, and that's why we're so fortunate to have them all involved the way they are," Atherton said.

Mark Kent, Chevrolet director of racing, echoed those sentiments.

"I think if you look at the former ALMS GT class, and now the United SportsCar Series GTLM class, I think it's the fiercest production-based racing you'll see in the country, if not the world," Kent said. "The bragging rights are very important for us to go head-to-head with our showroom competitors like BMW and Porsche. It's been an amazing rivalry for years, and we look forward to that continuing."

There won't be an Earnhardt behind the wheel this year. Jan Magnussen, Antonio Garcia and Ryan Briscoe will share driving duties in the No. 3 Corvette. Oliver Gavin, Tommy Milner and Robin Liddell will pilot the No. 4.

The absence of star power from the NASCAR ranks, however, doesn't diminish the significance of the new Corvette's maiden run.

"It's really exciting to introduce the new C7.R here at Daytona," Kent said. "We've got such a storied history here, going back to winning it all in 2001 with Corvette, the opportunity to have the Earnhardts drive a Corvette here at Daytona. So there's a tremendous amount of history through the years, and the new C7.R race car is just the next chapter of that history here at Daytona.

"This is an amazing event at an amazing facility. Like the Daytona 500, we always, in NASCAR, start the series off with the Super Bowl, and we're doing that this year with a brand new car [in the Rolex 24]. It's going to be, as usual, a grueling, demanding race, but we believe we're up for the challenge, and we're looking forward to seeing what the new C7.R will do."

Former NASCAR driver takes sports car class win at Rolex 24

Former NASCAR national series competitor Colin Braun led his CORE Autosport team to victory in the Rolex 24 At Daytona's Prototype Challenge class, after starting the No. 54 ORECA FLM09 on the pole. The car – with Braun, Jon Bennett, James Gue and Mark Wilkins the drivers – finished ninth overall.

Braun has 84 NASCAR starts, 31 in the NASCAR Nationwide Series and 53 in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, with one victory, in the truck series at Michigan International Speedway in 2009. Braun was the truck series' 2009 Sunoco Rookie of the Year.

He also has one previous Daytona victory – a 2006 overall win in the old summertime sports car race, the Brumos Sports Car 250.

The CORE car was dominant in PC – a spec prototype class – from the moment it hit the 3.56-mile Daytona International Speedway road course.

"I think it really all comes down to our preparation over the winter," Braun said. "Then we got here and just executed our plan. Quickest in both practices ... qualifying on the pole ... leading the most laps in the race. It's nice when a race goes that way. Just a perfect race for us. And it's really cool to win at Daytona, which is obviously a special place."

Leaner Michael Waltrip Racing poised to rebound

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – There's a Phoenix Racing in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, owned by Harry Scott.

But there's also an organization that more aptly embodies the nature of the mythological phoenix, which is reborn when it rises from the ashes.

In its debut season in 2007, in the wake of a fuel-system cheating scandal at Daytona, Michael Waltrip Racing (MWR) came perilously close to becoming a soot-covered carcass, before financier Rob Kaufmann stepped in with a much-needed infusion of cash.

Six years later, in the September event at Richmond that determined which drivers make the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup and which don't, MWR again incurred the biggest financial penalty in NASCAR history ($300,000) for trying to manipulate the outcome of the race.

The negative fallout cost MWR a $16-million-a-year sponsor (NAPA), one of its marquee drivers (Martin Truex Jr., who departed for Furniture Row Racing) and a Chase spot for Truex, who was knocked out of the 10-race playoff because of a points penalty.

MWR reduced its roster of full-time NASCAR Sprint Cup cars from three to two. The organization sold its airplanes and will fly to 2014 races via charter.

Kaufmann explained the economics of that last decision.

"We're not running an airline," Kaufmann said on the final day of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Media Tour hosted by Charlotte Motor Speedway. "We're running a race team. With the aircraft, the cost – with two full-time teams rather than three – you just went below the break-even of where it made sense.

"So we were able to get out of the aircraft business, which is good. It's not a core function. My accountant and my insurance people are very happy about that."

That's not to say there's not good news for a streamlined MWR. Aaron's has committed to a full season on Brian Vickers' No. 55 Toyota, after remaining with the organization in the wake of last year's debacle at Richmond.

In fact, the loyalty of Aaron's and Toyota may have been the critical factor in keeping MWR afloat.

"It was huge, beyond comprehension," said Vickers, who was sidelined last year for the second time in his career due to blood clots, but has received medical clearance to race. "Everything that I went through, everything the team went through last year, having a company like Aaron's stand behind you through thick and thin just means a lot and makes you want to go out and work that much harder.

"It makes you appreciate what they do, and I think that resonates with the customers. I think it resonates with the fans."

Clint Bowyer, who qualified for the Chase last year and finished seventh in the final standings, is back in the No. 15 Camry. Owner Waltrip and Jeff Burton will share a limited schedule in the No. 66 Toyota, which will function as an R&D team.

In fact, as MWR opened the final day of the media tour, Burton was in Nashville for the second day of testing in ninedegree weather at 1.33-mile Nashville Superspeedway.

"We expect to make the Chase and we fully expect to race for a championship," Waltrip said. "That's what our focus is."

Hairy situation

Sam Hornish Jr., who will share driving duties with Kyle Busch in the No. 54 Joe Gibbs Racing NASCAR Nationwide Series Toyota this season, had one major decision to make after switching teams this season – whether to grow a beard or not.

Hornish comes to JGR from clean-shaven, buttoned-down Team Penske. In contrast, roughly half the JGR owners and drivers sported facial hair at Thursday morning's media session.

"To be associated with JGR, I'm glad that I got this opportunity," Hornish said. "I feel like this is a great opportunity for me to go out there and to work alongside Kyle and work with [crew chief] Adam Stevens to get in JGR equipment and see the things I can do to make myself better and hopefully do the things that I can to be an added value to the team outside of what I do inside the race car.

"I'm happy. I'm pretty pumped up about what's going on and looking forward to it. I was running down this morning trying to figure out whether I should shave or not. It's about 50-50 here on how much facial hair we've got – which is not something that I'm used to when I get up here for all this stuff.

"Maybe I'll grow a beard before I get to Talladega."


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