After 23 hours, the 51st Rolex 24 at Daytona came down to the final few minutes, and it was NASCAR’s own Juan Pablo Montoya who delivered on the 3.56-mile Daytona International Speedway road course Sunday, collecting his third Rolex win and assuring his Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Scott Pruett a record-tying fifth.
It was the second straight year a NASCAR driver was not only on the winning team, but was the driver who brought the car to one of racing’s most prestigious checkered flags.
And as it turned out, Montoya’s biggest threat in the end came from last year’s winner and fellow Sprint Cup Driver AJ Allmendinger, who co-drove with NASCAR’s road racing superstar Marcos Ambrose.
In the final hour, Montoya and Allmendinger raced through the tricky infield portion of the course as if they were tangling on a NASCAR short track.
“I knew he was going to get by, I was just going to make him work for it, I wasn’t going to make it easy on him,’’ explained a smiling Allmendinger, who ended up third.
“Obviously, with his background in racing in general, it’s fun to compete against him,’’ Allmendinger added. “But I don’t look at it just as NASCAR and NASCAR. Obviously, we both have diverse backgrounds, so it’s just fun to compete with somebody like that for the win.’’
Montoya said he was trying to be patient and ultimately it came down to a fuel mileage situation anyway.
“With the speed we had on the car, it felt like we didn’t have to take any risk,’’ Montoya said. “I think we’ve both been doing NASCAR for a while and you learn the give and take and you learn to share the race track, and that’s something here other people don’t do.’’
While Montoya, Allmendinger and Ambrose represented NASCAR on the podium, their fellow stock car competitors left the track exhausted, but also mostly satisfied.
Last season's Camping World Truck Series' "Most Popular Driver" Nelson Piquet Jr. finished eighth overall, tweeting afterward what a great time he had in the race and that he will "soon be announcing my NASCAR plans."
Two-time Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip and his co-driver, 2012 Sprint Cup championship runner-up Clint Bowyer, looked as if they could race another few hours.
They finished 16th overall in a Ferrari 458 -- eighth in the production-based GT class -- and for a fair portion of the event kept themselves in contention for a podium finish.
“I love being a part of this (race). Just being at Daytona and of course, what this place means to me. It’s all good when you’re driving a Ferrari on a Sunday afternoon in Daytona.’’
Bowyer, who was making his Rolex debut, seemed as happy as he could be without taking home any winning hardware. He had stints driving in the sunset, in the middle of the night, in the morning as fog brought out a caution period and then finally in the race’s closing hours.
“It took me 'til daylight to have a little fun,’’ Bowyer said with a smile. “That stint was probably my best and I enjoyed it the best. The fog was kinda boring. But we got back on the lead lap. … And that’s what’s neat, just seeing the rejuvenation in everyone’s faces. But it’s no different than what we do every week in NASCAR.’’
And, he added, “I’m not tired at all.’’
It was an early day for Montoya’s Ganassi teammate, 2010 Daytona 500 winner Jamie McMurray. He co-drove on Ganassi’s second car, which retired from the race because of mechanical problems with three hours remaining.
That wasn’t to say McMurray didn’t have an eventful event first, however.
His car hit an air hose exiting the pits Saturday night and after serving a penalty, McMurray went back on track and turned some of the fastest laps of the race, putting the car out front for a good portion of the early going.
Early Sunday morning, a problem with the speed limiter on the dashboard distracted McMurray as he was leaving the pits and he glanced off the wall.
“This is different than crashing in a regular event,’’ McMurray said. “When it’s just you it’s not the same as having three other teammates and the amount of people we’ve had down here for testing. It is very embarrassing, very humbling, just heartbreaking to be the guy that does that. ... I’m normally overly cautious. It really is frustrating because I feel like I don’t do that too often.’’
Standing alongside team owner Chip Ganassi as they watched Montoya complete the final lap, McMurray broke into a wide grin and celebrated the bigger picture.
“Even though it’s two separate teams, you want to see your teammates win.”