Reigning three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Champion Jimmie Johnson will return to GAINSCO/Bob Stallings Racing for the 2009 Rolex 24 At Daytona, reuniting this year's all-star lineup of Johnson and fellow champions Alex Gurney, Jon Fogarty and Jimmy Vasser. The season-opening Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series race takes place at Daytona International Speedway January 24–25.
GAINSCO's fantastic four led often and finished second in this year's Rolex 24 At Daytona and return in 2009 with the same team and key crew personnel that kept them challenging for the win throughout the day-long race. The team is back with the familiar No. 99 GAINSCO Auto Insurance Pontiac Riley that finished second in both the Rolex 24 and Rolex Series Championships this year under the leadership of team owner Bob Stallings and the first-class preparation and planning of Chief Race Engineer Kyle Brannan, Crew Chief Link Smith and Team Manager Terry Wilbert. Stallings will bring this winning foundation of key personnel and proven champions back in 2009 for an all-out assault on the Rolex 24.
"We were competitive all day and probably could have won with just a little more luck on our side," said Stallings, who will field his GAINSCO team in the Rolex 24 for the fourth consecutive year. "We recovered from a quick Sunday morning gearbox change to finish second and know beyond a shadow of a doubt that we have the ingredients in place to win our first Rolex 24. We were on pole in 2007 with Alex Gurney, finished second this year and next on the list is a victory in the Rolex 24."
Team continuity at Hendrick Motorsports has been an important part of Johnson's record-matching run of three consecutive NASCAR Cup titles in the No. 48 Lowe's Impala SS, and he sees GAINSCO's team of returning champion drivers and crew as nothing but a positive.
"Continuity is so important" said Johnson, who met with Stallings and the GAINSCO team Thursday near the team's Dallas-based shop. "To know the faces, the car, the equipment, the teammates, it makes those four days of the race weekend so much easier. In Grand-Am, the biggest race of the year is the first one, just like NASCAR, so the more refined you are and the more well-oiled the machine is, the better the experience. I think that might make this year my best experience ever down there."
Johnson has been successful in his Rolex Series races and also finished second in the 2005 Rolex 24 at Daytona in a Howard/Boss Motorsports Pontiac Crawford. He made his first Rolex 24 start with the same team a year earlier and then returned in 2007 for not only the Rolex 24 but also that summer's Brumos Porsche 250 at Daytona with Riley Motorsports. Joining GAINSCO/Bob Stallings Racing for the 2008 Rolex 24 At Daytona gave Johnson what he believed was his best chance yet at victory, and he and the team get another shot next month after coming so close this year. Even with his remarkable NASCAR success, which includes a Daytona 500 win and a pair of victories in the Brickyard 400 in addition to the three championships, Johnson still wants a Rolex 24 trophy and the Rolex watch that goes with it in his display case.
"This is one of the few races in motorsports where you get a title," Johnson said. "I've won the Daytona 500. Now I want that watch, I want that trophy. To win the Rolex 24 At Daytona would be an amazing accomplishment. If it happened, I'd be one of the very, very few to have won the Cup Championship, the Brickyard 400, the Daytona 500, and then add the Rolex 24 to the list."
Lead team drivers Gurney and Fogarty look forward to Johnson's return. Along with Vasser, who is back for a fourth season as GAINSCO's main endurance race hired gun, the trio was listed as drivers of the No. 99 GAINSCO race car when the 2009 Rolex 24 entry was filed last month. With Johnson now officially onboard, a driver lineup that stands out even in the star-studded Rolex 24 At Daytona is back for 2009. This year, 2007 Rolex Series Daytona Prototype Co-Champions Gurney and Fogarty and 1996 CART Champ Car World Series champ Vasser joined Johnson as the only four-driver team of major champions in the Rolex 24. That may be the case once again in 2009.
"We're really stoked to have Jimmie back," said Gurney, who led several race laps in this year's Rolex 24, along with Fogarty and Johnson. "Since the last Rolex 24 he's grabbed another NASCAR championship against an incredible field. The difficulty of winning in NASCAR has become even more apparent since several drivers from other series have gone over there. To know the guy who's won it and to have him drive with us is really special."
Fogarty agrees with his friend and 2007 co-champion teammate and is very happy to have Johnson back.
"It's awesome to have him onboard again," Fogarty said. "Independent of his NASCAR success, he's just a great guy. We have him in the car because he's capable of driving this car, not because he is capable of driving a Cup car. The media attention is always a little gnarly to deal with, but maybe they'll back off a little this year since this was his third championship, and not his second. But I expect it to be a madhouse at Daytona as always, and that is all part of what makes this our biggest event."
Johnson will likely test with GAINSCO on the final day of the annual Rolex 24 Test Days, January 3–5, in preparation for the Rolex 24.
"When we left Daytona last year, Bob asked if I'd like to do it again," Johnson said. "I said, 'If you guys have a spot, count me in.' So, I am excited, happy and honored to be back for a second run with the team."