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3-peat at stake for Sebring driver

Tom Kristensen can match an old record, but his focus is totally on the difficult 12-hour race.

Don't ask Tom Kristensen about the history that would come Saturday if he drives his Audi R8 to a third straight victory at the 12 Hours of Sebring.

"Records are something you look back on," said Kristensen, who has a chance to join Olivier Gendebien (1959-61) as the only other three-peat in the race's 49-year history. "I am trying to put the three wins in a row out of my mind. The team is focusing on a very difficult 12-hour race in front of us. If you think about anything else, it will come back to bite you."

The main thing the 33-year-old driver has been looking back on recently is his competition. Born in Denmark and living in Monaco, Kristensen has found success on both sides of the Atlantic. Last year he followed a record-breaking win at Sebring with his second victory at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. He will drive with the same team Saturday: fellow Monte Carlo residents Frank Biela and Emanuele Pirro.

Audi has set the standard in the 3-year-old American Le Mans Series. In last season's 11 races, Audis claimed every pole and won 10 races. A key to winning a 12-hour race is proper vehicle maintenance as much as driver talent, and Audi's Web site proudly boasts that no Audi entry retired from any race due to a technical defect last year.

By no surprise, then, Pirro drove the No. 2 car to the fastest qualifying time Wednesday, and his co-driver said that helps set the tone with the rest of the field.

"Winning here twice has been something," Kristensen said. "To be back as defending champion, it puts more pressure on your shoulders, but it helps to maintain the pole position."

The three drivers are a good combination _ Biela, who will start the race, holds the Sebring qualifying record of 122.39 mph. Pirro holds the mark for fastest race lap on the current course, 1 minute, 50.2 seconds for a time of 120.77 mph last year.

Two weeks ago, Kristensen and fellow Audi driver Rinaldo Capello combined to win the American Le Mans Series opener at Texas Motor Speedway, with Biela and Pirro finishing second, 7.5 seconds behind.

When Kristensen calls Sebring a "dress rehearsal" for the longer race at Le Mans June 16-17, he isn't kidding. Both of Audi's R8 cars will stay in town after Saturday's race and run another 12 hours on the raceway Monday with the same engine, drivers and racing components to complete the 24-hour endurance test.

And while Sebring's race is half as long as Le Mans, Kristensen said the nature of the course _ constantly winding turns and bends over a variety of paved surfaces _ make it nearly the equal of its overseas counterpart.

"Driving (at Sebring) is just as tough," he said. "We really have to stay in shape. When you're finished with the Sebring race, it is almost as tiring."

Two other factors make Saturday's race difficult _ the 3.7-mile course is significantly shorter than Le Mans, and with 40 entries on a narrow track, it might as well be an interstate at rush hour. With cars in four classes, the race has a wide range of speeds, and Kristensen estimates his car will need to pass six to eight cars on every lap.

"You have to pass people at the first opportunity," he said. "You constantly have traffic in front of you, but you cannot hesitate when you come up on someone."

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