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Last year's shock wears off

It was not a race that Kevin Buckler's team was supposed to win. But there he was, minutes from victory in America's most grueling motorsports event, and the tears were welling in his eyes as he prepared to take his final stint behind the wheel in the 2003 Rolex 24.

His pudgy blue Porsche GT3R, its 3.6-liter engine still humming as sweetly as when the green flag dropped the day before, soared past the pits to hearty cheers of the Racers Group crew. By the time the checkered flag flew, Buckler knew what it was like to be David with a stealthy slingshot.

"We were simply astounded by it all," the 44-year-old Californian said. Outmanned and outspent, and down on horsepower, the team competed simply with hope of a GT class victory, and came away with the grand prize.

But the overall win at the Rolex 24 always was on the radar screen, Buckler said. The team figured there were opportunities though it was in a smaller class.

The six Daytona Prototype entries making their debut in the race were quick but unproven in terms of endurance. The other top machines consisted mainly of the more powerful but less fuel-efficient GTS cars.

The way Buckler figured it, all he had to do was to maintain an even pace, save the car and be ready to drop the hammer in the final hours.

"We were actually a little bit ahead of the game," Buckler said. "It was like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid when they kept looking back at the guys who were following them, saying, "Who are those guys?' Well, we were those guys."

Things have changed a lot in a year. The prototypes, which will occupy the top 15 slots on the starting grid, have gone through much more development this year. Coupled with that, Grand American Road Racing, the race's sanctioning body, has thrown a few monkey wrenches into Buckler's class.

With fuel capacity now limited to 17 gallons, Buckler's three-car team will have to make as many as seven more pit stops than last year. Plus there are new engine rpm restrictions and extra weight on the GT cars.

Buckler's team qualified 33rd overall Friday, 14th in the GT class.

Still, Buckler is confident he'll have something to show the big guys. A club racer in the early 1990s who specialized in preparing Porsches for racing, he believes his team has some novel ways to increase its performance over the 24-hour haul.

With experienced co-drivers Jorg Bergmeister, Timo Bernhard and Patrick Long on board, Buckler sees good things ahead.

"We've got a plan," Buckler said. "We may have to run flat-out to do it, but if we keep our noses clean, I think we'll still have something left in the end.

"In endurance racing, that's what counts."

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