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Rain yields to drama

At about 7:30 a.m. Sunday, someone in the pits at the Rolex 24 at Daytona pulled a very tired Terry Borcheller aside and asked him what he thought he and his Bell Motorsports teammates needed to do to get their second-place machine past their vaunted competition.

"I don't really know the answer to that," Borcheller said. "It's Daytona. Anything can happen."

As it turned out, everything happened. As the final 18 minutes ticked away, the car driven by race leader Tony Stewart suddenly swerved near the backstretch wall. The left rear tire came off and the car came to an abrupt stop. Stewart, who had been nursing the ailing car for 30 minutes, sat dejectedly in the cockpit as Borcheller's Pontiac-Doran Daytona Prototype, which had been a lap down, passed a few minutes later to take the lead.

Dramatic finishes are not the norm in endurance racing, but considering what unfolded in this year's twice-around-the-clock spectacle, it was fitting that something extraordinary happened to validate what Borcheller and teammates Andy Pilgrim, Christian Fittipaldi and Forest Barber endured to win.

Drenching rain, cold and winds made for miserable conditions much of the time. Often, the challenge for drivers was not how fast to go but how cautious to be. The weather was so bad, officials even stopped the race for a time.

"You really appreciate a win like this," Pilgrim said. "Driving conditions were probably some of the worst I could ever imagine facing. As enjoyable as it was to win, I think we all enjoyed more the fact that it's finally over."

Certainly, no one could deny credit to Stewart and his Howard-Boss Motorsports teammates, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Andy Wallace, who collectively set a blistering pace that competitors found tough to match. For 490 laps their Cheverolet-Crawford DP was nearly flawless. Shortly after Stewart climbed in for his final driving stint, however, things began to sour. A suspension arm began collapsing, and Stewart had to struggle to hold the car at speed.

"It was one of those do-or-die things," Stewart said. "For a while I thought (the car) could make it, but the more I drove the more I knew it was finished."

Stewart's troubles might partly be blamed on wet conditions that caused flooding in some areas around the track. By 2 a.m. the torrent was so bad that a caution flag flew for the next three hours. By dawn the race was red-flagged for the first time in 15 years, and the cars remained parked for three more hours until conditions improved. Few drivers, especially those in low-slung Daytona Prototypes, disagreed with the decision.

"Conditions were appallingly bad," said Pilgrim. "Even when it dried out, it didn't dry out. It just meant the puddles were smaller. (It was) certainly the worst Daytona weather I've ever seen."

When skies finally cleared, the race for the finish began in earnest. Two laps behind the leader, the Bell Motorsports team prepared for a push to the front.

"We were lucky in the end, but luck is part of racing," said Fittipaldi, whose team completed 526 laps at an average of 77.927 mph. "Our car wasn't at its best but it was good enough to get us home."