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Near-perfect drive for winning Porsche at Rolex 24

DAYTONA BEACH, Florida (AP) _ Until the 2002 Rolex 24, Kevin Buckler had never won a major sports car race. He's certainly making up for lost time.

Buckler's Porsche 911 GT3 ran a nearly perfect race on the way to victory Sunday in the Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway.

The race-parts dealer from Sonoma, California, broke through with a win in the GT class here last year, finishing seventh overall. His team then won the GT class at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Buckler brought back the same foursome that ran in Daytona 12 months ago. This time, Porsche factory drivers Timo Bernhard and Jorg Bergmeister from Germany and Michael Schrom combined with Buckler to lead nearly three-quarters of the endurance event. They won by more than nine laps over the second-place Ferrari GT.

``We knew coming in we had a little tiny chance. I'm really proud of these guys,'' Buckler said. ``We seem to have some kind of magic going.''

The winners started 16th, moved to third by the end of the first hour and took the lead in the fifth hour. From that point, Buckler's car dominated.

Schrom, Buckler's friend and an advertising executive, had the honor of taking the checkered flag. He got into the car for the final time with 20 minutes remaining as the Racing Group team took its time servicing the car, wiping down the light blue No. 66 and making sure to put in more than enough gas to finish.

Buckler, who will turn 44 on Friday, said the transformation into a winning team has been a happy surprise.

``If somebody had told me 10 years ago that we'd be here now, I'd have said they were crazy,'' Buckler said.

The winners covered 695 laps and 2,474.2 miles (3,980.988 kilometers) on the 3.56-mile (5.73-kilometer) road course that winds through the infield and also uses about three-quarters of the 2.5-mile (4.02-kilometer) NASCAR oval. Buckler's car averaged 103.012 mph (165.746 kph) over the 24 hours that began Saturday at 1800 GMT.

This is the first time a GT class car has won here since 1977.

It's also the 20th overall victory for a Porsche or Porsche-powered car in 41 Daytona endurance races.

Second place went to the Ferrari 360GT of Ralf Kelleners of German, Johnny Mowlem of England and former NASCAR driver Anthony Lazzaro despite a very difficult start.

``I would gladly have taken second overall after I saw Ralf come around dead last with the car stuck in second gear on the first lap,'' Mowlem said. ``Our guys fixed it, and nobody quit.''

Another GT3 Porsche finished third, two more laps down, with the all-American quartet of David Murray, Dave Standridge, Richard Steranka and Johannes Van Overbeck sharing the cockpit.

Nineteen of the 44 starters in the four-class field were running at the finish of the grueling event.

The top finisher in Grand American Road Racing's new Daytona Prototype class was the Ford Focus that started from the pole.

After being in contention through the first half of the race, mechanical and tire problems pushed the car co-driven by Scott Maxwell, David Brabham and David Empringham far off the pace. They were 17 laps off the winning pace.

A Porsche-powered Fabcar Prototype, co-driven by former Indy-car driver Scott Goodyear, IRL star Scott Sharp, six-time Rolex 24 winner Hurley Haywood and J.C. France, the son of Jim France of NASCAR's founding family, wound up fifth.

They pushed the winning Porsche hard during the night, leading several times before tire problems, two broken throttle cables and, finally, a broken header, ended their hopes of victory.

``That Prototype car really gave us a good run for a while last night,'' Buckler said. ``We were 30 seconds apart for hours, and I was biting my fingernails. They were just unlucky.''

Another GT Porsche, this one shared by NASCAR star Kyle Petty, Leo Hindery, Peter Brown and Marc Lieb of Germany, was sixth, followed by the GTS-winning Corvette of Charles and Rob Morgan, Lance Norick and Jim Pace.

The Porsche was followed by the two SRPII class Nissan Lolas entered by Team Seattle. Ross Bentley of Canada and Americans Don Kitch, Joe and Justin Pruskowski finished seventh, just ahead of teammates Wade Gaughran, Peter McLeod, David Gaylord and Steve Gorriaran.

There were numerous spins, crashes and off-course excursions during the long race.

Barry Brensinger of Manchester, New Hampshire, was taken to nearby Halifax Medical Center after suffering a fractured vertebra in an early-morning crash. Race officials said Brensinger was alert and able to move all of his extremities.

The most spectacular crash also came just after sunrise Sunday when a Buckler-owned Porsche GT3 RS driven by Jim Michaelian was hit from behind, smashed through a guardrail and flipped. Michaelian, general manager of the Long Beach Grand Prix, was not injured.
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