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Major wreck avoided, but major logjam not

By MIKE READLING and Times wires

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 4, 2001

DAYTONA BEACH -- The 24 Hours of Daytona got underway at 1:02 p.m. Saturday much the same way most of its 38 predecessors did -- with a near wreck.

Fewer than 10 seconds into the twice-around-the-clock race, nearly two-thirds of the 79-car field bunched up coming out of Turn1.

A couple of cars squirted through the grass and back onto the track, several others made it four-wide and almost everyone came to a stop. Amazingly, no cars touched and the only damage was to the front end of the No. 83 Ford Riley&Scott, which spun through the grass.

"I just looked up and it looked like a highway accident," said Boris Said, driver of the No. 54 BMW M3. "Guys were just stopping. I almost went into the grass but I looked up and there was nobody right behind me so I just stopped and then picked my way through it. There's not a nick on the car."

WEATHERING THE STORM: A light rain began to fall midway through the second hour and it turned into a downpour, soaking the track enough to start causing rooster tails off the tires. At that point, almost everyone switched from slicks to grooved tires, hoping to maintain some traction.

"The worst part is the visibility," said James Weaver, driver of the No. 16 Ford Riley&Scott, which led after five hours. "Visibility and tires are the two things. Visibility you can't do anything about, but the tires we can change. We still have so much grip it's fantastic, but we probably lose 10 seconds per lap because of the visibility."

STUCK IN FIRST: Said gave way to teammate Hans Stuck with a 2 minute, 26-second pit stop/driver change and the veteran built a lead of 31/2 minutes in the GT class during the fourth hour. A win in GT would be Stuck's first win of any type at Daytona in 20 tries.

The BMW is the only M3 equipped with a V-8 engine and seems to be holding its own against the usually dominant Porsches.

"It's still early but everything is going as planned," Said said. "The straightaways are a lot shorter with this V-8."

NASCAR UPDATE: Dale Earnhardt was the second driver to grab the wheel in the No. 3 Corvette, taking over for Andy Pilgrim about 11/2 hours into the race. Earnhardt, driving in his first 24 Hours of Daytona along with son and fellow Winston Cup driver Dale Earnhardt Jr., handed the car to Kelly Collins about an hour later with the car in 11th overall and third in the GTS class.

"I was a little nervous getting in the first time, but once I got in it was just like practice," Earnhardt said. "It was a lot of fun."

The car ran out of gas at 5:35 p.m. and Collins coasted into the pits. While there, he gave way to Pilgrim.

Another Winston Cup driver, Kyle Petty, was not doing quite as well in his No. 43 Porsche GT. Petty's team spent much of the afternoon and early evening in about 20th overall and fifth or sixth in its class.

NEWMAN OUT: Actor-driver Paul Newman, 76, a former Daytona class winner, was out before dark because of a massive oil leak in the engine of his team's Porsche GT1.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: "It was like New York. New York, New York." -- Dale Earnhardt on the traffic in a race featuring 79 cars.

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