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There's plenty of intrigue as Rolex 24 set to go Saturday

With Scott Dixon behind the wheel, fellow drivers Kyle Larson, Tony Kanaan, Jamie McMurray, left to right, and team owner Chip Ganassi celebrate their overall Rolex 24 win last year. Jerry Markland/Getty Images

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The Rolex 24 race, a battle of machinery and crew endurance as much as among the drivers on the track, has few parallels.

The version that starts Saturday, the 50th in the history of the race, will feature 54 cars, a mix of professional and amateur (the more polite term is "gentleman") race car drivers and four divisions of cars that have very different closing and acceleration speeds.

It's an excuse for people to come and party in the infield -- few people watch from the stands -- and take a look at the cars. For those new to watching the race, a driver cannot be behind the wheel for more than 14 hours and the driver cannot do more than four hours in a six-hour period.

The race starts at 2:40 p.m. ET Saturday. If you have to ask what time the race will end, ask for a lifeline from a friend.

What to watch for:

Ganassi defending title

Chip Ganassi's IndyCar-NASCAR quartet of Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan plus Jamie McMurray and Kyle Larson returns to defend its title in prototype cars that will be obsolete after this year because the series will introduce new prototypes in 2017.

Ganassi will field only its two prototypes at this race because it had them and won last year. It will then focus its efforts on its Ford GT program, which runs in the GT LeMans class -- a GT endurance car -- and would face an uphill battle to win the overall race because it's slower than prototypes.

"[Winning] is the goal any year, whether it's the last year or the first year [of the car]," Dixon said. "We come here for one reason, and that's to win."

"We're going to do as much as we can to make that happen. If it's the last year of the car, then maybe that's an added bonus. One thing we do know is in another year there is going to be another race here."

The Ganassi drivers want to defend their title, but they also don't know what the future holds for them in this race. Ganassi would need an additional driver for each of its Ford GT cars to team with the two full-time drivers, leaving the door open for possibly an IndyCar or NASCAR driver to join them.

"I hope there's options," Dixon said. "Ideally, I'd like to continue to do this race with this team."

McMurray seems content after winning last year on his seventh try.

"I'm glad we get to come back and I'm grateful for the opportunity, but if we wouldn't have been invited back this year, the fact that we got the win last year, I was pretty fulfilled," McMurray said. "This takes away two weeks of your off time.

"I enjoy it once you get down here, you're in the middle of it and getting the win last year was amazing. ... But if for some reason there's not room next year, it's not going to be the end of the world for me."

IndyCar drivers get back in action

Although NASCAR drivers, as McMurray said, might feel as if they could still use a break, IndyCar drivers have suffered without a race since Aug. 30 at Sonoma. So for them, to get a race between then and the March 13 season opener in St. Petersburg, Florida, might be a reason that 12 IndyCar drivers who competed last year are in the Rolex.

Dixon, the defending champion, headlines the group. Dixon, Kanaan, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Graham Rahal, Simon Pagenaud, Sebastien Bourdais, Mikhail Aleshin, Jack Hawksworth, Ryan Briscoe, Townsend Bell, Tristan Vautier and James Davison all competed in IndyCar events last year.

"You can't replace seat time," Hunter-Reay said. "You can't replicate the same emotions, the physical aspect of it. ... You only get so many opportunities to get behind the wheel of the car."

Dixon, Kanaan, Bourdais and Rahal have won the Rolex. Hunter-Reay is about to embark on his 10th Rolex 24.

"I'm a racer, so I want to race anything, no matter what it is," Hunter-Reay said. "It's what I love to do. The Daytona 24 is very important to me, for sure. If you look at the list of winners here, it's some of the greats -- it's by far the biggest race in U.S. sports car, and it's right there behind LeMans.

"And it keeps me sharp. It keeps me in the racing mentality."

The new Ford GT

Ford debuts its new Ford GT, which Ganassi will campaign in IMSA-sanctioned races in the United States and in the FIA's Global Endurance Championship.

Like any new car, making sure it goes 24 hours is the big key.

Ganassi has some stout drivers in its cars, including well-known names Bourdais and Briscoe and longtime sports car drivers Joey Hand and Richard Westbrook.

Although Ford and the team had cars used in the development, the actual two cars that will be raced were just finished less than a month ago.

"I'm not nervous from a 'Oh my God, I don't think we can do it,' " said Ford Performance director Dave Pericak. "But we've jammed this program into a very tight schedule. ... I feel very good about the durability of the car. We know the engine is durable. We've proven it. We know the gearbox is durable.

"So far, all of our testing has proven extremely, extremely good. We'll make the 24 hours. The nervousness just comes in we [were] still tightening up a lot of loose ends."

Pruett joins defending series champs

Scott Pruett, who had spent the past 12 years racing for Ganassi, has joined the defending series champion Action Express for the race. Pruett is working with Paul Gentilozzi on a new Lexus program that will debut later this year.

"It's different," Pruett said. "There's things that are better, and there are things that are worse. With all the bonds that I had with all the mechanics and engineers -- I was with Ganassi for 12 years -- we had and have a lot of friendships there. I miss that and am equally excited about being involved [with this team]."

Pruett, who said he had numerous offers to drive in the Rolex 24, will be teammates with full-time drivers Joao Barbosa and Christian Fittipaldi with Filipe Albuquerque also joining the team for the weekend.

With Pruett tied with Hurley Haywood for most overall wins with five, this could be his last chance to win the overall title before helping launch the Lexus GT program.

"It's just a record," Pruett said. "There are so many things that happen at this race. ... I will be back here in a GT car [next year] and continue on and hopefully win in that class. There is no additional pressure for me at all.

"It's business as usual getting in here, and would it be great? Of course it would be great. But if we don't do it, it's still great."

The imbalance of performance

With so many different types of cars, it's not uncommon for teams to complain that one manufacturer has an advantage as IMSA -- a NASCAR subsidiary -- tries to set rules to encourage parity.

And the matter-of-fact analysis started Thursday, with the difference of this year's "Balance of Performance" settings potentially benefitting the Honda Ligier fielded by Michael Shank Racing (which has NASCAR's AJ Allmendinger as one of its drivers), the Nissan BR01 fielded by SMP Racing and the Mazda-backed entries. Aleshin, driving for SMP Racing, posted the fastest speed among the prototypes in a qualifying session conducted in heavy rain Thursday afternoon.

"I'm not going to say we're not competitive, but [those] cars are significantly faster," McMurray said. "If those guys don't break, it will be really hard to outrun them."

Fittipaldi said those cars are 200 pounds lighter, generate more downforce and are as quick as the other prototypes on the straightaway.

"If they make the distance, they are going to kill everyone," Fittipaldi said. "The BOP is favorable towards them right now. If they manage to last, reliability is going to be their biggest challenger. ... If it was a 3-hour sprint, I would say we might as well pack and leave because it's going to be impossible to compete.

"In a 24-hour race, it's wide open and you have to be there at the end of the race."