DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- A tiny crack in an exhaust valve turned a virtual runaway into the closest finish in the history of America's premier sports car endurance race.
Fourteen hours into the twice-around-the-clock Rolex 24, defending champion Dyson Racing was 13 laps ahead of its nearest competitor and cruising toward its third victory in four years at Daytona International Speedway.
''That's what makes 24-hour races so interesting,'' team owner Rob Dyson said. ''The smallest problem can completely change the race.''
In this case, the small crack caused a leak that led to a misfire. It robbed the engine of power and allowed a Dodge Viper and a Chevrolet Corvette to race past with just under two hours to go Sunday.
The Viper and the Corvette then drove off to a dramatic finish as Dyson's Riley & Scott Mark III-Ford fell far off the pace.
The Viper, shared by former Formula One drivers Karl Wendlinger of Austria and Olivier Beretta of France and four-time Porsche Cup champion Dominique Dupuy of France, gave DaimlerChrysler its first overall championship ever in an endurance event.
Dyson's car, driven by James Weaver of England, Max Papis of Italy, Elliott Forbes-Robinson and Dyson, dominated until the engine began misfiring during the nighttime hours.
''We just lost power,'' Weaver said. ''It went down 20 mph instantly. It wasn't smoking and it wasn't making any nasty noises. It just slowed down.''
Dyson said there was nothing the team could do about the valve leak.
''Those things don't heal themselves,'' said the philosophic Dyson, who celebrated a SportsRacer Class win with his team after finishing six laps behind the winner. ''We came in fourth overall with a car that was running on seven or even six cylinders at the end. Fortunately, it didn't quit completely.''
Wendlinger was at the wheel when the sleek red and white Viper passed the slow-moving R&S-Ford to take the lead.
The Viper led the rest of the way, but the Corvette driven by Canadian Ron Fellows, Justin Bell of England and Chris Kneifel, made it interesting, finishing on the same lap, just 30.879 seconds behind.
The previous closest finish in Daytona came in 1996 when a Riley & Scott Mark III-Oldsmobile and a Ferrari 333SP also finished on the same lap, separated by 1 minute, 5.518 seconds.
The Corvette made its final gas stop under the yellow flag, but the Viper didn't come in for its last stop until moments after the green flag waved to restart the race 38 minutes from the end. That stop allowed Fellows to move onto the lead lap and within one minute of the lead car.
''Before I left the pits for the last half hour of the race, I knew the Corvette could be very fast,'' Wendlinger said. ''But I also knew that throughout the race we'd learned how fast our car could run and that we could win the race with the pace we'd set.
''After I passed the Dyson car for the lead, the team told me to take care. I concentrated only on my driving. I didn't worry about reliability or passing anybody.''
Fellows said, ''That was a 24-hour sprint. It was a great fight. We thought we could catch them, but there just wasn't enough time left.''
The winners, who had a virtually flawless race, completed 723 laps for a total of 2,573.88 miles and an average speed of 107.207 mph.
The R&S-Ford, the pre-race favorite, started from the pole and dominated on the 3.56-mile Daytona road course until the engine problem began. The Dyson team led 433 of the first 664 laps.
''This is a difficult race,'' said Dyson, whose only entry was out front for 433 of the first 664 laps. ''We were running as hard as we could and it just didn't go our way. But at least we won our (SportsRacer) class.''
This was the debut race for the Grand American Road Racing Association, a sanctioning body based in Daytona Beach backed by a number of people involved with NASCAR and International Speedway Corporation.
It was a miserable 24 hours for the elite SportsRacer division -- the exotic racing prototypes -- which was decimated by mechanical problems.
Those problems put the GTO division -- the most powerful production-based sports cars -- the spotlight, with seven of the top 10 positions ending up in the hands of the second highest of five classes in the race.
Actually, it was a tough day for most of the field, with only 29 of the 78 starters running at the end.
GTO-division Vipers fielded by the French Team Oreca finished first, third and fifth.
The third-place car, which finished four laps behind, was driven by David Donohue, son of the late racing star Mark Donohue; Jean Philippe Belloc of France; and Ni Amorim of Portugal, while the fifth-place car, 32 laps down, was shared by Tommy Archer, Marc Duez of Monaco and Vincent Vosse of Belgium.
Sixth and seventh place went to a pair of Dodge Viper GTO entries fielded by the American Chamberlain Motorsports team.
The first race for Cadillac in 50 years had its ups and down, with the new Northstar LMPs running 1-2 early in the race, but finishing 13th and 14th overall after being hit by a variety of wheel and transmission problems.
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