March 28, 2012  |   By John Dagys - SPEED.COM

GRAND-AM: Barber Preview

Courtesy of Speed.com

With guest drivers, international teams and the added fanfare that comes with the around-the-clock classic, the Rolex 24 at Daytona is often considered a race in itself, albeit the kick-off for GRAND-AM Road Racing each year.

That’s why many consider this weekend’s Porsche 250 at Barber Motorsports Park (Saturday, 4 p.m. ET, SPEED) the start of the 'regular season' for the Rolex Sports Car Series, in what’s shaping up to be one of the most competitive years yet for both the Daytona Prototype and GT categories.

Twenty-eight cars are entered for the two-hour and 45-minute race, including a field of nine DPs, all of which feature the new-generation bodywork which debuted at the 50th Rolex 24 in January.

Daytona saw GRAND-AM stalwarts Michael Shank Racing come out on top, and drivers John Pew and Ozz Negri, who will be making his 100th series start this weekend, will be looking to make it two-for-two in their No. 60 Riley-Ford.

The fight for the Ohio-based team to take its first sprint race victory in more than three years will be tough, though, with Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas looking to rebound after late-race gearbox issues demoted the defending series champs to a sixth place finish.

Another team to walk away from Daytona with even fewer points was SunTrust Racing, as its new Dallara-chassied Corvette DP suffered engine issues in the first hour of the race, which led to an early retirement for 2011 runner-ups Ricky Taylor and Max Angelelli.

The misfortunes for two of this year’s title contenders opened the door for some of the hard-working 'underdog' squads, such as Starworks Motorsport, to capitalize on some crucial early season points.

For Peter Baron’s Starworks team, fresh off a class victory and overall podium finish in the 12 Hours of Sebring, there’s plenty of momentum flowing, and the team’s No. 8 Riley-Ford, which came less than six seconds away from victory at the Rolex 24, will be one of the contenders this weekend in the hands of Ryan Dalziel and Enzo Potolicchio.

Starworks sister No. 2 machine, fully upgraded to Riley’s DPG3 bodywork, could also play a factor with Lucas Luhr and Alex Popow at the wheel.

But what about the Corvettes? After an underwhelming debut that saw various technical issues, both Action Express Racing and GAINSCO/Bob Stallings Racing will be looking to get their seasons back on track, as well as the Spirit of Daytona machine of Antonio Garcia and Richard Westbrook.

For the first time in recent memory, the entire field of DPs could have a chance of victory on Saturday, which should make for some entertaining battles on track.

The fight for top-honors in the 19-car GT class is also expected to be intense, with the regular Porsche vs. Mazda vs. BMW vs. Camaro/Corvette battle seen in 2011 intensified with the addition of entries from Audi and Ferrari.

While Magnus Racing’s Andy Lally and John Potter lead the championship race thanks to their class win at Daytona, arch-rivals TRG, now boasting a two-car full season attack led by Spencer Pumpelly (No. 67 Porsche) and Jeroen Bleekemolen (No. 68 Porsche), will also be strong.

Don’t count out defending class champions Brumos Racing, though, nor the pair of Camaro GT.Rs from Stevenson and Autohaus Motorsports, both winners in 2011. SpeedSource, now down to a single-car Mazda RX-8 effort this year, could also be in contention, as well as the singleton Turner Motorsport BMW M3.

AIM Autosport Team FXDD, APR Motorsport and Oryx Racing, the new kids on the GT block with their GT3-based Ferrari and Audis, could be considered wildcards as well, especially the Prancing Horse, which showed promising pace in the Rolex 24.

Of note, Marsh Racing, which sat out the Rolex 24, will returns to action this weekend with its Whelen Corvette for Eric Curran and Boris Said. The team could also play a factor in the outcome as well.

Official track activities kick off on Thursday afternoon, with a compact Friday schedule consisting of practice and qualifying in the morning. The Porsche 250, Round 2 of the GRAND-AM Rolex Sports Car Series, takes the green flag Saturday at 12:15 p.m. CT. Catch the race on SPEED beginning at 4:00 p.m. ET.