DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — No, weary race fans were not dreaming when they checked the leaderboard at daybreak of the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Dr. Derek Shepherd was behind the wheel of the car at the front of the Grand Touring class when the sun came up on the twice-around-the-clock endurance event.

How could it be that an actor with the kitschy nickname “McDreamy” could be leading the most prestigious road race in America?

The answer, it turns out, is actor Patrick Dempsey has developed into a pretty decent race car driver.

For a few hours Sunday, Dempsey Racing’s No. 40 Mazda was inexplicably in contention for a win in a world-class sports car race. Neither Dempsey or his team had ever led a lap at this level, nor sniffed a podium finish.

Victory was ultimately snatched away when teammate Tom Long spun with just under six hours remaining in the race, and the car fell four laps behind the GT leaders. But they rallied to a third-place finish, a career best for both Dempsey and his team that left the actor in tears.

“I’m retiring from ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ as of today,” Dempsey declared in his post-race news conference. “I’ll be racing full-time from here on in. There’s a headline for you.”

He was joking, of course, but the finish validated Dempsey’s work in pursuit of his passion and finally gave him some credibility.

There’s a term in sports-car racing for guys like Dempsey, who are typically branded by the serious drivers as “Rolex Racers.” It’s a derogatory reference to rich guys who buy a ride at Daytona International Speedway as nothing more than a macho way to stroke their egos.

They aren’t there to win the coveted Rolex watch. They’re probably already wearing a vintage model they bought on their own.

The real racers roll their eyes at the rich guys wrecking expensive cars, and Dempsey earned his share of ridicule over the years.

But he was determined to prove he’s serious about racing. And through driving schools, low level races and years of commitment, he’s steadily improved.

“He’s too modest to say it, but he’s got a good passion and true passion for the sport,” teammate Charles Espenlaub said. “He’s not some (jerk) that just wants to come in here and race because it’s cool. He does it because he loves it.”

Juggling his budding racing career with his real job hasn’t been easy.

Dempsey’s acting, directing and producing commitments — you know, his real job — limited him to only four GT races last season. But three of them ended with top-10 finishes, including sixth at the Rolex 24 in 2010.

He was able to race in seven Grand-Am events in 2009 and nine in 2008, but finding the time has been challenging, even this last weekend as Dempsey had to race, literally, back and forth between Daytona and Park City, Utah, to promote his new film “Flypaper” at the Sundance Film Festival.

The film, which Dempsey also produced, screened Friday night and Dempsey made it after a practice session in Daytona earlier in the day. He was back in Florida about 5 a.m., ready for all the pre-race commitments and the start of a grueling event.

Still, he was angry with himself after his first stint in the car, a double shift, was so difficult.

“By the time I got in the car, I was completely depleted,” he said. “I didn’t have a lot of energy, I didn’t have the same snap in practice, which was difficult and demoralizing. I got out of the car and was extremely frustrated and upset with myself and was like, ‘What am I doing wasting my time if I’m not going to be successful and be out there and be competitive? Was it a mistake to go out and do the premiere?'”

Some time alone in his motorhome, listening to the radio chatter of his team, watching race coverage on television, and reflecting on his love of racing helped Dempsey pull himself together.

“It reminded me of like, remember to have fun and not to forget about how lucky we are to be here and competing with such an incredibly talented group of drivers,” he said. “To really work through all of those emotions and to get out and find a place where I was much more aggressive, and then I found myself leading the 24 Hours, which was remarkable. You just think of the waves of emotions … from getting off the couch, from watching SPEED on Sunday, to my wife saying ‘Go and follow your dreams.’ It’s pretty special.”

Drenched in champagne and fighting off tears, Dempsey said he’d not been as happy as he was Sunday since the birth of his children. And he talked of the validation Sunday gave his fledgling second career.

“I really work hard to try to be respected in this series,” he told the Daytona Beach News-Journal. “I’m very respectful and I have a lot of respect for what they do and for their talent. The fact that I’m inching in, getting closer on my lap times … this week I was putting down some of my best times. I’m starting to taste it and feel it now.”

Oscar winner Paul Newman was the last actor to find success pursuing racing as a second love. Newman was part of the 1995 Rolex winning team, at the age of 70, making him the oldest winner in series history.

And Newman-owned race teams won 107 CART races and eight series championships.

Dempsey may never be the next Paul Newman.

But Dempsey, who repeatedly talked at Daytona about “life after ‘Grey’s,’ certainly is trying.

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