Martinez, CA: The USTCC season finale race has been a real knock-down dragged-out fight in the past, and this year's ending at Infineon Raceway at Sears Point was no different. The race long battle was non-stop nose-to-tail and door-to-door (sometimes door-in-door) action. Gary Sheehan led every lap of the race in his Subaru WRX up until the very end. Gary Hutto squeezed his BMW by Sheehan on the 2nd to last lap and went on to take the win. The final standings were Gary Hutto in 1st, Gary Sheehan taking 2nd and Tom Lepper finishing in third in his Honda Accord.
Sheehan was slow in practice and qualifying on Saturday, turning in a best lap that placed the WRX seventh fastest on the grid. The car was down on power and handling was poor. The team worked late into the night tracing the power problem to a frayed knock sensor wire and making changes to the suspension settings. Their efforts paid off as Sheehan was able to step up to third place in Sunday's qualifying session. Although the team was happy with their improved performance, the gap to the BMW's pole qualifying time was nearly a second a lap and was a cause for concern.
The start of the race began with the USTCC's traditional standing start. At the drop of the green flag the All Wheel Drive of Sheehan's Subaru WRX hooked up and catapulted him from 3rd place into the lead before the first turn. There was a tense moment when Sheehan got his car completely sideways in turn 2 on cold tires, but he was able to keep it on the track and maintain the lead.
As the race continued on, it was clear to see that the BMW was quicker than the Subaru in several critical parts of the track. Sheehan drove the Subaru WRX defensively, protecting his line into turn 7 and 11, where the BMW would consistently pull along side as the cars battled in the braking zones. The AWD allowed Sheehan to squirt out of the hairpin corners harder than the BMW and stay in the lead.
As the race wound down, the fight up front escalated. Sheehan and Hutto consistently entered the big braking zones side by side, occasionally banging doors. The race continued at this fevered pitch up to the very end, when Sheehan braked a little too deep for turn 7, allowing Hutto a gap he had been waiting for. Hutto pounced and managed to slip through into the lead with a lap and a half to go. Sheehan could not retaliate and crossed the finish line a close 2nd. In Victory Circle, Sheehan and Hutto immediately congratulated each other on a close, clean and exciting race. The cheering of the spectators showed their appreciation for the show put on by both drivers.
"That was an awesome race," said Sheehan after it was all over. "We had been having handling issues all weekend long and we couldn't resolve them by race time. The BMW was faster than us and I knew he was going to be tough competition. At the start, the all wheel drive of our Subaru WRX just launched me into the lead like a rocket. At that point all I could do was race him. I think I spent more time looking in my mirrors than through the windshield. This was a strategy race today and I had to put the car in places that would make it difficult to pass me without overtly blocking him. Gary (Hutto) pressured me the entire race. I lost count of how many times we went into the braking zones side by side! Our Stoptech brakes were amazing, letting us brake with the lighter BMW all race long. Unfortunately, I made a mistake in turn 7, and in a race like this, you can't make even one mistake. Hutto was right there and was able to capitalize on it. It's too bad because we had him covered today and could have taken home the win."
The fight for the Championship title came down to the final race of the season and Hutto's win gave him the title with Sheehan in second place for 2002. Sheehan ended the year with 3 race wins, 3 second place finishes and a third place, putting him on the podium every race in 2002.
Plans for next year have not been finalized. Check in at www.teamSMR.com for the latest news on Sheehan Motor Racing's future.