Laguna Seca: SunTrust Racing preview

MONTEREY, Calif. (May 13, 2008) -- A year ago this weekend, the No. 10 SunTrust Pontiac Daytona Prototype team of Wayne Taylor Racing arrived at scenic Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca as the defending race-winner, fresh off its first of two Grand-Am...

MONTEREY, Calif. (May 13, 2008) -- A year ago this weekend, the No. 10 SunTrust Pontiac Daytona Prototype team of Wayne Taylor Racing arrived at scenic Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca as the defending race-winner, fresh off its first of two Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series victories of 2007 and with a somewhat comfortable 11-point lead in the championship standings.

What a difference a year makes as the SunTrust team and its fellow Rolex Series competitors return to the 2.238-mile, 11-turn hillside road circuit for Saturday's RumBum.com 250.

As is the case every racing weekend, SunTrust drivers Max Angelelli and Michael Valiante plan to wage a full-scale assault on a return trip to victory lane Saturday afternoon. They'll arrive on the central California coast equipped with the No. 10 SunTrust Pontiac Dallara chassis that, still in its relative infancy, has already proven to be a front-runner and potential race-winner after qualifying on the front row twice in the first three outings of its racing existence -- including starting from the pole at Virginia International Raceway (VIR) near Alton three weekends ago -- and has already led 28 laps in the process.

But, as has never been the case during the four-plus seasons of Rolex Series racing history recorded by the championship-winning SunTrust Racing program, Angelelli, Valiante and Company find themselves in a highly uncharacteristic 13th place in the team standings, a hefty 67 points behind the championship-leading No. 01 Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates entry of Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas, who are already three-time race winners through four events this season. Three racing mishaps in three consecutive races at Homestead, Fla., Mexico City and VIR have sidetracked what began with a solid fifth-place run at the season-opening Rolex 24 At Daytona in the SunTrust team's annual pursuit of the Rolex Series championship.

In its 56 previous event weekends since joining the Rolex Series in 2004, SunTrust Racing has arrived at a race track no worse than third in points on 45 occasions, including 37 times in the top-two, and 17 times with the point lead in-hand.

Fear not, says team owner Wayne Taylor, who co-drove with Angelelli to the 2005 series championship and who has never seen SunTrust finish outside the top-three in the season-ending points. Despite being faced with having to outscore its fiercest rival by almost seven points a weekend over the final 10 races of 2008, Taylor knows all too well that, in racing, all things are possible. And digging out of such deep holes in the standings are the very challenges on which the most steadfast of championship teams thrive.

As the team sets up shop at Laguna Seca this weekend, more so than ever before the current focus for the SunTrust team turns to winning races in bulk quantities and not so much on scoring maximum points each time out. There are certainly benefits to that approach, not the least of which are the headlines that accompany each visit to victory lane on the Rolex Series circuit. Without the stress that goes along with trying to stay within striking distance of the season-ending championship on a week-to-week basis, that equates to fun for Angelelli, Valiante and the SunTrust Racing team for the immediate time being. And, if all goes according to plan, there's no telling just how close the No. 10 will be to winning its second Rolex Series title by the season-ending event in the Utah desert.

Practice for Saturday's RumBum.com 250 begins Friday morning with Daytona Prototype-class qualifying set for 7:50 p.m. EDT. Saturday's 250-mile (or 2-hour, 45-minute) race begins at 4:45 p.m. with SPEED-TV's next-day delayed broadcast scheduled for noon Sunday. The detailed event schedule, as well as live timing and scoring during all on-track sessions, can be found at www.grand-am.com.

Max Angelelli, co-driver of the No. 10 SunTrust Racing Pontiac Dallara:

Are you looking forward to just tightening your belts and racing to win races in light of the current situation in the championship?

"We will continue to look like a championship team, as we always have, but we will not be conservative at all. Whenever I have had to be conservative on the race track, I always felt like there was all this weight on top of my head. The new car needed to be really good, and it has been really good. It has been frustrating to not be able to really go racing with this car, yet. Especially because Wayne and I worked so long and hard on this deal and the time we spent to make it happen. We still have a lot of work to do, but we will have fun on the race weekends for the rest of the year, for sure."

Have you thought about doing anything to help turn around the team's recent streak of bad racing luck?

"I am not superstitious at all. I really don't believe in luck. I think it has just been an unfortunate turn of events that we got together with these people the last three races. Other than that, I have nothing to say about it. I'm just looking forward. It can be very difficult if you let yourself keep looking back on it. But the way I handle it, I don't think about it. I am only fully concentrating on making our new car go faster. If I start thinking about all that bad stuff, I will lose sleep. And this is not what I want. I just want to think about the next race, how we will make the car go faster, and what strategy we will use to get the best result every single time."

What are your thoughts about the championship chase with 10 races to go?

"As far as I'm concerned, the championship looks more difficult than ever because we're talking about trying to catch a team like Ganassi. If it was any other team, I'd say perhaps it would still be very possible. I do have to say that, in racing, nothing is impossible. So I still have to have some hope that we can still be fighting for the championship at some point.."

Michael Valiante, co-driver of the No. 10 SunTrust Racing Pontiac Dallara:

Are you attacking this weekend at Laguna Seca any differently after three consecutive setbacks on the race track?

"It's always about finishing and winning. Really, the main thing -- the only thing -- I'm looking at is I believe we'll be competitive once again, and finishing is going to be the most important thing we can do. As has been the case all year long, we're looking for another great result this time. We've had speed at every race this year. If we just would've finished those races, we would have had great results. The problems we've had have been out of our control. To be so competitive with a brand new car really goes to show that the SunTrust team and Dallara are such top-notch organizations. Working under those conditions allows us to go out and expect to win races week in and week out."

Looking at the team's latest approach, does it take any of the pressure off of your shoulders for the next 10 events?

"To be honest, it's a huge undertaking to win the championship, especially since we've introduced a new car this year. There are going to be ups and downs whenever you introduce a new car, especially when you haven't had the opportunities to test the car as much as you'd like to. It's unbelievable how this new car has put us in position to dominate and win races right out of the box. Unfortunately, the reason we're so far back in the points has little or nothing to do with the fact this is a new car. Yes, I'm very much looking forward to being able to focus solely on winning races each weekend. Who knows, we might surprise ourselves with where we end up in the championship when it's all over."

Wayne Taylor, owner of the No. 10 SunTrust Racing Pontiac Dallara team:

What is your overall outlook as the team heads to Laguna Seca this weekend?

"We're extremely excited about going out to Laguna. The guys are more motivated than ever. Clearly, our focus is what it always is and that is to go and win races. Everybody is in that mode and everybody is excited. We've done a little bit of testing between the last race and now. We just can't wait to get there."

How did your testing go, and what did you learn about what to expect at Laguna Seca from the new Dallara?

"It went really well. (Son) Ricky (Taylor) did all the testing for us. I'm not exactly sure what to expect this weekend, though. When we looked at all the tracks that we race at, we always thought the one that's going to be most difficult for this car is probably Laguna. So I think we'll have a really good read after Laguna about where we stand. We've been competitive at all the other tracks so far, so we know the car's good. But Laguna's a totally different package. There are a lot of slow corners and we're not quite sure how the car is on that type of circuit. (Technical director) Travis (Jacobson) and (general manager) Simon (Hodgson) and the guys have been working really hard and I'm sure they'll come up with something that's going to make us just as competitive as we've been at all the other races. There has just been a massive amount of support from Dallara. I can't thank them enough. You've got to remember that everything we're doing is not only for Laguna Seca. All these things we're doing, like the testing that Ricky did with us last week, it's all good data for these races and, more importantly, for Daytona again next year at the 24-hour. This is a long-term program and we are doing a lot of work."

You say you're racing for wins. Isn't racing for wins always the goal?

"There's a fine line between racing for points and racing to win, and our focus in the short term is purely on winning races. We've had two races we haven't finished, already. So, in terms of the championship, we've never been in such a bad position. In the end, you never really know what's going to happen. It's a huge mountain to climb, so at least we can go and try and win races and not worry so much about racing for points."

-credit: str

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