Gurney, Fogarty Clinch Grand-Am Rolex Series Daytona Prototype Title; Riley-Matthews Wins Sunchaser
TOOELE, Utah (September 15, 2007) -- From championship to heartbreak, Saturday's Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series presented by Crown Royal Special Reserve season finale at Miller Motorsports Park was a true representation of the season as a whole -- including one team's championship hopes literally going up in smoke.
The Sunchaser 1000 was a race for the ages, not in the least because of Riley-Matthews Motorsports first career Rolex Series win. Jim Matthews, Marc Goossens and Ryan Hunter-Reay persevered in the No. 91 Riley-Matthews Motorsports Pontiac Riley throughout the 1000k marathon, climbing 18 spots from their starting position to the top of the podium.
"Our car was very strong toward the end of the race," said Goossens, who ran the team's final stint. "We kept trying and trying all afternoon long. We were running some of our fastest times toward the end of the day. The car wasn't fantastic, but we kept going thanks to my team."
Equally as impressive though was the battle for the Daytona Prototype championship, which entered the day as the closest in all of motorsports.
As many expected, the championship outcome wasn't decided until the final laps of a drama filled race. Alex Gurney and Jon Fogarty entered the season finale in the No. 99 GAINSCO/Bob Stallings Racing Pontiac Riley one point ahead of Scott Pruett in the No. 01 TELMEX Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates Lexus Riley and three points ahead of Max Angelelli in the No. 10 SunTrust Racing Pontiac Riley.
The championship drama began to unfold on Lap 110 when Pruett took over for co-pilot Salvador Duran, exiting pit lane in second place -- just behind Angelelli in the SunTrust machine and five seconds ahead Jon Fogarty in the GAINSCO car. Five laps later, Pruett was locked in a nose-to-tail battle with Angelelli while Fogarty had closed the gap to just three seconds behind the leaders.
While holding Pruett at bay, smoke clouds began to puff from the back of Angelelli's Pontiac Riley. What was feared to be an engine ready to fail turned out to be the rear tire rubbing on the fender. A Lap 113 pit stop fixed the problem but sent the SunTrust machine back to seventh place.
Meanwhile, Fogarty had closed the gap to Pruett and was searching for a pass to take both the race and championship lead. Fogarty chose his opportunity on Lap 115 and as the pair battled through the track's first few turns Fogarty moved to the inside entering Turn 5. Contact send Pruett wide and Fogarty found himself in the race lead.
Pruett recovered, but the incident left the No. 01 Lexus Riley with a flat left rear tire and the No. 99 Pontiac Riley with a flat left front. With 20 of the 4.486-mile track's turns remaining between the two cars and the pit lane, Pruett's tire began to shred -- taking body work from that corner of the car with it. The GAINSCO team took their opportunity in the pits to make their final driver change, putting Gurney back in the car for the race's final stint.
The metal flying from the TELMEX machine had to land somewhere, and as fate would have it, cut the right rear tire on the third championship contending car. As Angelelli limped back to the pits with body work now being torn from his machine, something ruptured and set the rear of the car into a ball of fire. Angelelli was able to pull into pit lane and the fire was contained, but the Italian's championship hopes were gone. Angelelli's fire and the debris on the track brought out a full course caution.
"We knew we did not have the quickest car for one lap, but we knew that we could race both (the 01 and the 99) over the longer distances," said Angelelli, who started eighth and co-drove with Jan Magnussen. "We had the strategy in our favor. Our car was good on older tires. We fought all day long on the track. And losing a race and a championship this way is not just. It's just awful. It's a bad feeling. It's going to take a long time for me to forget today and this result."
The race's fourth full-course caution after contact between the No. 23 Alex Job Racing Ruby Tuesday Championship Racing Porsche Crawford and the No. 61 AIM Autosport Exchange Traded Gold/Barrick Gold Lexus Riley on Lap 124 sent the Ruby Tuesday machine spinning and set up the final showdown for the championship, now down to just two contenders. Gurney restarted in fifth on Lap 127 with Pruett two spots behind, and five laps later Oswaldo Negri in the No. 60 Michael Shank Racing Lexus Riley slipped past Gurney -- leaving the battle for the championship nose-to-tail.
With only six laps remaining in the season, the sun was setting on both the race and Pruett's championship aspirations. While attempting to get by Gurney on Lap 132, Pruett made contact with the rear of the GAINSCO machine, with Gurney falling to 11th and Pruett climbing to eighth.
Race officials ruled the contact avoidable and assessed Pruett a drive through penalty for the incident. Pruett served the penalty at the end of Lap 136, returning to the track in 10th place -- two slots behind Gurney. Pruett improved to ninth position when the checkered flag flew after Lap 139, one spot behind the GAINSCO car.
"We were racing coming around the back and Negri got around him and I was going inside of him, and he ducked down on me a little bit," Pruett said. "We touched just briefly and got up on the line. No spin or nothing, he just got off the line. This team has a lot to be proud of. We worked hard all year and raced clean all year."
With the finish, Gurney and Fogarty become the fifth different Daytona Prototype champions since the class was introduced in 2003, joining Terry Borcheller (2003), Pruett and Max Papis (2004), Angelelli and Wayne Taylor (2005) and Jorg Bergmeister (2006).
"I'm still coming down from it all and trying to take it all in," said Gurney, who captured his first career professional racing championship. "It feels amazing to be the champion. We deserved this championship. We broke a lot of records this year, and it's great to come out on top. It was a great day today. With Bob Stallings and Pontiac, this championship feels great."
Unlike his teammate, Fogarty had prior championships to compare this to.
"Any championship worth winning is difficult to accomplish," Fogarty said. "This one was the most difficult to win in my professional career, that's for sure. The whole GAINSCO team, we're pretty straight forward guys and a straight forward organization, and we just focused on the task at hand. And that's what we did all year. We always made sure we had a quick car. It's racing, and yes its endurance racing, but at the end you have to be fast. We certainly had the package. We all worked together, and Bob (Stallings) was a great leader. He gave us the tools we need, and we used those. That's what it takes."
Back on the podium, the Riley-Matthews team was celebrating its own milestone achievement. Goossens crossed the line 1.280 seconds ahead of the No. 11 SAMAX Pontiac Riley, driven by Enge.
"I don't know any other way to put it; this is a good way to end the season," said team co-owner Matthews. "This win is a long time coming. Marc and Ryan drove a great race and as a team we were able to get our first win in the last race. We never put a wheel wrong and we didn't have any bad luck. The car never missed a beat; the Riley guys really had us hooked up. This is a nice way to go into the 2008 season."
Hunter-Reay joined the team for the fourth time this season, driving in the seasons two other endurance races (the Rolex 24 At Daytona and the Sahlen's Six Hours of The Glen) and at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. The team's best finish with Hunter-Reay was previously sixth at Watkins Glen.
"We've been knocking on the door for a long time this season," said Hunter-Reay, the IndyCar Series Rookie of the Year. "It's been a long time coming, so this is great. This is just racing; you never know when your time is going to come. We were there in the right time and the right place. The race today was so much fun. It was a blast, thanks to these guys."
Also tying its best finish of the season was the SAMAX team, who finished second in the season-opening Rolex 24. Of the three drivers in Saturday's runner-up finish, only Ryan Dalziel competed at the twice-around-the-clock race. Kris Szekeres, who qualified and started the race in the No. 11, and Tomas Enge joined Dalziel in Utah.
"Every time I come and drive for SAMAX, it's one of those weekends where we start slow but always end up battling for the win," said Dalziel, who also ran with the team at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. "We didn't have the best car, but we ran consistently."
Enge climbed into second on the restart following Angelelli's fire, sliding from fourth to second in the first turn. From there, Enge was able to hang on to the runner-up finish.
Completing a Pontiac sweep of the podium was the No. 75 Krohn Racing Pontiac Riley of Colin Braun and Nic Jonsson. Braun made his final full-time start in Rolex Series competition before embarking on a stock car racing career, making a podium finish even sweeter for the 18-year-old.
"We started the car off a little slower during the weekend and fell back a little at the start of the race, but we had a really good car," Braun said. "Nic did a good job setting the car up. To finish third is a fantastic feat. I've just had a blast in these cars in the last couple of years."
Jonsson claimed his second podium finish of the year in a Krohn Racing machine.
"It was a nice finish of the season to be on the podium," Jonsson said. "I wish we could have won it, but the podium is nice. It was a pretty rough day in struggling to get the car right. We made some adjustments and everyone did a great job and got the car where it needed to be. Colin did a great job all day. It was nice for the team to end the season with a podium finish and it gives us something to build on for next year."
The No. 3 Southard Motorsports Preformed Line Products/TrueChoice Lexus Riley driven by Shane Lewis and Eric Lux climbed to the team's highest finish of the season. The fourth place finish was the team's first top-five of the season, and only the second time in 2007 the team had finished in the top-10.
Rounding out the top five was the No. 23 Ruby Tuesday machine, driven by Bergmeister, Patrick Long and Mike Rockenfeller. The weekend was a reunion of sorts for the team and Rockenfeller, who won the MESCO Building Solutions Rookie of the Year Award driving for Alex Job Racing in 2006.
There was no shortage of late-race drama in the GT class, either, as the top two cars -- race winner Paul Edwards and second-place Dominik Farnbacher -- were involved in a last corner skirmish, and Farnbacher's teammate and fellow countryman Dirk Werner picked up the class championship.
Werner, who teamed with Bryce Miller and Wolf Henzler, finished third after co-piloting the No. 87 Farnbacher Loles Motorsports IPC/Marquis Jet Porsche GT3 in the top five throughout the entire race. Their third-place finish wrapped up the Rolex Series GT driver's championship for Werner - who finished 10 points (375-365) ahead of Collins and Edwards in the title battle -- and the team title for Farnbacher-Loles Racing.
Werner ran the final stint for the team, running the final 17 laps of the Sunchaser 1000. It marked the 10th podium finish of 2007 and fifth straight for Werner and Miller
Edwards, Collins and Miller all jumped past Andy Lally and RJ Valentine, who came into the race tied for second in the championship point standings. Lally took control of the No. 66 TRG CRG/Maxter Porsche GT3 on Lap 5, and was running near the top five before his engine expired on Lap 27. The duo finished 23rd in class, but ended the season tied for fifth in points with five class victories.
Werner entered the race with Andy Lally and RJ Valentine as his closest competition, just five points ahead. Lally took control of the No. 66 TRG CRG/Maxter Porsche GT3 on Lap 5, and was running near the top five before his engine expired on Lap 27. The duo finished 23rd in class, but ended the season tied for fifth in points with five class victories.
"I had mixed emotions when I saw the No. 66 (with championship contenders Andy Lally and RJ Valentine) go out," Werner said. "Obviously, they were competition for the championship. But they had the same engine that we had. When I couple more engines went away, I was a little worried. However, I thought 'Here's my chance.' I knew we could win the championship.
"It didn't end on a great note, but it was still a good season," a disappointed Lally said after his season ended. "This is the fourth straight year we came down to the final race for the GT championship. I had no indication that anything was wrong. The engine ran great until three seconds before it exploded. There was no alarm light, no nothing. For one second, it was absolutely golden. Then there was a misfire for under a second and then it just seized up, locked the rear wheels. That was it."
Prior to the final caution period on Lap 124, Collins, Edwards and Andy Pilgrim dominated the GT race in the No. 07 Banner Racing/Banner Engineering Pontiac GXP.R. The trio, which led every lap of the 131-lap GT race despite four pit stops, never missed its beat after winning the class pole Friday. For Collins and Edwards, it was their second victory of the season, as they dominated the Porsche 250 at Barber Motorsports Park. However, the team's dominance was challenged near the end, and almost upended in the waning turns.
Edwards was pressured slightly during the opening stages of the race, but during the long green-flag runs, extended his advantage to more than 10 seconds, and at one point led by over 50 seconds.
But two late caution periods -- both involving Daytona Prototype cars -- closed that gap. Farnbacher, in the No. 85 Farnbacher Loles Motorsports Recaro/Shoes for Crews Porsche GT3 with Ian Baas and Leh Keen, never let up after the final restart. Farnbacher kept within three tenths of a second of Edwards, and gave it a late-ditch effort in the final of the track's 24 turns.
Edwards found difficulty passing Nick DiMeo in the No. 36 Competition Marketing Motorsports Fiber Art Inc. Pontiac GTO, who was several laps behind. Farnbacher closed in Turn 22, and coming out of Turn 23 passed Edwards and DiMeo on the right. However, the pair made contact, spinning both toward the main straightaway wall.
Edwards wasn't in the clear though. DiMeo turned into Edwards' right front, sending Edwards into the sand. However, he jumped the rumble strips and went back onto the track, then straightened the car out on the main straightaway. From there, Edwards led Farnbacher to the checkers by 6.493 seconds.
"It went down to the last lap," said Edwards, who led 73 laps during his stints. "In the last three turns the No. 85 and I came up on the slower No. 36 GTO. I went high and got in the marbles and then went low into the last turn and the 36 got into the 85 and we won. The car was good all race; just gas, tires and a driver. The Banner crew prepared a great car and it really ran well here all weekend. We led every practice session, got the pole and won the race."
Collins was solid all afternoon, never giving up the lead as the team strategically planned its pit stops.
"We've seen just about everything there was to see this season," said Collins, who led during both his stints for a total of 43 laps. "We led the championship twice, led laps and won races. We finished in the top 10 in every race but one this year, and that's a testament to our team and Banner Racing. This victory feels great."
Farnbacher earned second as the final round of pit stops cycled through. Looking for his first victory of his career, Farnbacher was happy to give his co-drivers and the No. 85 team its first podium finish since and the team's highest finish of the season.
"It was definitely a good season," Farnbacher said. "When we had 16 laps to go, I thought we might have had a chance for this victory. We kept getting closer. There were some lapped cars in front of us, and on that last lap, one of the cars left us some space and I went for it. We made some contact and I went spinning, but we still finished second. We wish we could have won a race, so not getting one is disappointing, but we are happy for Dirk winning the championship."
Keen made his first start for the team since a practice accident at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course left him with a broken collarbone.
"It was a crazy season," Keen said. "We could have, should have won more races this season, but in the end, we didn't. The team is so awesome. We won the championship, and put two cars on the podium here. We had a good year. We can't do anything about luck; we were always there. It was good."
Miller finished fourth in the point standings (363 points), joining Miller in every race following the Rolex 24 At Daytona.
"It's an incredible feeling to be a part of this team and winning this (team) championship in my first full season in this series, as well as the team's first season," Miller said. "It's quite an accomplishment. We just have been around great people all year. The chemistry of our team has been very solid. It's great to be able to share the same success with such a great group of people."
Fourth-place went to Emil Assentato, Nick Longhi and David Haskell in the No. 69 SpeedSource FXDD Mazda RX-8, while the quartet of Greg Wilkins, Dave Lacey, Tom Papadopoulos and Darren Law combined to finish fifth in the No. 17 Doncaster Racing MineStar/Tim Hortons Porsche GT3.
Nick Ham, who co-led the standings early in the season, was involved in a frightening accident on the first lap. Seth Ingram, who slipped off the racing surface briefly, returned to the track and nailed the right front of Ham's No. 70 SpeedSource Mazdaspeed Mazda RX-8 in Turn 18. The Mazda flipped once before coming to a stop right side up. Ham was not seriously injured in the accident.
Rolex Series competitors will be honored for their 2007 season accomplishments Monday, Sept. 17 at The Venetian Resort-Hotel-Casino in Las Vegas.