Third Straight Top-Two Finish for SunTrust; Angelelli and Valiante Close Out Tumultuous 2008 Rolex Series Season By Grabbing the Runner-Up Spot at Miller Motorsports Park Finale
Max Angelelli, Michael Valiante and the No. 10 SunTrust Pontiac Dallara team of Wayne Taylor Racing closed out the 2008 Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series season with their third consecutive top-two finish during Saturday's marathon SunRichGourmet.com 1000 at Miller Motorsports Park in Tooele, Utah.
The SunTrust team led laps for the 10th of 14 races this season and clearly had the field covered, except for the race-winning No. 6 Michael Shank Racing Ford Riley of John Pew, Ian James and Raphael Matos, which took the lead on the final round of pit stops 28 laps from the end of today's 137-lap event around the 4.5-mile, 24-turn road circuit near Salt Lake City. Matos, who recently captured the Indy Racing League's Firestone Indy Lights championship, drove a stellar final stint after a lap-111 restart and gradually pulled away to a 29.3-second margin of victory over Angelelli in the SunTrust Racing machine.
Angelelli, who finished a comfortable 6.2 seconds ahead of a tight cluster of fast cars running behind him in the third through sixth positions, just didn't have enough to catch Matos but still was able to bring home the runner-up finish that comes on the heels of SunTrust's first victory of the season from the pole two races ago at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif., followed by a second-place finish at New Jersey Motorsports Park in Millville three weekends ago.
The runner-up finish elevated the SunTrust team one position to sixth in the final championship standings. It was SunTrust's first finish outside the top-three in the championship since it joined the Rolex Series in 2004, but certainly understandable in light of trying circumstances endured by the team this season, including a catastrophic transporter fire May 19 that destroyed a race car and all of the team's spare parts, tools, equipment and race-weekend apparel.
"I think, even though we did not win the race today, what we did these last three races is a very strong way to finish the season and it gives us huge momentum for next season," said Angelelli, who restarted in third on lap 111 today but moved into second two laps later with a nifty pass in turn one of the No. 99 Gainsco/Bob Stalling Racing Pontiac driven at the time by Alex Gurney. "The No. 6 car was the fastest at the end of the race, for sure. I was gaining on him at the beginning of that last stint and I thought maybe we might have a chance to win. But all of a sudden he just drove away from everybody and I never saw him again. They did an excellent job and Raphael (Matos) proved to everybody here in Grand-Am that he is a great driver. Second place to a car like that today is nothing to be ashamed of. We finished the season strong, though. I can't wait to get started on 2009."
Angelelli, who qualified the SunTrust Pontiac fourth on Friday afternoon, started the race for only the third time this season and quickly picked off the No. 58 Brumos Porsche for third on lap two. One lap later, he got series champion Scott Pruett in the No. 01 Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates entry for second, then was in hot pursuit of polesitter Ricardo Zonta in the No. 76 Krohn Racing Pontiac before pitting under yellow for the first time on lap 10. Angelelli dropped back to as far as eighth in the next sequence, but was back up to fourth when he pitted a second time to hand the car over to Valiante on lap 41.
Like Angelelli, Valiante had a strong driving stint of his own after quick pit work by the SunTrust crew put him back on track in third place. Another quick pit stop under yellow on lap 63 sent Valiante back out in second place, and on the ensuing restart on lap 65, Valiante snatched the lead away from Joey Hand in the No. 23 Alex Job Racing Porsche. Valiante stayed in front for the next 12 laps until a sudden rain squall drenched the track on lap 76, and at the same time he encountered radio trouble that cost him the lead shortly after the yellow flag came out once again with numerous cars sliding off track in the midst of the deluge. Unbeknownst to Valiante, the pit lane was closed when he navigated the final turn as he did not receive the team's radio call to stay out on track. He entered the closed pit lane but had to drive on through at the pit road speed limit without stopping to avoid being penalized. By the time Valiante reached pit exit, Hand in the No. 23 Porsche was able to cruise back into the lead under yellow.
"We started off the weekend not as good right away as we had been in the last couple of races," said Valiante, who finally did pit to hand the car back to Angelelli under caution on lap 78. "But the team did a really great job and Max and I worked really hard to give us a great race set-up once again today. Max drove a great first stint and then I was able to get us into the lead. Unfortunately, my radio stopped working at just the wrong time and we had to give up the lead. But Max got back in and had a really strong finish."
The rains left about as quickly as they came as the race remained under yellow for another three laps after Angelelli got in for his final stint on lap 78. With the track still wet but the sun shining once again, Angelelli decided to take a tire gamble and called for racing slicks just as the field was about to take the green flag. Angelelli's was the only Daytona Prototype to pit just as the race went back to green on lap 81, giving up fourth place but gambling that he would end up back in front as the track began to dry quickly and the rest of the field would have to come in to replace their rain tires with slicks.
Sure enough, over the next four laps, the rest of the field did make its way in and out of the pits, moving Angelelli up from 11th on lap 82 to third on lap 85. On lap 89, Angelelli passed Memo Rojas in the No. 01 Lexus for second, and then dogged race leader Jon Fogarty in the Gainsco Pontiac over the next 18 laps. Angelelli's most determined effort to get by Fogarty for the lead on lap 105 was thwarted when, while creeping slightly ahead of the No. 99 in a tight, left-right combination of turns, Angelelli was pushed off the track by Fogarty. Angelelli was able to recover quickly, however, and continued the chase until the final yellow of the race came out on lap 107. Shortly after the lap-111 restart was when Angelelli moved into his final finishing position of second.
"We came into this weekend, and given the year we had, we came here and said that if we could leave here in one piece and on the podium, we'd be happy," said Wayne Taylor, whose team's finish today by far was its best in three visits to Miller Motorsports Park. Last year, the SunTrust car caught fire and had to retire two hours before the finish, and in 2006 dominated the race and led the most laps before encountering electrical problems in the closing stretch.
"Well, we finished second today, the car's in one piece, but I'm just not happy," Taylor continued. "Actually, I truly am happy for everybody, but I just want to win. I think, given everything that happened this year, the support of SunTrust and Toshiba and Miracle Sealants -- all of our partners, Dallara, Pontiac -- everybody's put such an enormous effort into this, especially all of our guys, and Max and Michael. You know, I always say that I can only compare apples to apples, and we were the first GM car home today. So, safe to say that for us, that was another win in its own way. Clearly, we've got work to do during the offseason. We're rebuilding everything now for next year. I cannot wait to come back. Three podiums in a row -- a first and two seconds -- it's hard to beat that. We're really happy about that. But about today, we really just want to win."