GENTILOZZI TAKES UP WHERE HE LEFT OFF FOR TRANS-AM OPENER
LONG BEACH, Calif.–He may have changed from Chevrolet to Ford, and from a Corvette to a Mustang Cobra, but defending Drivers' Champion Paul Gentilozzi began the 1999 BFGoodrich Tires Trans-Am Series season the same way he finished last year's championship–at the top of the field. Gentilozzi, driving the No. 1 HomeLink/Johnson Controls Mustang Cobra, was the fastest of 27 drivers in the first practice session for Sunday's Johnson Controls 100 after posting a time of 1:15.844 (86.577 mph) on the newly configured Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach street circuit. "At Long Beach, qualifying up front is key," said Gentilozzi. "Always has been, always will be, especially with the new track configuration. Turn one is always a challenge, and this year even more so. We've tweaked the car since yesterday's practice, and I wouldn't expect anything less than the pole for this team." Coming off the best Trans-Am campaign by a rookie in 10 years, ‘98 Rookie of the Year Chris Neville also showed that he hadn't slowed in the off season, driving the second-fastest lap of 1:15.932 (86.477). Neville also switched marques for 1999, driving the No. 84 ARCO Mustang Cobra after competing his rookie season at the wheel of a Camaro. "This is a brand new Huffaker chassis that has never been raced before, and we haven't even begun to scratch the surface on development," said Neville. "We went out in yesterday's session on tires that had more than 100 miles on them, and still did well. This chassis is the most responsive I've ever driven, and the feedback is tremendous. If we're not on the pole, I will be disappointed." Third quick was Randy Ruhlman (No. 49 Preformed Line Products Mustang Cobra), followed by Mike Lewis (No. 12 AmeriSuites Mustang Cobra) and Stu Hayner (No. 58 Trenton Forging/Westward Ho Casino Camaro). "We had a solid session, and were able to run hard for a long time," said Lewis. "Our goal is to set this car up for the long run, and we were happy to be able to go out and post consistent lap times over a full session that were competitive. The new section around the aquarium has a little rhythm to it, but passing there will be very difficult. Any mistakes in those turns will cause a big back-up. It will take a low 1:15 lap to be on the front row, and for this track it is important to start up front. There is definitely more in the car - it's just a matter of correcting a couple of things and we're ready. I'm feeling really good about it." Gentilozzi's new teammate Craig T. Nelson was 10th in the first session. Nelson, in the No. 5 HomeLink/Johnson Controls Corvette, is a veteran of sports car and prototype racing but makes his first start in the Trans-Am this weekend. "I see this afternoon's qualifying a two-stage session," said Nelson. "I want to work the tires up to temperature and feel out the track in the first half, then see where we're at and go as fast as I can. This car is great." Sunday's 60-minute timed race begins at 3:45 p.m. (PDT), and will be televised same-day delayed on The Nashville Network starting at 9:00 p.m. PDT (Monday, April 19, 12:00 a.m. EDT).
Source: SCCA/SCCA Pro Racing/USRRC