For only the second time since 1994, a former Atlantic Champion will compete again in the series. The 2000 CART Toyota Atlantic Champion, Buddy Rice (DSTP Motorsports/BG Products Swift 014.a) will fill in for the injured Joey Hand this weekend in...
For only the second time since 1994, a former Atlantic Champion will compete again in the series. The 2000 CART Toyota Atlantic Champion, Buddy Rice (DSTP Motorsports/BG Products Swift 014.a) will fill in for the injured Joey Hand this weekend in Monterey. Hand was injured in a testing accident three weeks ago at the Milwaukee Mile and hopes to be back in the car sometime in August. Until then, Rice will try to pick up where he left off with DSTP Motorsports when they captured the 2000 Championship together. The 1998 Atlantic Champion, Lee Bentham raced in the 1999 Championship while fellow Canadian driver, David Empringham, captured back to back titles in 1993 and 1994.
Since winning the 2000 Championship, Rice has helped the DSTP team as a driver coach for Joey Hand. With Rice already being familiar with the team and its members, they should be contenders at every race they enter until Hand mends from his injuries. In three Atlantic races at Laguna Seca, Rice has finished no worse than fifth, although he is still searching for his first win at the legendary track. As for the team, DSTP and Hand captured the pole at Laguna Seca last year and finished second in the race.
Rice's return will not be the only big story for this weekend's race. The fact that the Championship is in the middle of a dog-fight, should set the stage for a great battle at the Mazda Raceway at Laguna Seca. The first three races of the 2002 Championship have produced three separate winners along with three totally different drivers that have won the pole. Jon Fogarty (Dorricott Racing/Thomas Fogarty Winery & Vineyards Swift 014.a), Michael Valiante (Lynx Racing Swift 014.a), and Roger Yasukawa (Hylton Motorsports/Autobacs U.S. Print Swift 014.a) have all earned their first career victories this season. Luis Diaz (Dorricott Racing/Telmex Swift 014.a), Joey Hand (DSTP Motorsports/BG Products Swift 014.a), and Ryan Hunter-Reay (Hylton Motorsports/Medlock Ames Winery U.S. Print Swift 014.a) have each won a pole this season, as well.
Fogarty is the only driver to post top-five finishes in each of the first three races including his win at Monterrey, Mexico. The solid start has allowed him a slight edge in the Championship over Valiante who's win came at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. Fogarty holds a five point lead, 46 to 41. The points spread from third to eleventh is as tight as the first corner at Long Beach's 1.968-mile street course. A nine point spread covers nine drivers. To emphasize the jump a driver could make with a good result this weekend, you need only look at what Mexico's Rodolfo Lavin (Michael Shank Racing/Corona Modelo Swift 014.a) accomplished last Sunday in Milwaukee. The second year driver entered the Milwaukee race ninth in the Championship. After his career best finish of second, Lavin climbed the ladder and one week later, finds himself third in the Championship with 30 points.
For Lavin and the rest of the drivers trying to catch Fogarty and Valiante in the Championship, the pressure is starting to build. The lead two have been strong early in the season and the rest of the competitors can't afford too many bad results that could allow Fogarty and Valiante to pull away and settle the Championship between themselves.
The defending Championship team, Hylton Motorsports, began to flex their muscle last week in Milwaukee. Their rookie tandem of Ryan Hunter-Reay and Roger Yasukawa were the class of the field last weekend with Yasukawa taking his first career Atlantic win in only his second race. Yasukawa skipped the season opener in Mexico, but his results in Long Beach and Milwaukee have landed him fourth in the Championship with 29 points. Hunter-Reay has been even stronger; but the results, so far, do not reflect just how good he has been. Hunter-Reay was running away with the Milwaukee event before suffering a mechanical failure two-thirds of the way through the race and was involved in first lap incidents in Mexico and Long Beach. Despite the problems, Hunter-Reay has broken fastest lap race records at Long Beach and Milwaukee.
Dorricott Racing's pair of Alex Gurney (Dorricott Racing/Behr Castrol Swift 014.a) and Luis Diaz are sitting fifth and sixth in the Championship respectively. Gurney has earned 29 points with Diaz three behind at 26 points. Gurney got behind right off the bat with a contact incident in Monterrey, but has rallied with finishes of second and fourth the past two races. Diaz won the pole in Mexico and has had consistent runs in all the first three races.
The Atlantic Championship has a solid group of drivers with career best finishes of runner-up, that are still trying to break through for their first win. Along with Lavin and Gurney, Jonathan Macri (P-1 Racing/NTN Bearings Miller Genuine Draft Swift 014.a), Ryan Dalziel (Michael Shank Racing Swift 014.a), and Grant Ryley (Lynx Racing/Northwest Speedwerx Cupertino Electric Swift 014.a) are looking for their first career CART Toyota Atlantic Championship victory. All five of the bridesmaid drivers are very capable of winning this weekend. Macri's runner-up finish came last year on the road course at Road America and after the third place showing last week in Milwaukee, the Canadian driver's confidence could boost him to his first win. Dalziel earned his second place showing this year on the wet circuit in Monterrey, Mexico, and nearly caught Fogarty for the win. Ryley was runner-up last year in Milwaukee and Laguna Seca is a home track for Ryley. Ryley's added experience of being an instructor at the Skip Barber Racing School at Laguna Seca could help him to his first Atlantic victory here as well. The trio of Dalziel, Macri and Ryley hold down positions eight through ten in the Championship. Both Dalziel and Macri have 22 points with Ryley one behind at 21.
Last year's race at the Mazda Raceway at Laguna Seca saw Rocky Moran Jr. (Sigma Autosport Swift 014.a) break through for his first career Atlantic win. From his third starting position, Moran commandeered the lead on the first lap and never surrendered it leading all 30 laps. Moran Jr. is seventh in the points chase with 24 and is looking to rebound from a tough race at Milwaukee. After two solid races to start the season, Moran Jr. never found the handle at Milwaukee and finished 13th. Moran's teammate, David Wieringa (Sigma Autosport Swift 014.a) suffered similar problems at Milwaukee finishing 15th.
Waldemar Coronas (Scuadra Fortia/Aviacsa Royse Maizoro Millenio Swift 014.a) driving for the first year team rounds out the nine drivers bunched together in the nine point gap. Last week, the Argentina driver brought the car home eighth in his first ever oval race. Solid runs by Coronas have landed him in the Championship pack and has the team excited about their results thus far.
Of the 26 drivers entered this weekend, nobody has run more Atlantic races at Laguna Seca than veteran, Bob Siska (RJS Motorsports Swift 014.a). This will be the San Francisco driver's seventh Atlantic start at Laguna Seca. David Cutler (P-1 Racing/AMD Dell Broadcom Microsoft Swift 014.a) trails Siska making his fifth start at Laguna Seca this weekend.
After disappointing showings in the first two races, Alex Figge (Worldspeed Motorsports/Wine Country Motorsports Glycomax Redline Airtrix Swift 014.a) got on track last Sunday in Milwaukee. Although Figge did not qualify well, he set the fastest time in Sunday warm-up and followed that up by carving through the field from 13th to finish the race in sixth.
Sepp Koster (Michael Shank Racing/Blue Bay Golf Resort Uitert Respons Swift 014.a) and Stephan C. Roy (BBGP Racing/Playstation 2 Stereo Plus Swift 014.a) both missed the Milwaukee event because of practice incidents. With the long trip from Wisconsin to California, both teams will have to hustle to get the cars ready for Saturday's race.