McDowell wins VIR qualifying race

Saturday was a day of firsts for the Rolex Sports Car Series at the Virginia International Raceway: the first qualifying race for the headlining Daytona Prototype class, the first Daytona Prototype win by a Ford-powered car, and the first win of...

Saturday was a day of firsts for the Rolex Sports Car Series at the Virginia International Raceway: the first qualifying race for the headlining Daytona Prototype class, the first Daytona Prototype win by a Ford-powered car, and the first win of the season for Finlay Motorsports' Michael McDowell. It was also the first time in series history in which a race leader accidentally slowed one lap before the finish, thinking he had won the race.

Indeed, with one lap to go Porsche factory driver Mike Rockenfeller thought he had won the rain-soaked 30-minute qualifying race for the VIR 400, so he coasted down the end of the front stretch and into Turn 1 at a leisurely victory lap pace. Unfortunately, there was still one lap remaining and McDowell, running second at the time in his Ford Crawford, seized on Rockenfeller's mistake, sliding past the German's Porsche Crawford on the race's final lap to take the win.

"On the last lap, I was pushing hard," McDowell said after posting his second career Rolex Series victory. "I saw (Rockenfeller's) car lift off a little bit and I just went for the opportunity. It's unfortunate for them, but we'll take a win any way we can get it. I can't thank the team enough for doing a great job." McDowell's last win came last year in Mexico City. His previous best finish this season was a fourth at the Homestead Miami Speedway in March.

"At the end, I thought I had it," Rockenfeller explained. "My windshield wiper was not working, so it was hard to see and the radio communication was not really good. I asked the team how many laps were left, but they didn't answer. And when I saw the white flag, I thought it was the checkered so I slowed down a little. Then I realized that there was one more lap to go. So basically it was a gift for them."

And what a gift it was, coming one week after a violent wreck in a practice session at Long Beach virtually destroyed McDowell's car and sent his teammate, Memo Gidley, to the hospital with back injuries. Former Star Mazda champion Guy Cosmo is subbing for Gidley this weekend and will start the car in the race.

The Rolex Series will also hold qualifying races at Phoenix, Laguna Seca, Mid-Ohio, and Barber Motorsports Park due to concerns that there might not be enough room for every entrant in the feature races at those venues. The qualifying races will award full points toward the driver, team, and manufacturer championships, but they will not feature driver changes. Every driver on a team will earn the same amount of points as the qualifying driver as long as they drive at least one green flag lap during the feature race. However, the qualifying race driver cannot start the car in the main event, eliminating a team's ability to rely solely on one star driver.

Michael Valiante finished third in the Essex Racing Ford Crawford, followed by the Krohn Racing Ford Riley of Jorg Bergmeister and the Porsche Crawford of Christian Fittipaldi. Bergmeister now holds a four-point lead over Rockenfeller in the drivers' championship. McDowell is third in points, and Scott Pruett, who finished 22nd due to an electrical problem, sits fourth in the championship.

German road racing ace Wolf Henzler, driving the No. 72 Tafel Racing Porsche, handily won the GT qualifying race, carving his way from third to first in the first two laps and then surviving an off-course slide to beat Andy Lally's TRG Racing GTO.R to the finish line by 3.080 seconds. Henzler now leads Lally by two points in the GT class drivers' championship. The Samax Porsche of Robert Bell finished third, followed by Joey Hand in the No. 21 BMW M3 and Charles Espenlaub in the No. 74 Tafel Racing Porsche. As in the Daytona Prototype class, the GT cars will start in the order in which they finished in the qualifying race.

Sunday's race will start at 1 p.m. E.T. and be broadcast live on Speed.

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Series Grand-Am
Drivers Memo Gidley , Christian Fittipaldi , Scott Pruett , Michael Valiante , Joey Hand , Guy Cosmo , Andy Lally , Jörg Bergmeister , Michael McDowell , Charles Espenlaub , Mike Rockenfeller , Wolf Henzler
Teams Krohn Racing