SEBRING, Fla. (March 17, 2000) - Brian Simo went from last to lead just one lap - the final one - to score the season-opening BFGoodrich Tires Trans-Am Series race win at Sebring International Raceway, earning a debut victory for the all-new No....
SEBRING, Fla. (March 17, 2000) - Brian Simo went from last to lead just one lap - the final one - to score the season-opening BFGoodrich Tires Trans-Am Series race win at Sebring International Raceway, earning a debut victory for the all-new No. 88 Tommy Bahama Qvale Mangusta, while Chris Neville finished second and rookie Jeff Altenburg came in third in his first race.
"As this day goes, I'm very lucky to be here," said Simo. "When I went to the pits, I was thinking this was going to be a re-run of last year's opener, where I scored no points. But I just focused on racing and kept my head with the goal of getting some points."
Simo, of Carlsbad, Calif., started the 27-lap, 99.9-mile contest third but dropped to the back of the 36-car field after stopping in the pits to fix a spark plug wire. Once back in the race, Simo sliced his way through the field, reaching fifth behind the lead pack of Johnny Miller, Leighton Reese, Chris Neville and Michael Lewis on lap 19.
With two laps remaining, a late-race caution created a one-lap shootout to the checkered flag, and when the green flag fell, the fur began to fly as Reese, in the No. 66 Banner Engineering/Phillips 66 Pontiac Grand Prix, passed leader Miller, in the No. 64 Automationdirect.com/UPS at turn one. At turn two Miller attempted to retake the lead by taking the inside line, but slid into Reese at the apex on the slippery circuit, collecting both cars in the turn two runoff, and handing the lead to Neville.
Neville, in the No. 84 Soenen Motorsports Ford Mustang Cobra, would hold the point for just a few more corners on the 3.7-mile, 17-turn circuit, as Simo, now in second, made his move for the lead at turn 13, holding the front position for a 0.521-second margin, scoring his ninth career victory.
"I took advantage at the end," added Simo. "My car was just great and I was able to out-brake Chris for the lead. From there, I figured I could hold him to the end."
"This team has been working non-stop on our car for the last month," said Neville. "Until this weekend the car had never been on a racetrack, so I'm just thrilled with our result."
Altenburg, in the No. 5 Steele Racing Jaguar XKR, began the final lap in sixth behind the No. 12 AmeriSuites Mustang Cobra of Michael Lewis, but spun Lewis in turn seven, taking over third to score the first podium finish for the new Jaguar XKR.
"In my wildest dreams, but never in the realistic ones (regarding finishing third in his debut)," said Altenburg. "My plan was to stay out of trouble, play it safe, and keep the car in one piece. Initially, I tried to keep the lead pack in sight, but I was being pressured from behind and then there was oil on the track, so I took it easy. I made some mistakes, but I hung tough a while, too. Near the end, the car was still handling so well and I was catching up. On the last lap, as we went into the hairpin, Lewis got in too deep, worked hard to get it under control, but wasn't able to. I apologize, but it certainly wasn't intentional on my part."
Paul Gentilozzi, in the No. 1 Johnson Controls/HomeLink Jaguar XKR, led laps one to 15 after taking the lead from pole-sitter Miller on the first turn of the first lap. Gentilozzi was forced into the pits with a flat tire and dropped to 23rd, but was able to climb his way back to a fourth-place finish, followed by Lou Gigliotti, in the No. 28 Compaq Corvette. For his effort, Gentilozzi received the BFGoodrich Tires Take Control Award for turning in the best drive of the race.
"On lap nine, I severely flat-spotted the right-front tire in oil in turn five," said Gentilozzi. "I wanted to come in and pit under green at that point, but the team wanted to stay out. We gambled, and lost. But we did have a great car today. The Jaguar performed flawlessly today - it did everything I asked of it, and there was more left."
For his contact with Reese, Miller was penalized five points and $800, and Altenburg was penalized 13 points and $4,500 for his contact with Lewis (both penalties are half of the points and prize money each driver would have earned for their 16th and third-place finishes, respectively).