Photo: Courtesy of IMSA

Continental Tire Road Race Showcase: Five Takeaways

By IMSA Wire Service

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – It was an action-packed two hours and 40 minutes of racing at Road America in Sunday’s Continental Tire Road Race Showcase with all the drama and plot twists of a summer blockbuster.

Especially in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship Prototype class, the strategic battle came right down to the end as the No. 54 CORE autosport team of Colin Braun and Jon Bennett emerged victorious for the second time in a row, while the Ford Chip Ganassi train kept a rollin’ in GT Le Mans (GTLM) and two-time and defending GT Daytona (GTD) champion Christina Nielsen returned to victory lane for the first time this year with Patrick Long and the No. 58 Wright Motorsports Porsche team.

Here are five takeaways from a sensational Sunday in Wisconsin:

1. Podiums Win Championships, Part 1
You could see it in the eyes of No. 31 Whelen Engineering Cadillac DPi-V.R co-drivers Eric Curran and Felipe Nasr as they waited to go onto the podium for the fifth time in eight races this season on Sunday. They really would have liked to win the Continental Tire Road Race Showcase.

They had the car, led the most laps in the race, but they were among the first to come into the pits for a late splash of fuel, hoping that they’d eventually cycle back to the front. And they almost made it.

Nasr estimated he needed maybe another half a lap and he’d have won the race – which is accurate considering that Braun ran out of fuel on the cooldown lap. He may have needed only another three feet or so to take second place away from Stephen Simpson in the No. 99 GAINSCO Red Dragon. As it was, it required a “photo finish” review to determine that Simpson was second at the line.

So, Nasr and Curran went home with another third-place trophy, their second in a row and third of the season. But with it came more valuable championship points and a little bit of breathing room over their Action Express Racing teammate, Filipe Albuquerque, who they now lead by seven points with two races left on the 2018 WeatherTech Championship Prototype schedule.

“It was great points day and this Whelen Cadillac keeps winning podiums,” said Curran, who won the 2016 WeatherTech Championship Prototype title. “The Action Express guys also nailed the pit stops so it was good team work all day. It would have been nice to win but we will take third.”

And that might earn them an even bigger trophy in October.

2. Wins Win Championships, Too
It’s safe to say Ford Chip Ganassi Racing is on a roll in the GTLM class and has been since the Sahlen’s Six Hours of The Glen last month. That’s when Joey Hand and Dirk Mueller won their first race of the season in the No. 66 Ford GT and took the lead in the WeatherTech Championship standings.

The next weekend, their teammates in the No. 67 Ford GT, Ryan Briscoe and Richard Westbrook, won the Mobil 1 SportsCar Grand Prix at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park – their second win of the season – and retook the GTLM points lead. Two weeks ago, it was Hand and Mueller winning the Northeast Grand Prix at Lime Rock Park, and – yep, you guessed it – moved back into the class points lead.

Westbrook and Briscoe kept the seesaw battle going on Sunday. While Mueller put the No. 66 on pole and was strong early, a broken toe link dropped the No. 66 out of contention for the win. The No. 67 team was there to save the day for the team, by taking their third victory of the season – the first of which coming in the season-opening Rolex 24 At Daytona – and with it, the GTLM points lead once again.

“We’re just delighted to get the win,” Westbrook said. “It’s such a great run for the whole program, Ford CGR. It’s a hell of a ride right now and we’re just enjoying every moment of it.”

One Ford Chip Ganassi Racing car or the other has led the GTLM standings all year long, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if the one with the most wins this year is the one that ultimately takes the championship.

Of course, defending GTLM champions Antonio Garcia and Jan Magnussen picked up their sixth podium in eight starts this season in the No. 3 Corvette and now sit just four points behind Westbrook and Briscoe. And the next race on the schedule is the Michelin GT Challenge at VIRginia International Raceway, which has been won each of the last two years by that bright yellow No. 3 C7.R.

This championship battle is far from over.

3. Podiums Win Championships, Part 2
While the title races in Prototype and GTLM are still up for grabs, GTD points leaders Bryan Sellers and Madison Snow are starting to pull away in the No. 48 Paul Miller Racing Lamborghini Huracán GT3.

They’re now 18 points ahead of second place Katherine Legge, who finished seventh on Sunday with co-driver Alvaro Parente in the No. 86 Meyer Shank Racing Acura NSX GT3. Sellers and Snow, meanwhile, came home second behind the No. 58 Porsche shared by Long and Nielsen.

For those scoring at home, that’s seven podiums in eight races.

“This is a great finish for us,” said team owner Paul Miller. “It’s great to be back on the podium again and to have another top finish. We didn’t think we had a great car for this race. We thought we’d be sixth or seventh, so to come away with a second is fabulous.”

4. Mazda Comes This Close to First WeatherTech Championship Win
As the clock wound down on Sunday, it looked for a few moments that it might happen this time for Mazda. When Jordan Taylor peeled into the pits with five and a half minutes to go, there was Jonathan Bomarito in the No. 55 Mazda Team Joest RT-24P DPi car at the head of the field.

All he needed to do was make it another two or three laps and the elusive first victory for Mazda would be his. But the No. 55 was low on fuel too. A full-course caution would have been welcomed with open arms.

It didn’t happen, and Bomarito had to come in for a splash with a little over three minutes left. That gave the lead – and the win – to the No. 54 team and he and co-driver Harry Tincknell would wind up eighth.

“We have always said that we are coming to these races to win,” said Mazda Director of Motorsports, John Doonan. “Today, we made a decision mid-race to split the strategy on the cars to give ourselves the absolute best chance for our first victory. Both cars had pace, both cars led the race on different occasions, and both we were in the top three nearly the entire race.

For sure, we gambled with the No. 55 and hoped for a yellow, but it never came. The No. 77 (co-driven to an 11th-place result by Oliver Jarvis and Tristan Nunez) was also in the hunt until a bit of trouble on the right front of the last stop. It’s a tough result for everybody, because we all saw our first win only a lap away, but we were very competitive today and we will focus all of our energies on the next race at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca.”

5. Burning the Midnight Oil Pays Off
While the paddock area for most teams was buttoned up and dark on Friday night, there were a few teams still working feverishly late into the night to recover from setbacks in Friday practice. One was the No. 22 Tequila Patrón ESM team, which saw their Nissan DPi catch fire on the first lap of practice with driver Pipo Derani at the wheel.

The other was the No. 33 Mercedes-AMG Team Riley Motorsports program, which had to make extensive repairs after Ben Keating crashed late in the first practice session Friday morning. How extensive? The team replaced the entire chassis on the Mercedes-AMG GT3 car right there at the racetrack.

For both teams, the perseverance paid off.

Derani and co-driver Johannes van Overbeek charged from 12th on the starting grid to finish sixth in the Prototype race. Derani even ran as high as second at one point.

“It was such a difficult weekend for us,” Derani said. “We had a fire in practice one and missed all of Friday. After a great job by our crew to repair everything, we managed to get some laps in on Saturday. We started at the back of the grid, and finished sixth, which was a good finish for us after starting second from last. I owe a big thank you to my crew for getting my car repaired and able to race.”

Keating and his No. 33 co-driver, Jeroen Bleekemolen, scored a hard-earned fifth place result on Sunday, despite setbacks in addition to the crash on Friday. After qualifying a remarkable fifth in the rebuilt car on Saturday, Keating served a drive-through penalty for incident responsibility with a BMW. He also was frustrated by late-race contact between Alessandro Pier Guidi in the No. 63 Ferrari and Bleekemolen, which did not incur a penalty. Nevertheless, he was proud of the team’s effort.

“I am very, very grateful to the team,” Keating said. “The amount of work they did to get this car ready to go for today was unbelievable. One of my disappointments is that we never really had a chance to show the car’s full capabilities in the race because we had a great car today, and that is all thanks to the team.”

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