Hinchcliffe Sweeps Weekend When James Hinchcliffe made the decision to return to Forsythe/Pettit Racing prior to the 2008 Cooper Tires Presents The Atlantic Championship Powered by Mazda, he returned to the team with which he celebrated his first and only Atlantic race victory.
On Sunday at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, Hinchcliffe doubled his win total after coming out on top in a battle with Pacific Coast Motorsports racer Carl Skerlong. Hinchcliffe started from the pole position and was also the fastest qualifier in Friday's first round of qualifying, but it was Skerlong who led the field into Turn 1 immediately following the race's standing start. However, Hinchcliffe got his revenge on a restart six laps later and took the lead in Turn 2 with a thrilling, side-by-side maneuver.
From there, Hinchcliffe kept his No. 3 Indeck/TireRack.com machine at the front of the field and held on for a 2.391-second victory over Skerlong. It was Hinchcliffe's first win since the Atlantic event at Portland in 2006, a span of 23 races. The win also moved Hinchcliffe into the lead in the Atlantic Championship standings by two points over Simona De Silvestro, 44-42.
"For me, it was great to come back to Forsythe/Pettit," Hinchcliffe said. "It was kind of like a home away from home. They're a big group of guys, but basically a big family. We knew that we were going to be competitive right out of the box. For some reason the last couple of preseason tests didn't go so well for us, and then Long Beach was flat out a disaster. We kind of banged our heads together and went back to the chalkboard. To bounce back from the weekend we had at Long Beach with kind of a perfect weekend is just awesome.
"It almost feels like my first win, because Portland '06 was a bit of a gimme if I'm completely honest about it. To take both poles and win is an awesome feeling. We didn't get the best start. I had a little bit of a problem with my practice start in warm-up, so I was a little bit too cautious and bogged down quite bad. Carl got an amazing start and was able to be easily ahead of me going into the first corner. From there, it was just about not making any mistakes. We had a really, really strong car out of Corner 11 and on the first restart, I was able to get a good run and I got right up behind him coming under the bridge and I was so focused on making the pass that I sat on the limiter for about three seconds before I remembered to pull fifth, so I made a bit more work for myself heading into Corner 1. We went side-by-side and he raced me hard and clean, so it was a lot of fun. From there, it was just making sure I didn't make any mistakes and keep the gap as consistent as possible. The Forsythe/Pettit car just handled exactly how I needed it to, so credit to those guys. They did a wicked job all weekend."
Skerlong's second-place performance in the No. 14 King Taco machine matched his career-best result in Atlantic competition. The Mukilteo, Wash. resident also finished second in the Atlantic event at Houston in 2007. The runner-up performance at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca enabled Skerlong to rebound nicely from a disappointing, 23rd-place run in the season-opener at Long Beach and a tough first day of qualifying when he crashed before posting a timed lap.
"Definitely to be back on the podium after Long Beach and just after Friday's qualifying session, you really can't ask for much more," Skerlong said. "We had a good start. I was able to get the lead from James. I think he bogged a little on the start and it worked in my favor. At this track, it is extremely hard to pass. For me, (the strategy) was just to stay consistent and not make a mistake, and hopefully take it to the checkered. We didn't have such a great restart and that kind of decided the race. Overall, I'm happy. I've got to thank all the guys at Pacific Coast Motorsports and King Taco for making all this possible. There's always next race. That was definitely the attitude we had to come in here with after Long Beach, and I'm happy to be almost on top."
Completing the podium with a third-place performance was Junior Strous in the No. 6 Shell/HTP/Muermans Group/Red, White & Bluezz entry for Condor Motorsports/Team Holland. It was a career-best Atlantic result for Strous, topping a previous best run of fifth in San Jose last season, and was a welcome reward for a race-long battle with Walker Racing driver Kevin Lacroix.
"It's my first podium and I'm really happy, of course," Strous said. "This is my second year in the Atlantic Championship. I broke my wrist in the second race at Long Beach, and it was a tough year last year. I'm happy to be on the podium. This weekend was great for us. We were fastest in all sessions that didn't matter, the three practice sessions. We knew it was going to be a tough race for us. We had a very long first gear. I went through The Corkscrew and also Turn 11 in first gear and it was so hard to get out of my box. I was revving it into the rev limiter, I'd dump the clutch and it'd just die. I think two or three guys got by. It was so slippery on track, I think, because of the old cars that were racing. In Turn 2 there was an oil slick, which they covered up, but it was so slippery. I was behind Lacroix for the whole race. My engineer on the radio told me 'You've got 20, 10, five minutes left,' and I was pushing so hard. He started mistakes and I was able to get close behind him, and he made another mistake and I got past in Turn 5. I'm really happy. I'd like to thank the team. They prepared a great car for us."
The drivers who finished third, fourth and fifth all earned their career-best Atlantic results, as rookies Markus Niemela and Dominick Muermans finished fourth and fifth. Finnish racer Niemela finished fourth in the No. 8 Mr. Jones Bar & Kitchen/Rauma Town/Turku Karting entry for Brooks Associates Racing, topping a previous best result of seventh in the Long Beach opener. Muermans, meanwhile easily exceeded a previous best run of 16th with his fifth place performance today in the No. 9 Hugenholtz Property Group/Jumbo Supermarkten/Muermans Group entry for Condor Motorsports/Team Holland.
The Monterey Festival of Speed was slowed by full-course caution flags twice for a total of nine laps.
Next up for the Cooper Tires Presents The Atlantic Championship will be the Sommet des Legends at Circuit Mont-Tremblant on June 29. The race will kick off a stretch of three consecutive Canadian events in the 35th Anniversary season of Atlantic.
· American rookie Jonathan Summerton continues to lead the Rookie of the Year point standings thanks to a sixth-place performance in the Monterey Festival of Speed. Summerton opened the year with a fourth-place result in Long Beach in the No. 36 Newman Wachs Racing machine, and he is now tied for second in the overall championship standings with teammate De Silvestro with two of 11 races in the books.
· In his Atlantic Championship debut race, Dubai's Christopher Zoechling earned the bonus point for improving the most positions from start to finish. Zoechling drove the No. 45 Paladin Motorsports entry from 19th on the starting grid to a 12th-place result.
· Brazilian rookie Douglas Soares turned the fastest lap of the race in the No. 11 Banco BMG machine for Condor Motorsports and earned a bonus championship point. Soares' quick lap was 1:16.369 (105.498 mph) and came on the 33rd lap of the 34-lap race. He finished 14th. However, Soares was penalized five points for unjustifiable risk after running 106 miles per hour down pit lane during the race, more than 70 miles per hour faster than the pit lane speed limit of 35 mph.
· Canadian rookie Daniel Morad was also penalized five points by Atlantic Championship Race Director Johnny Unser for persistent blocking. Morad finished ninth in the race in the No. 70 Metro Directories of Georgia machine for Eurointernational.
· It was a difficult day for Monterey, Calif. resident Jonathan Bomarito in his hometown race, as he was forced to retire after just nine laps with a mechanical failure. Bomarito was scored in 19th place.