Summerton Wins First Career Atlantic Pole Rookie Jonathan Summerton turned up the heat on championship-leader Jonathan Bomarito in the final qualifying session of the 2008 Cooper Tires Presents The Atlantic Championship Powered by Mazda by taking the pole position for Friday’s season finale at Road Atlanta in support of the Petit Le Mans Powered by the Totally New MAZDA6.
Driving the No. 36 Nuclear Clean Air Energy/NEI/Entergy machine for Newman Wachs Racing, Summerton clocked a best lap at 1:14.137 (123.339 mph) to earn the first pole position of his Atlantic career. In the process, Summerton earned a valuable bonus championship point, closing his gap in the championship standings to just seven points behind Bomarito, 224-217. Even more importantly to Summerton, however, was the fact that he earned the pole in the team’s first race since the passing of team owner Paul Newman last weekend.
“Of course, I think we could have been faster than what we did,” Summerton said. “The last two laps, we had the same problem as (Markus) Niemela. We ran out of fuel in Turn 1. I think we also struggled with the new tires, too. It was really hard to get the lap put together. There was quite a lot of traffic towards the end. Having Paul Newman gone, this is really good for the team and the morale of everyone. Of course (owner) Eddie Wachs lost a dear friend and a partner. It’s just really good to be on pole for that in the final race.”
Starting alongside Summerton on the front row will be another American rookie, Dane Cameron in the No. 19 MAZDASPEED/Finlay Motorsports/Lynx Racing entry for Genoa Racing. Cameron turned a quick lap at 1:14.151 (123.316 mph) to earn his third front-row starting spot of the season. He will go in search of his first Atlantic victory in Friday’s race.
“It’s probably the most frustrating second position I’ve ever qualified, because it was so close,” said Cameron. “We were really quick in the beginning and I threw everything at it that I could. We just didn’t quite get enough. I think all three of us were kind of running out of gas at the very end. Every lap was getting a little bit faster and faster. When we put on new tires, we lost the balance a little bit for whatever reason. It wasn’t quite as well balanced as it had been, so we’re going to have to make a couple changes, but it’s good to start on the front row. I’m not in the championship fight. All I want to do is win the race. I’m going to give it everything I have to win the race. I don’t want to affect the championship outcome at all, but I want to end the season with a win, so we’ll see what we can do.”
Like Cameron, Finnish rookie Markus Niemela was also frustrated in qualifying, despite the fact that he will start third in the No. 8 Mr. Jones Bar & Kitchen/Rauma Town/Turku Karting machine for Brooks Associates Racing. Niemela posted a best lap at 1:14.318 (123.039 mph) for his third straight top-three starting spot and his fourth top-three start in the past five Atlantic races. He remains within 10 points of Bomarito in the overall championship standings, but now trails Summerton by three points in the battle for Rookie of the Year.
“This is probably the most disappointing top-three starting position in my whole life, especially when this friend of mine is on the pole,” Niemela said. “I ran out of gas for the last three or four laps in the first corner. It just bogged down every lap. I would see my splits go up, like, two tenths (of a second) in the first corner split from my previous best lap, but especially on my last lap, I had minus on every other sector, but it didn’t help that much because in the first corner I lost too much. That’s pretty disappointing. I just have to try to make it better tomorrow in the race. I have a pretty good car, actually. I wouldn’t change almost anything for the race. I have really good balance, and now I know the track quite well, as well. Yesterday, I had some problems because on Tuesday I didn’t get many laps in the practice. Now I know the track and we’ve got a good setup, so hopefully the race will be good. I know there is a really good place to overtake in the chicane, if I can just keep up with these guys! I think the race is going to be interesting, especially as the championship is really tight. All of the top three is starting from the top five, so anything can happen. Let’s see tomorrow.”
Starting fourth will be Canadian Kevin Lacroix in the No. 25 Uni-Select/Deans Knight/Wasteco entry from Walker Racing with a best lap at 1:14.576 (122.613 mph). It will be the second time in three races that Lacroix will start from inside the top-five positions, and his performance in qualifying was especially impressive considering that he crashed in this morning’s first round of qualifying and also during practice on Wednesday.
Bomarito will look to defend his championship lead from fifth on the grid in the No. 26 Del Taco/Stone Brewing/Discount Tire/RLM Investments machine from Mathiasen Motorsports. The American posted a best lap at 1:14.684 (122.436 mph) to earn his best starting spot since taking the pole for Round 8 at Trois-Rivières and can wrap up the title with a second-place result regardless of where Summerton or Niemela finish.
The top-11 qualifiers turned laps within one second of Summerton’s pole-winning time.
• Despite not driving an Atlantic car all season prior to this morning’s first round of qualifying, American J.R. Hildebrand claimed sixth on the starting grid with a lap at 1:14.703 (122.405 mph). Hildebrand struck a deal with TKM to drive the No. 17 Genoa Racing machine on Wednesday afternoon.
• For the second consecutive race, rookie Greg Mansell will start eighth in the No. 5 Sunseeker machine for Walker Racing after a best qualifying lap at 1:14.831 (122.195 mph). Mansell enters the race riding a streak of three straight top-10 results.
• Pacific Coast Motorsports driver Frankie Muniz earned the best starting spot of his Atlantic career with a 10th-place run in the No. 41 PCM/USRT entry at 1:14.905 (122.075 mph). Muniz is hoping to move into the top 10 in the final championship standings with a strong performance on Friday.