Niemela Takes Victory and Atlantic Title in Thriller Coming to a restart with four laps remaining in Friday’s 2008 Cooper Tires Presents The Atlantic Championship Powered by Mazda season finale at Road Atlanta, Finnish rookie Markus Niemela was sitting second in both the race and championship standings.
American rookie Dane Cameron had led handily from the race’s standing start, while another American rookie, Jonathan Summerton was sitting third in the race standings and first in the championship by one point over Niemela. Jonathan Bomarito, who came into the race with a seven-point lead over Summerton and a 10-point advantage over Niemela, saw his championship hopes dashed when he was forced to retire due to a mechanical problem after just 10 laps of what would be a 35-lap event.
Niemela got an outstanding run in his No. 8 Mr. Jones Bar & Kitchen/Rauma Town/Turku Karting machine from Brooks Associates Racing heading into Turn 1 on the restart and shot to the inside to take the lead away from Cameron. Just behind him, Canadian Kevin Lacroix made a similar move on Summerton to take third away and a few seconds later, both the race and the championship were decided. In a last-ditch effort to preserve the championship, Summerton made contact with Cameron—who had fallen to third behind both Niemela and Lacroix—damaging both cars and sending them off course.
The contact brought out a full-course caution, allowing Niemela to slowly cruise to the championship with his second consecutive victory. It was Niemela’s third consecutive podium result and was his fifth podium of the season overall. It was also Niemela’s 10th result of seventh or better.
Niemela took the championship by a margin of 245-228 points over Bomarito, and Summerton was third with 224 points, and will be honored on Friday evening in the 2008 Atlantic Championship Awards Banquet at the Chateau Elan Resort & Winery in Braselton, Ga.
Niemela also won series Rookie of the Year honors over Summerton, becoming the first rookie to win the overall championship since Simon Pagenaud in 2006. He is the first driver from Finland to win the Atlantic title in the series’ 35 years. It was also the first Atlantic title for Brooks Associates Racing, which completed its 14th season in the series.
“I’ve been racing for 19 years, and I’m 24-years-old now, and I’ve been kind of looking for one race where I don’t have to explain anything,” Niemela said. “I can just go after the race and say, ‘I won the race and I won the championship.’ I don’t have to make any excuses or explain anything I did. This is just sweet and simple, really. I think the car was good, I was good, and everything just fell in the right place.
“I knew during the race what I had to do. I saw (Jonathan) Summerton behind me all the time and I knew we were going to have to have somebody in between us for me to be him in the championship points. My team was telling me all the time that J.R. Hildebrand was coming and that he was fast, and he might be the guy to go between us. Dane Cameron was a little bit further up in the front at that point. The, the safety car came, which was lucky for me. At that point, I asked on the radio, ‘Where is Bomarito?’ The team told me that he’s not there anymore. He’s out. They said, ‘You have to pass Cameron, because Hildebrand is out.’ He was the fastest car to challenge, so I just went for it in the first corner after the restart. It was a really good restart. I was past Dane already before the corner, actually, and I don’t know what happened. I think I won.”
Lacroix held on for second to earn his best result of the season in the No. 25 Uni-Select/Deans Knight/Wasteco entry for Walker Racing. Lacroix’s previous best run this year came with a third-place performance in April’s season-opener at Long Beach. The Canadian owns one career victory, coming at Portland last year.
“The weekend started pretty rough,” said Lacroix. “We had two pretty big accidents and I felt sorry for my team because they worked overtime for two days. I wanted to end the weekend very good, and I think that’s what I did today. We had a very good car. We got lucky on the restart, when everybody crashed in front of me. We got lucky to get second place, but the car was good. Thank you to my team, Walker Racing, they did a great job all weekend long. We had some bad luck all year long, but we had good luck today, so I’m very happy.”
Returning to the podium for the first time since Round 5 at Edmonton in July was Canadian James Hinchcliffe in the No. 3 Indeck/Tire Rack/NOCO machine for Forsythe/Pettit Racing. It was Hinchcliffe’s fourth podium result of the season, and his three third-place results on the year to Dutchman Junior Strous’ gave Hinchcliffe fourth place in the final point standings on a tiebreaker.
“The race was very interesting and very exciting from our point of view,” Hinchcliffe said. “I started a little bit further back than I should have. I made a mistake in qualifying yesterday, and we knew we had a car that could potentially be in contention for a podium. Road Atlanta is just a great race track and it really provides great racing, as you saw today. We had a really quick car at the beginning and managed to pick up a couple spots. Then, when the field got brought together with that caution for J.R. (Hildebrand), we knew it was going to be an interesting restart. It was a bit messy, like a traffic jam at 140 miles an hour, and we managed to just avoid all the incidents and come away with a podium.
“With the struggling that we’ve been doing the last four race weekends, it’s really great for the whole Forsythe/Pettit team to end it on a podium. Taking fourth place in the championship, it’s great to move back up there, but obviously that’s not what we wanted when we started the season. You can talk a lot about the what ifs of a championship. What if we hadn’t quite lost the car there? What if I hadn’t had a couple of incidents in Three Rivers and New Jersey? But the flip side is, what if I didn’t have a team when I started the season that was capable of running me up front? What if I didn’t have the support of great family and friends in my 13-some-odd-year career in racing? It’s bittersweet, but at the end of the day, we’re still pretty lucky. Thanks to the whole crew for a great job all year long.”
Simona De Silvestro earned her second straight top-five result and her fourth top five of the season overall with a fourth-place outing in the No. 34 Nuclear Clean Air Energy/NEI/Entergy machine for Newman Wachs Racing. It was also her eighth top-10 performance of the year.
Rookie Greg Mansell earned the best result of his Atlantic career with a fifth-place run in the No. 5 Sunseeker entry for Walker Racing, eclipsing a previous best of seventh at New Jersey Motorsports Park last month. It was also Mansell’s fourth straight top-10 result and allowed him to move into the top 10 in the final championship standings.
• In his first Atlantic start since Round 5 at Edmonton, Mexican driver David Garza finished sixth in the No. 7 Axtel/Tecate/Madisa entry for Forsythe/Pettit Racing. It was Garza’s fifth consecutive top-10 result. He also earned a bonus championship point for the most positions improved in the race after he charged fro 14th on the grid to finish sixth
• Venezuelan rookie Luis Schiavo earned the best result of his Atlantic career with a seventh-place performance in the No. 46 Constructora Iriaca/Astaltatora Maracay/Transporte Jumbo/Energy Freight System machine for Eurointernational. The performance comes after Schiavo missed the last two events and tops a previous career-best result of 10th in Round 6 at Road America.
• Frankie Muniz matched the best result of his Atlantic career with a ninth-place run in the No. 41 PCM/USRT machine with Pacific Coast Motorsports, but narrowly missed moving into the top-10 in the championship standings. He previously finished ninth last year at Toronto.
• Leo Mansell also matched his career-best Atlantic result in the No. 15 Sunseeker entry for Walker Racing with an 11th-place result. Mansell also finished 11th in Round 2 at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.
• Summerton wound up 14th in the final race standings in the No. 36 Nuclear Clean Air Energy/NEI/Entergy machine for Newman Wachs Racing, retiring due to contact two laps shy of the finish. He was penalized one position in the race for avoidable contact. Bomarito was 17th in the No. 26 Del Taco/Stone Brewing/Discount Tire/RLM Investments entry for Mathiasen Motorsports, retiring just 10 laps into the race with a mechanical problem.
• In his first Atlantic race of the season, Hildebrand was a top-five contender in the No. 17 Genoa Racing machine for TKM before running off-course in Turn 1 and making contact with the barrier to bring out the first full-course caution in the race. Prior to the incident, Hildebrand managed to turn the fastest lap in the race at 1:15.006 (121.910 mph). He was credited with 15th in the final race standings.