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Edwards wins Atlantic race in Sebring
Two years after becoming the youngest driver in the history of the Cooper Tires Presents The Atlantic Championship Powered by Mazda, John Edwards scored his first career Atlantic victory and a $50,000 winner’s paycheck in Friday’s season opener at Sebring International Raceway.

Driving the No. 36 MAZDASPEED Motorsports Development/Nuclear Clean Air Energy/NEI/Entergy machine for Newman Wachs Racing, Edwards started second and charged into the lead on the race’s standing start ahead of polesitter Jonathan Summerton. From there, the Cincinnati, Ohio resident never looked back, cruising to a 4.731-second victory over rookie Frederic Vervisch. Edwards’ victory eclipsed a previous best result of second, which he achieved at Toronto in his rookie Atlantic season of 2007. Last year, Edwards competed in Star Mazda and took the series championship.

“It was an incredible feeling just pulling into pit lane and seeing all of the cameras coming to me,” said Edwards. “It was a great race. I have to thank my engineer, Nick Harvey, and the team for putting the car together, because it was really easy to drive, almost, in the first few laps and that’s where I gained the gap. Luckily, I had the teammates racing behind me, so I got to pull out a little more of a gap. From there, I just kept looking forward and pulling a gap.”

Vervisch was the first of two Genoa Racing drivers to finish on the podium, coming home with a second-place trophy from the first Atlantic race of the career. The Belgian, driving the No. 17 Genoa Racing machine, had the best result for a driver making his series debut since Canadian Robert Wickens also finished second in his Atlantic debut in Las Vegas two years ago.

“The start was good, so we could take one position,” Vervisch explained. “Then, I was looking a little bit to John Edwards to see how his pace was. I had the feeling we could follow or catch up. There was a full-course yellow and on the restart I really focused on John and not on the ones behind me. There was a white car in my mirrors and it was Jonathan (Summerton) and I knew he would take me in the first corner, so we lost some time, because the rule is I cannot block so he passed. I saw I was faster and John was getting away, so I did the same move in the same spot and he didn’t block me either. From then, John already had an advantage and I was just trying to catch up, but it was difficult. My second goal was just to finish the race on the podium.”

Summerton rounded out the podium with a third-place performance in the No. 19 Genoa Racing machine. The Kissimmee, Fla. resident admitted to having trouble on the race’s standing start and enjoyed a good battle with his teammate before settling for third. It was the sixth podium result of Summerton’s 12-race Atlantic career, and his first podium since placing second in the penultimate round of the championship at Miller Motorsports Park last September.

“We started out with a bit of a problem at the start,” Summerton explained. “The clutch wasn’t grabbing at all for me, so I basically short shifted up the gears and got to third and then it started grabbing. Then, I had to downshift back to second to get the acceleration. In the first corner, we had lost three spots, so I was down to fourth, and was able to get one back by Turn 2. Then, I just started chasing the other two. Of course, we had that full-course yellow, and from there, I tried my best, but I just didn’t have a car to follow behind anybody. We had a car for out front.”

Latvian rookie Harald Schlegelmilch was solid throughout his first Atlantic weekend and came home fourth in the No. 21 Conquest Racing entry. Schlegelmilch was inside the top five virtually throughout every practice and qualifying session leading up to the race.

Simona De Silvestro rounded out the top five in the No. 78 Stargate Worlds/Cheyenne Mountain Entertainment/FireSky/Cardinal Technologies machine for Team Stargate Worlds. It was De Silvestro’s fifth career top-five performance in Atlantic competition, and her third consecutive top-five run dating back to a fourth-place performance at Miller Motorsports Park last season.

Two would-be contenders were involved in a frightening incident on the opening lap of the race, as defending series champion Markus Niemela and 2008 championship runner-up Jonathan Bomarito tangled in Turn 17. Both made hard contact with the tire barrier, and Niemela’s No. 1 Mr. Jones/Nuclear Clean Air Energy/Entergy/NWR machine landed upside down on top of the barrier.

Bomarito quickly scrambled from his No. 26 Mathiasen Motorsports car to aid the safety workers in turning Niemela’s car back onto its wheels, and Niemela emerged from the car under his own power. The Finnish driver was transported to nearby Highlands Regional Medical Center for observation, but was expected to be released early Friday evening.

The C2 category, which is back for the first time since the 2005 Atlantic Championship season, was won by owner/driver Mirl Swan in the No. 88 Everclear Specialty Lubricants machine for Swan Racing. Swan started from the C2 pole position and led every lap, winning by more than 11 seconds over teammate Sadat Yelkin in the identically sponsored No. 75 machine.

“The guys have worked real hard to get the cars here,” Swan said. “It was hard work. We had a rather small crew for the five cars, and to get to come to Florida in March is a great opportunity to get out of the cold weather up north, so all the guys were glad to get here. The battle my teammate, Sadat, was really good. It was really close early on. I think I had an advantage in Turn 1 and slowly started to pull away and had a bit of a gap at the end, but it was a good race.”

•    After establishing himself as a top Atlantic contender in preseason testing last week at Palm Beach International Raceway, Spanish rookie Borja Garcia struggled to come to grips with the rough and quirky 3.7-mile Sebring road circuit. Nevertheless, he managed to bring the No. 6 CJ Consulting machine home in sixth place in his series debut with Condor Motorsports.

•    Tonis Kasemets, who got his first Atlantic seat time since the doubleheader at Road America last August in Wednesday morning’s opening practice session, finished seventh at Sebring. Kasemets charged from 11th on the grid in the No. 35 Polestar Motor Racing entry.

•    Conquest Racing rookie James Winslow got an extra championship point and a $2,000 bonus for taking the “Hard Charger” award in the No. 12 Conquest Racing entry. Winslow started 13th and finished eighth.

•    Matt Lee of Syosset, N.Y. returned to the Atlantic Championship for the first time since the 2007 season and came home ninth in the Sebring opener aboard the No. 2 Jensen MotorSport machine.

•    Frankie Muniz came home with his fifth career top-10 result in Atlantic competition with a 10th-place run in the No. 77 Stargate Worlds/Cheyenne Mountain Entertainment/FireSky/Cardinal Technologies machine for Team Stargate Worlds. Muniz’s performance was especially impressive considering the fact that he car would not start on the grid and he was forced to start the race from pit lane.

•    French rookie Max Lefevre of Conquest Racing missed the Sebring season opener due to illness. He qualified the No. 7 DOTMOBIL entry 12th.

Race results for Round 1 of 2009 Cooper Tires Presents The Atlantic Championship Powered by Mazda at Sebring International Raceway with finishing position, starting position in parentheses, driver, car number, team, laps completed and reason out, if any.

1.  (2)    John Edwards, No. 36 Newman Wachs Racing, 19.
2.  (3)    Frederic Vervisch (R), No. 17 Genoa Racing,  19.
3.  (1)    Jonathan Summerton, No. 19 Genoa Racing,  19.
4.  (4)    Harald Schlegelmilch (R), No. 21 Conquest Racing, 19.
5.  (8)    Simona De Silvestro, No. 78 Team Stargate Worlds, 19.
6.  (5)    Borja Garcia (R), No. 6 Condor Motorsports, 19.
7. (11)  Tonis Kasemets, No. 35 Polestar Motor Racing,  19.
8. (13)  James Winslow (R), No. 12 Conquest Racing, 19.
9. (10)  Matt Lee, No. 2 Jensen MotorSport, 1:54.955, 19.
10. (9)  Frankie Muniz, No. 77 Team Stargate Worlds, 1:54.846,19.
11. (14) Mirl Swan (R), No. 88 Swan Racing, 19.
12. (15) Sadat Yelkin (R), No. 75 Swan Racing, 19.
13. (16) Ahsen Yelkin (R), No. 29 Swan Racing, 19.
14. (18) Michael Nacol (R), No. 3 Jensen MotorSport, 18.
15. (17) Chris Lee (R), No. 68 Swan Racing, 18.
16. (19) Michael Mallinen, No. 71 Swan Racing, 1, electrical.
17. (6)  Markus Niemela, No. 1 Newman Wachs Racing, 0, contact.
18. (7)  Jonathan Bomarito, No. 26 Mathiasen Motorsports, 0, contact.
19. (12) Max Lefevre (R), No. 7 Condor Motorsports, 0, did not start.

(R) Series Rookie

Time of Race:  45:00.439
Margin of Victory:  4.731 seconds
Lap leaders:  Edwards, 1-19.
Lead changes: None.

Caution Flags:
Laps 1-5, contact between cars 1 and 26 in Turn 17.

Series Points Leaders:  1.  Edwards, 20; 2. Vervisch, 16; 3. Summerton, 15; 4. Schlegelmilch, 12; 5. De Silvestro, 10; 6. Garcia, 8; 7. Kasemets and Winslow, 7; 9. M. Lee, 5; 10. Muniz, 4.

Next Event:  May 17; Miller Motorsports Park, Tooele, Utah.
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