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Ganassi Duo Wins Lone Star; Title Contenders Wilt

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, September 19 2015
Saturday's IMSA event at the Circuit of the Americas featured racing in all four Tudor United SportsCar Racing's divisions.

Saturday’s IMSA event at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin featured racing in all four Tudor United SportsCar Racing’s divisions.

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

AUSTIN, Tex. – In searing temperatures at the Circuit of the Americas, Scott Pruett and Joey Hand claimed their first victory of the year in the Ford EcoBoost-Riley while behind them the Prototype championship in the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship heated up.

Tudor logoAfter spins, disputed scoring and penalties, Richard Westbook and Michael Valiente moved up to a six-point advantage over fellow Corvette DP drivers Eric Curran and Dane Cameron with one race remaining. When Joao Barbosa suffered a penalty for avoidable contact, he and co-driver Christian Fittipaldi fell seven points behind.

“It’s been a difficult season,” said winner Hand, who drove the final stint and won for the first time since joining Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates this year. “We’ve been the quickest car a couple of times, but we didn’t capitalize. This time we led all the sessions and then today.”

Westbrook and Valiente were not the fastest versus the two other championship contenders, all of whom were within two points. But the Englishman and Canadian drove a steady race without incident, pitting three times including an early caution period stop. But it was a different story for Curran/Cameron and Fittipaldi/Barbosa.

Curran was tapped and spun in Turn 1 at the start and survived more contact from Jordan Taylor. Next, Cameron spun shortly after the exchange when he hit a curb and crashed into a PC car. The penalty for avoidable contact ultimately resulted in a fifth-place finish. Barbosa’s penalty for avoidable contact came with seven minutes remaining, which dropped his Action Express Corvette DP to sixth in class.

The victory was the 60th in the American sports car career of the 55-year-old Pruett, including TUDOR, IMSA GT and GRAND-AM Rolex races. Although a longshot, the Ganassi duo is not out of the championship, pulling to within 11 points of the leaders.

The team has finished second twice and led races earlier this year before mechanical problems set in. Pruett said the dominant win at COTA – the first since last year’s victory at the Lone Star Le Mans weekend – resulted from better chassis handling and improvements in the turbo lag of the Ford EcoBoost engine. The team, he said, drew from its NASCAR and IndyCar technical and inspirational resources.

“When you look at what Scott Dixon did coming from 48 points back (to win the IndyCar title), this team has the heart of a champion,” said Pruett.

On the 20-turn COTA track, pole winner Pruett and Hand maintained the lead throughout except for pit stops. Not even a slow stop during the exchange to Hand slowed the Ganassi team’s charge in the two hour, forty-minute race. The best lap by Hand was nearly a second clear of runner-ups Jordan and Ricky Taylor of Wayne Taylor Racing.

The GTLM race was decided by two late pit stops with three minutes remaining. Both of the factory Porsches pitted in the closing minutes for a third stop after dominating the race despite a 20-kilo Balance of Performance adjustment. With one less stop, BMW Z4 GTE drivers Bill Auberlen and Dirk Werner were promoted to the top step of the podium. The Ferrari F458 Italia of Pierre Kaffer and Giancarlo Fisichella, which also made it on two stops, took a close second while Porsche’s Patrick Pilet and Nick Tandy dropped to third after leading before the last splash of fuel.

In the opening stint, the Team Falken Tire Porsche of Wolf Henzler fought door-to-door with Pilet after the Frenchman’s seven-second lead disappeared due to spin following contact by a PC car. At the finish, co-driver Bryan Sellers tried to nurse the car home instead of making an extra stop and finished fourth. The Derrick Walker-owned team has one more race at the Petit Le Mans before it disbands after losing Falken support.

The stretch-it strategy worked better for the BMW team, which fell from the front row to sixth at the start. “We had to make up ground and save fuel,” said Werner, who drove the first and final stint for BMW Team RLL. “That’s what made our race.” The result pulled the BMW drivers within three points of Pilet with the Petit Le Mans remaining.

In Prototype Challenge, John Bennett and Colin Braun extended their points lead with a victory despite the fact Braun’s final stint was driven without power steering. “Colin’s long hours in the gym paid off,” said team owner Bennett, whose squad was joined by Braun’s father Jeff as an engineer for the first time.

The Riley Motorsports Viper driven by car owner Ben Keating and Jeroen Bleekemolen overcame an early penalty for failing to stop for the red light at the pit exit to win the GT Daytona class, coming home one second clear of the BMW Z4 driven by Michael Marsal and Markus Palttala. It was the second straight victory for Texan Keating at his home circuit.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, September 19 2015
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