From championship to heartbreak, Saturday's Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series presented by Crown Royal Special Reserve season finale at Miller Motorsports Park was a true representation of the season as a whole - including one team's championship hopes literally going up in smoke.
The Sunchaser 1000 was a race for the ages, not in the least because of Riley-Matthews Motorsports first career Rolex Series win. Jim Matthews, Marc Goossens and Ryan Hunter-Reay persevered in the #91 Riley-Matthews Motorsports Pontiac Riley throughout the 1000k marathon, climbing 18 spots from their starting position to the top of the podium.
“Our car was very strong toward the end of the race,” said Goossens, who ran the team's final stint. “We kept trying and trying all afternoon long. We were running some of our fastest times toward the end of the day. The car wasn't fantastic, but we kept going thanks to my team.”
Equally as impressive though was the battle for the Daytona Prototype championship, which entered the day as the closest in all of motorsports.
As many expected, the championship outcome wasn't decided until the final laps of a drama filled race. Alex Gurney and Jon Fogarty entered the season finale in the #99 GAINSCO/Bob Stallings Racing Pontiac Riley one point ahead of Scott Pruett in the #01 TELMEX Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates Lexus Riley and three points ahead of Max Angelelli in the #10 SunTrust Racing Pontiac Riley.
The championship drama began to unfold on Lap 110 when Pruett took over for co-pilot Salvador Duran, exiting pit lane in second place – just behind Angelelli in the SunTrust machine and five seconds ahead Jon Fogarty in the GAINSCO car. Five laps later, Pruett was locked in a nose-to-tail battle with Angelelli while Fogarty had closed the gap to just three seconds behind the leaders.
While holding Pruett at bay, smoke clouds began to puff from the back of Angelelli's Pontiac Riley. What was feared to be an engine ready to fail turned out to be the rear tire rubbing on the fender. A lap 113 pit stop fixed the problem but sent the SunTrust machine back to seventh place.
Meanwhile, Fogarty had closed the gap to Pruett and was searching for a pass to take both the race and championship lead. Fogarty chose his opportunity on Lap 115 and as the pair battled through the track's first few turns Fogarty moved to the inside entering Turn 5. Contact send Pruett wide and Fogarty found himself in the race lead.
Pruett recovered, but the incident left the #01 Lexus Riley with a flat left rear tyre and the #99 Pontiac Riley with a flat left front. With 20 of the 4.486-mile track's turns remaining between the two cars and the pit lane, Pruett's tyre began to shred – taking body work from that corner of the car with it. The GAINSCO team took their opportunity in the pits to make their final driver change, putting Gurney back in the car for the race's final stint.