After a season full of second-place results in practice, qualifying and races, Finnish rookie Markus Niemela found his way to the top of the charts in provisional qualifying for Sunday's Atlantic Championship race at Miller Motorsports Park.
Driving the #8 machine for Brooks Associates Racing, Niemela posted a best lap of 2min 28.915secs to take the provisional pole for the SunRichGourmet.com 1000. The Finn, currently third in the championship, earned a bonus point for his efforts, and is guaranteed a front-row start for Sunday's penultimate round.
“It was good,” Niemela said, “I got P2 time pretty much in the beginning, then I felt my tyres started going out and they told me that I'm two tenths from the pole and have one more lap left. I just thought 'I have to throw down everything I have'. I got the pole by two tenths! I still got one more lap, actually, with the fuel that was going to be a little bit better, but then I made a mistake in the third from last corner and lost a couple of tenths.
"Anyway, I'm so happy with this. I know there is qualifying tomorrow and this is not the definite pole, but it's so good to be first on some timesheet. Nobody has been really dominating this year's championship, but I've been definitely dominating the second position. So many times I've been second in qualifying, practices and races, and I've never been first on any list. This is just so good already. Hopefully, tomorrow goes good. I'm going to have 30 minutes of enjoying this and then start thinking about tomorrow.”
Rookie Jonathan Summerton was second quickest in the #36 Newman Wachs Racing entry and, as well as lying second in the overall championship standings, 16 points behind Jonathan Bomarito, now leads Niemela by five points in the battle for rookie of the year honours. The American led Friday morning's practice session, which was run in warm and sunny conditions, but a light rain prior to the session, coupled with cooler temperatures and a steady breeze created a new challenge in qualifying.
“It was quite a big difference between this morning's session and now,” Summerton explained, “We definitely didn't have a car for this track temperature and weather. I think the rain really hurt us big time. I was really struggling with the car, and the time we did surprised me when we did it. Hopefully, we can do better tomorrow. I know the car is capable of it, as we saw this morning. We've just got to get it right for the temperature.”
Dane Cameron made it three rookies in top three spots with the #19 Genoa Racing entry.
“I'm pretty happy with third,” he said, “I would have liked to have been a little bit better, but we're a lot better than we were in the morning, so we're pretty happy with the improvement we made. It was pretty slippery because it just rained right towards the beginning of the session, but the car is getting a little bit better and a little bit better, so we'll see how it all ends up. We still need a little bit more to catch up to Niemela and Summerton, but we'll see what we can do.”
Simona de Silvestro was fourth on the provisional grid, with Dutchman Junior Strous completing the top five. After scoring his first career Atlantic win last weekend at New Jersey Motorsports Park, Carl Skerlong was only sixth in provisional qualifying, while rookie Greg Mansell once again found himself well inside the top ten, with the eighth-best lap for Walker Racing.
Points leader Bomarito was quickest in Thursday's promoter test day and was third in practice on Friday morning, but he slipped to ninth in provisional qualifying for Mathiasen Motorsports.