Jonathan Summerton came within two laps of taking the Atlantic Series title at the first attempt, but suffered the disappointment of seeing rookie rival Markus Niemela take both the overall and newcomers' titles as the Road Atlanta finale took a cruel twist.
Newman Wachs Racing driver Summerton had set a new track record for the Atlantic class in claiming pole for the final round in Georgia, but dropped back at the start of the race after running into a minor engine glitch. However, with championship leader Jonathan Bomarito dropping out after just ten of the 35 laps, the American knew that third place would be enough to take the crown by a single point.
Although Niemela, who was just two points behind Summerton in the standings, held second spot behind race leader Dane Cameron, things appeared comfortable for the Newman Wachs driver until the Finn changed his tactics in a bid to stifle the American's hopes.
Knowing that all it would take for the tables to turn was for Summerton to lose a place or two, Niemela attempted to back the American into the chasing pack, blocking the NWR machine every time it looked for a passing opportunity and allowing those behind to close in. Eventually, the ploy worked, with JR Hildebrand getting close enough to Summerton to make a move into turn one.
Summerton, however, wasn't about to back down and made life difficult for Hildebrand, who entered the corner too tightly and ran out of road on the exit, finding the tyre wall as a result. This, though, was where the race finally turned on the NWR driver.
Despite Hildebrand getting going again, race officials decided to throw a full course yellow and send the safety car out to bunch up the field. Although that allowed Summerton to close back in on Cameron and Niemela, it also allowed those behind to sense an opportunity to make the podium, and reduced the number of racing laps available to all.
Released with less than five minutes remaining on the clock, Cameron was slow away, giving Niemela the chance to jump ahead him. With the Finn now leading, Summerton knew that he had to react and, having been caught by Kevin Lacroix, also made a run on Cameron, overtaking him as they headed up the hill. Cameron, however, refused to yield, leading to the two cars making contact at turn two and ending their races on the spot. Niemela, meanwhile, went on to win the race - and take the title - as the field was once again brought under the safety car.
"It was really disappointing that the safety car was even deployed when there was no car off the track after 20 or so seconds," he said of the Hildebrand incident, "We were content and just waiting for a chance to overtake Markus. I tried on the prior lap and, in fact, got alongside, but he closed the door, touching me. I was better finishing [third] than either or both of us going out, but then Dane coming into me was not called for."
To rub salt into his wounds, Summerton was later penalised another position for 'avoidable contact', eventually being classified 14th, leaving him third overall for the season, and second to Niemela in the rookie standings.
"The main point is that Newman Wachs did an outstanding job for me," Summerton reflected alter, "I appreciate more than words can say the help Eddie [Wachs] and his wife gave by sponsoring me so I could race, and Don Halliday and the team for giving me great car to race with."
Summerton's plans for 2009 and beyond remain unclear, but the former Team USA A1GP driver could look towards the Indy Lights championship with a view to graduating to IndyCars in the longer term.