Vintage Win for SunTrust at Sonoma

Angelelli, Valiante Start from Pole, Lead 80 of 102 Laps En Route to Season’s First Rolex Series Victory at Armed Forces 250

Date: Aug. 23, 2008
Event: Armed Forces 250 (Round 12 of 14)
Series: Daytona Prototype division of the Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series
Location: Infineon Raceway, Sonoma, Calif. (2.52-mile, 12-turn road course)
Start/Finish: 1st/1st (Running, completed 102 of 102 laps)
Winner: Max Angelelli and Michael Valiante of SunTrust Racing

As elusive as victory has been for the No. 10 SunTrust Pontiac Dallara team of Wayne Taylor Racing of late, this weekend’s Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series Armed Forces 250 at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif., seemed to have victory written all over it for co-drivers Max Angelelli and Michael Valiante from the opening minutes of practice Friday morning.

From their pole starting position, Angelelli and Valiante and the SunTrust team left absolutely no doubt who had the dominant race car this weekend as they went on to lead 80 of Saturday’s 102 race laps around the 2.52-mile, 12-turn road circuit nestled deep in the heart of California’s Wine Country, then celebrated with their teammates in victory lane for the first time since a year ago this month at Montreal’s Circuit Gilles Villeneuve. Needless to say, it’s been a long time coming for the SunTrust team.

“We’re definitely very happy,” Angelelli said afterward. “It couldn’t have come at a better place and time. This is for everybody at SunTrust. And this is for everybody at Toshiba and Miracle Sealants. And, of course, Mr. Gianpaolo Dallara (owner/founder of the Italian constructor), came from Italy for the very first time to watch us race. We won the pole position. We won the race. It couldn’t have been better. The car was very fast.”

After putting SunTrust on the pole for a series-high fourth time this season on Friday, Valiante took charge from the start of today’s 250-mile event, pulling away from the field during the opening laps and settling in with a more-than 12-second lead by the time he pulled the No. 10 racing machine into the pits for its first stop of the day on lap 23.

He handed the car over to Angelelli at that point, and the Italian former series champion went to work taking the SunTrust car back to the front. By the time the field cycled through its opening round of stops, Angelelli was planted in second, behind the No. 61 AIM Autosport entry that had won the past two events at Montreal and Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International but had to start at the back of the grid today after failing a post-qualifying inspection on Friday. The No. 61 had opted for an alternate strategy that put it in the lead in front of the SunTrust car at that point, and for a time Angelelli was content to just ride it out in second place and await the No. 61’s inevitable off-sequence stop. But, on lap 39, Angelelli and the team decided to not wait for Brad Frisselle in the No. 61 car to pit, deciding instead to try and retake the lead on the race track. On lap 45, Angelelli completed a brilliant pass by diving inside Frisselle at the hard, right-hand turn seven. And he never looked back from there. Angelelli gradually built a 38-second cushion on the rest of the field by the time he came in for his final fuel-and-tire stop on lap 58, and managed to rejoin the race without giving up the lead after quick work in the pits by the SunTrust crew.

From there, Angelelli pulled out to a 12-second lead for most of the closing laps of the race, a cushion that came in handy as a hard-charging Alex Gurney in the No. 99 Gainsco Pontiac, which won this race and the series championship last year, was able to get within 3.646 seconds of Angelelli at the checkered flag.

“It was just unfortunate what happened with the (No.) 61,” said Valiante, whose victory today was the first of his Rolex Series career. “It was unfortunate because we wanted to race them. It was good in the race to actually come through together and battle with them and show that we had the speed we did this weekend. It was just a shame they had to start from the back. In the race, I thought we’d be challenged a lot more than we were. From all the problems we had all year long, it was a textbook race. It couldn’t have gone any better. We kept saying our time’s coming. The clock was ticking. So it was nice for it to finally come before the end of the year.”

The victory was the 12th in the history of SunTrust Racing since joining the Rolex Series in 2004. It was also the first for the Dallara chassis introduced by the team at this season’s second race at Homestead (Fla.) Miami Speedway, and Valiante’s best Rolex Series finish since placing second last year at Iowa Speedway in a Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates car. Angelelli has co-driven to all 12 of SunTrust’s victories, including five alongside Wayne Taylor en route to the 2005 series title. Those 12 victories put Angelelli second in series history only to career leader Scott Pruett, who has 19 victories driving for Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates.

“Racing is all about winning,” Taylor said. “We’ve had such a difficult year, but we’ve stuck with it every agonizing step of the way. Everybody who supports us – SunTrust, Toshiba, Miracle Sealants – have all stuck with us. But in the last few months, it’s been really tough. Now, we can at least go back and realize that everybody is happy to know their faith in us has paid off. I’m so proud of everybody. There are not many teams in the pit lane that can do what we’ve done. There’s never been a thought of giving up by anybody. It’s always been about ‘how can we turn this thing around?’ Now we know we can win again. And there’s no better way to win than we did this weekend. I’m just so proud of everybody and thankful to everybody who continues to believe in us.”

The Rolex Series heads east next weekend for the inaugural Supercar Life 250 at the brand new New Jersey Motorsports Park, a 2.5-mile road course facility recently completed in southern New Jersey, in the town of Millville. Next Sunday’s (Aug. 31) race, Round 13 of 14 on the 2008 Rolex Series schedule, will be broadcast live on SPEED-TV at 1 p.m. EDT. Today’s race at Infineon Raceway will be broadcast for the first time on SPEED-TV this Sunday (Aug. 24) at noon EDT.