John Edwards picked up his fourth Cooper Tires Presents The Atlantic Championship Powered by Mazda victory of the season and leapfrogged both Jonathan Summerton and Simona De Silvestro to become the youngest champion in the 36-year history of the series with a dominating performance at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca on Sunday afternoon.
Edwards started from the pole position and led throughout the 50-minute race in the No. 36 MAZDASPEED Motorsports Development/Nuclear Clean Air Energy/NEI/Entergy machine from Newman Wachs Racing, beating Summerton to the stripe by 1.380 seconds to get the victory. He and Summerton ended the season tied with 182 points and four victories apiece. Edwards took the title based on the fact that he earned four second-place finishes to Summerton's three runner-up results.
Both Summerton and Edwards overtook De Silvestro, who entered the race as the points leader. De Silvestro tangled with 2008 series champion Markus Niemela in the track's famed Corkscrew turn on the opening lap, sending De Silvestro's car into the tire barrier and out of the race. She wound up 10th in the final race standings and third in the championship.
At the age of 18 years and seven months, Edwards becomes the youngest champion in the 36-year history of the series. Michael Andretti was previously the youngest Atlantic champion at 20 years, nine months and 30 days of age. It was the second consecutive year that the driver who was third in the championship entering the season finale ended up winning the title, as Niemela also overcame a 10-point deficit and leapfrogged two drivers to win the '08 crown. It was also the second consecutive championship for Edwards, who claimed the 2008 Star Mazda title at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca last year. Edwards finished the year with nine podiums in 12 starts.
“Someone told me after I got off the podium that I looked like I was on ‘Cloud 36,' and I think that's about where I am right now,” Edwards said. “I couldn't believe after the safety car that Simona was out, so it just came down to Jonathan and I and whoever won the race. I just put my head down and in the beginning, pushed a bit harder. I pulled out a bit of a gap and then at the end, I was just trying to not make mistakes.
“For the last 30 minutes or so, my engineer came on and told me there were 30 minutes to go. That 30 minutes went by like six hours to me. I was just waiting for them to throw the checkered. Finally it came out and they told me I was the champion. It was really hard to believe after coming in in third, that for the second year in a row, the driver in third before the last race ended up winning the championship. I can't say enough about the team.”
Summerton came up just short in his championship bid aboard the No. 34 Nuclear Clean Air Energy/Entergy/NEI machine for the second consecutive season. He was also in the mix in last year's three-driver battle royal for the championship with Niemela and Jonathan Bomarito and wound up third in the standings last year. The 21-year-old American Formula 1 hopeful also earned nine podium results this season, tied Edwards and De Silvestro for the series lead in victories with four apiece and led the series with five pole positions.
“We had a really good car all weekend,” Summerton said. “Both of our cars have been great. Both engineers, for the past, probably, five race weekends, we've definitely had the cars to beat. We should have been, probably, 1-2 every single race in the past five races without the mishaps that went on. Definitely, we did a great job here this weekend.
“It was a shame that aerodynamics play such a big role in these corners here. I was able to close up as close as I did to John at the beginning, and that was about all I could do was just sit there. We've been running very close lap times all weekend. He was doing very good. Basically, I just had to sit there and hope he made a mistake, which he never did. I backed off, cooled down the tires and started trying to catch back up. We were able close the gap right back up, but I still had the same problem, just no aero on the front. Really, it's disappointing it comes down to finishing positions throughout the year to be tied in points. Definitely, 1-2 in the championship, I don't think Newman Wachs could ask for more.”
Niemela managed to recover from the opening lap incident with De Silvestro to cross the finish line third in the No. 1 Jensen MotorSport car for what would have been his first podium result of the season. However, series officials determined that the contact between Niemela and De Silvestro was avoidable and penalized him two positions in the final race standings.
Niemela's penalty moved Belgian rookie Frederic Vervisch onto the podium for the fifth time this season in his first start aboard the No. 6 Condor Motorsports entry. Vervisch had already clinched series Rookie of the Year honors and fourth in the overall championship prior to the race at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. Vervisch also earned the $2,000 “Hard Charger” bonus and an extra point for improving from a seventh-place starting spot to third at the finish.
“I'm really happy to bring the car home in third place,” Vervisch said. “I wish it didn't have to happen in such a way. I'd like to thank (Condor Motorsports owner) Carlos (Bobeda) and all the guys at Condor for giving me the opportunity to get in the car this weekend. It was important to finish all 12 races in order to earn Rookie of the Year.”
Tonis Kasemets closed out his season with a fourth-place effort in the No. 35 Fatburner machine for Polestar Motor Racing. It was the sixth top-five performance of the season for the Estonian racer and it enabled him to secure fifth in the championship.
Pos. (Start) Driver Team Laps
1. (1) John Edwards, Cincinnati, Ohio, No. 36 Newman Wachs Racing, 36.
2. (2) Jonathan Summerton, Kissimmee, Fla., No. 34 Newman Wachs Racing, 36.
3. (7) Frederic Vervisch (R), Belgium, No. 6 Condor Motorsports, 36.
4. (6) Tonis Kasemets, Estonia, No. 35 Polestar Motor Racing, 36.
5. (4) Markus Niemela, Finland, No. 1 Jensen MotorSport, 36.*
6. (9) Barrett Mertins (R), Alexandria, Va., No. 3 Jensen MotorSport, 35.
7. (10) James Winslow (R), United Kingdom, No. 45 Paladin Motorsports, 35.
8. (3) Jonathan Bomarito, Monterey, Calif., No. 77 Team Stargate Worlds, 22, mechanical.
9. (8) Max Lefevre (R), France, No. 7 Condor Motorsports, 15, mechanical.
10. (5) Simona De Silvestro, Switzerland, No. 78 Team Stargate Worlds, 0, contact.