Valiante/Ham top Grand-Am practice at Laguna Seca
Michael Valiante ran the fastest lap in Friday's practice at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, with Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series presented by Crown Royal Cask No. 16 competitors beginning preparations for Sunday's Verizon Wireless 250 presented by SPEEDCOM.
Round 4 of the 2009 season takes the green flag at 1 p.m. PT Sunday, and will be televised live on SPEED (4 p.m. ET).
Valiante led the Daytona Prototypes with a lap of 1:20.079 (100.611 mph) in the No. 6 Michael Shank Racing Ford Riley, while Robin Liddell led the Acxiom GT competitors with a lap of 1:27.547 in the Stevenson Racing No. 57 Bryan Mark Financial Pontiac GXP.R.
While the two-car Shank team has dominated Rolex Series practice sessions this season - Ozz Negri was second-fastest Friday with a lap of 1:20.134 (100.542 mph) in the team's No. 60 Ford Riley - their only podium finish was a second for Valiante and John Pew at Virginia International Raceway.
"Now, we've got to translate our practice session wins into race wins," Valiante said. The Shank team won the final two events of the 2008 campaign (Negri and Mark Patterson at New Jersey in the No. 60 and Pew and Ian James at Miller Motorsports Park in the No. 6), while Valiante won in 2008 with Max Angelelli in the No. 10 SunTrust Racing Dallara.
"We're working hard, and it looks like we're in a good zone here," Negri said. "I'm happy with the way the car felt. We never put new tires on - not even in the second session - we've just been working very hard on used tires. I think we've got a good machine to play on Sunday. The team has done a phenomenal job, as always. We need to transform those positions 1 and 2 we've been getting in practice into race results."
Third fastest in the combined sessions was Romain Dumas, who ran a lap of 1:20.372 (100.244 mph) in the morning session while leading the afternoon practice with a lap of 1:20.372 (100.011 mph).
"Timo (co-driver Bernhard) made the decision to work on the car for the race," Dumas said. "I went in and did a few fast laps. It's not easy here - not only the big descent (in the Corkscrew turn) but the wind blows sand on the track. So far, we have a good pace. The target is not to be the quickest in qualifying, but to have a good result in the race."
Fourth fastest was the No. 99 GAINSCO/Bob Stallings Racing Pontiac Riley of Alex Gurney and Jon Fogarty, followed by the No. 10 SunTrust Racing Ford Dallara of Max Angelelli and Brian Frisselle.
Ricardo Zonta and Nic Jonsson - winners of the most recent Rolex Series race at New Jersey Motorsports Park - were sixth.
"We definitely have a shot at the pole, but it depends on a lot of things," Jonsson said. "You have to get the lap when your tires are at their best and you hit the traffic right. More and more teams are competitive."
LIDDELL'S LATE LAP LEADS GT SESSION IN STEVENSON PONTIAC
Stevenson Motorsports had one of its poorest outings at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca last year, when Robin Liddell and Andrew Davis finished 17th in the No. 57 Bryan Mark Financial Pontiac GXP.R.
Friday, Liddell ran a lap of 1:27.547 (92.028 mph) to lead the combined Acxiom GT practice sessions.
"We had a very poor race at this race last year, and an early incident made it even worse," Liddell said. "We knew coming here that we needed to start with a really clean sheet. The car was good rolling off the trailer, and we made positive improvements throughout the day. We're very happy right now, because the car has a good pace and handles really well."
Dirk Werner and Leh Keen, winners of the most recent event at New Jersey Motorsports Park, were second with a lap of 1:27.607 (91.965 mph), followed by TRG's No. 66 AXA/Mitchell Rubber Porsche GT3 of Ted Ballou and Spencer Pumpelly, 1:27.634 (91.937 mph).
Nick Ham led the opening session with a lap of 1:27.638 (91.933 mph), which was fourth fastest of the day. Ham edged out co-driver Sylvain Tremblay for the best lap of the day in SpeedSource's No. 70 Castrol Syntec Mazda RX-8.
"Both of our times are very close," Ham said. "I think (team manager) David Haskell summed it up best when he said Sylvain and I are interchangeable. We push each other to improve and do better. We get the best out of each other, without competing or hurting our effort. It's a real nice situation."
The Rolex Series competitors will have its next session beginning at 10 a.m. PT Saturday, with 15-minute qualifying sessions determining the respective Daytona Prototype and Acxiom GT grids beginning at 1:45 p.m. Saturday's schedule also includes the two-and-a-half hour Grand-Am KONI Sports Car Challenge race, beginning at 3 p.m.