Class points leaders Ryan Winchester (Touring Car) and Ernie Francis Jr. (Touring Car B-Spec) swept Saturday's Rounds 11 and 12 of the Pirelli World Challenge season, at the Cadillac Grand Prix of Sonoma. The GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma weekend serves as the second-to-last dates on the 2013 calendar, and the wins for both drivers solidified their championship hopes.
It was a banner day for Compass360 Racing, which locked out the podium with the exact same 1-2-3 order in both races. Karl Thomson's team has also accomplished the feat three other times this year (Rounds 2 and 3 at Circuit of the Americas, Round 5 at Lime Rock Park). Winchester took home his fourth and fifth race wins of the 2013 season.
Meanwhile in TCB, Francis Jr. scored a dramatic win in Round 11 and a more conventional triumph in Round 12, to score his sixth and seventh victories this year.
Round 11 of the championship went green under sunny skies and an 82 degree ambient temperature at the 2.3-mile Sonoma Raceway, but unfortunately did not stay green for very long. Brian Fowler, of Weston, FL in the No. 65 Shea Racing Ford Fiesta rolled his car on entry to Turn 7. Fowler was uninjured from the contact and the car sustained only minor damage, but his race was over on the spot.
The ensuing four-lap caution tightened the field once again and from there, Winchester took the lead from the Motul pole position. Winchester, of Mason City, IA and driver of the No. 72 C360R/Ligion Industries/HPD Honda Civic Si, was able to enjoy a relative cruise from there ahead of his teammates.
“After the restart it was ok. I got a pretty good start again,” Winchester said. “I was able to get myself a comfortable gap, where I didn't have to look behind me too often. I didn't have to worry about someone behind me making a late move. I was able to run my own pace.”
Behind him, teammates Brett Sandberg and Remo Ruscitti were engaged in a fight with Michael Cooper, who was seeking his fifth consecutive TC class win. Cooper, of Syosset, NY, advanced two positions from fifth to third on the start in his No. 1 Atlanta Motorsports Group Mazda Mazdaspeed 3, getting in-between Ruscitti in second and Sandberg in fourth. Cooper's move earned him the Cadillac Move of the Race.
On lap 7, Cooper tried a move on Ruscitti, of Vancouver, Canada and driver of the No. 71 C360R/Ultimate Racing/HPD Honda Civic Si, but he lost momentum in Turn 2. That allowed Sandberg, of Allendale, NJ, to slip by for third in the No. 70 C360R/GearTie.com/HPD Honda Civic Si.
A lap later, Sandberg made it past Ruscitti for second place at Turn 4. Cooper's quest for five in a row officially ended when he pulled off course on lap 10, in-between Turns 7 and 8, with a loss of power. Unfortunately, that meant he was also unable to start Round 12.
Winchester ran strongly to the finish from there to take the win by 2.161 seconds over Sandberg at an average speed of 66.604 mph. Sandberg's second-place finish was his best result since his last win at Round 5 at Lime Rock.
“We are all teammates running under the same group. And all the cars are exactly the same so it really comes down to making your moves, being smart and managing traffic,” Sandberg said.
Ruscitti, meanwhile, returned to the podium for the first time since Round 6 at Lime Rock, when he finished second.
“The last two rounds weren't that good and you take what you can get,” he said. “These two guys are good. Brett and Ryan both have a ton of experience running with these Hondas.”
Fred Emich, of Denver, CO finished a season-best fourth in the No. 30 Emich VW/HPA Motorsports Volkswagen Jetta GLI with Jon Miller, of Orlando, FL, fifth in the No. 68 Titan Motorsports/Loudbasstard Honda Civic Si for Shea Racing.
The TCB race ended with a last-lap thrilling finish. Polesitter Robbie Davis, of Dallas, Texas, led from the start in the No. 37 MINI of Charleston Racing MINI Cooper but lap-by-lap, Francis Jr., of Davie, FL, closed the gap in the No. 98 Festivals of Speed/Breathless Performance Mazda 2.
As the two ran nose-to-tail, with Francis Jr. mere fractions of a second behind, he made a lunge to the inside of the right-left chicane sequence at Turn 9. Davis moved to defend, but Francis Jr. held firm and snuck past on the inside of the corner, emerging ahead at corner exit.
“I just had to start closing the gap on him,” Francis Jr. explained. “It seemed like he moved over just a little bit and got us into the dirt, and we went through there.”
Davis, who fought valiantly to hang on and secure what would have been his fourth win of the season, was gracious if disappointed with his second-place finish.
“It was a great race and I don't think I'm too happy about what happened at the end,” Davis said. “Ernie Jr. is a great driver and I realize that stuff happens, but at the same time you have to be careful. It's a bummer we didn't get that win but we are still happy we got that second place and to keep things close.”
Tyler Palmer, of Oceanside, CA, recorded yet another podium in the No. 24 BlackForest Porsche/Discount Tire/4R Motorsports/Mobil 1 MINI Cooper in third place from the same grid position.
“We had a bad bearing go out in qualifying but still managed third place there,” Palmer said. “We fixed that. It was a crazy start of the first race with everyone next to one another, but did what we could to finish third.”
Joel Lipperini, of Pittston, PA, was perhaps unlucky to finish fourth in the No. 81 RaceLabz Honda Fit after an excellent start where he gained three positions, from fifth on the grid up to second. That didn't last as on the lap 5 restart, Francis Jr. passed Lipperini for second to secure the Round 11 Invisible Glass Clean Pass of the Race award.
Scoring her fourth top-five finish of the season in fifth place was Shea Holbrook, of Groveland, FL, in the No. 67 TRUECar/Hendrick Honda/Lucas Oil Honda Fit. She finished just ahead of her Shea Racing teammate P.J. Groenke, of Toronto, in the No. 66 Mulligan Gold/Tundra/Verax.ca Honda Fit.
Of note, Ernie Francis Sr., of Davie, FL who finished seventh in the No. 2 Hydraulic Jeans Mazda 2, secured the Sunoco Hard Charger award by gaining seven positions in the race. Jack Murray, out of Montgomery, Texas, took home the Optima Batteries Best Start Award with a gain of six positions off the start. Murray, though, faded outside the top 10 at the finish in the No. 11 Fiat by Executive Fiat 500.
The second race of the day was a fairly straightforward affair. Winchester led from the start in TC but with Sandberg second, it was a battle between the Compass360 teammates all day.
Sandberg's charge was ultimately thwarted by hitting slower traffic at exactly the wrong points. He never had the direct opportunity to make a passing attempt on Winchester; that said, it was a clean, fair fight between the pair. Winchester held on for this win by 1.411 seconds at an average speed of 77.113 mph.
“I was able to break a little bit earlier then everybody else, since I was in the lead,” Winchester said of his ability to save his tires for the second race. “So I was able to do so, where I could let them eat up some of the ground in the braking zones, and it didn't really cost me that much. I just got to run my own pace that really helped me conserve tires.”
Sandberg thanked Winchester for the clean fight after his second runner-up finish of the day.
“I got hurt in traffic a lot in the second race but overall a really good run,” he said. “The cars are really consistent. Ryan ran a really good race as well. I tried to get Ryan under braking a couple of times. With two evenly matched cars, it's tough to make your move.”
The top TC battle in Round 12 came down to Ruscitti versus Emich for third. Emich led him most of the day but lost the position on the final lap. Emich ran off line at Turn 9 – the same corner where the TCB last lap lead change had occurred in Round 11 – and Ruscitti snuck through to score his second podium of the day and complete the C360R triple podium encore.
“It was tough racing at the start because I had to come from behind to catch Emich,” Ruscitti said. “The last lap I finally got him. I almost had him in Turn 4. I made a mistake, and he made a mistake, and I thought it was done. But I got a run on him down the backstraight and he went to the inside and I went to the outside. He basically outbraked himself, did a little over-under, and I was able to get him on the second to last corner.”
Emich was fourth for the second race in succession with Sarah Cattaneo, of Scottsdale, AZ, recording her best finish of the season in fifth place in the No. 43 IDoBorrow.com Honda Civic Si.
Likewise in TCB, Francis Jr. enjoyed a more conventional drive from the front of the field. With Davis struggling to just a fourth place result, this was a big win from a points standpoint.
“The beginning was pretty easy, but then towards the middle and the end of the race I got slowed down by every single TC car that went by me,” Francis Jr. said. “They were dive bombing me into turns and it started to make me fall back and back.”
Palmer finished second to score his sixth podium finish in seven Pirelli World Challenge TCB starts this year. He got into second on lap 4, with a pass on Lipperini that earned him the Cadillac Move of the Race award for Round 12. An earlier pass on Ernie Francis Sr. netted him the Invisible Glass Clean Pass of the Race award.
In this race, Palmer was nearly able to close the gap to Ernie Francis Jr., but could have used a caution to score his first win. He ultimately ended 1.362 of a second short.
“On the second race on the start, I got a pretty good start but was stuck behind a little bit behind by a few cars,” he explained. “By the time I got around them Ernie Francis Jr. was ahead. I hit all of my marks, ran him down but finished second.”
Lipperini ended Round 12 in third, holding off a late charge from Davis. This marks the fifth consecutive race he's finished either third or fourth in the competitive TCB field.
“He was coming. We got a good start but I think he got on the rev limiter at the start and we were able to get around him,” Lipperini said. “We are a little just a little handicapped with the Honda, so I was happy with the third. We pushed it hard, it is what it is and we will take it.”
Davis was fourth and Francis Sr. ended fifth after a race-long battle with Breathless Performance teammate David Alejandro and Holbrook for the final top-five position that occurred throughout the race. Davis also spent some time in this fight, but emerged ahead of it by lap 9.
Francis Sr. gained five spots on the start to secure the Optima Batteries Best Start Award. Also of note, series debutante Harry Cheung, of Atherton, CA in the No. 32 32 Racing Honda Fit, took home the Sunoco Hard Charger Award with four spots gained from the start of the race.
Points are provisional until posted final, but both Winchester and Francis Jr. have extended their points leads. Through 12 of 14 races, Winchester leads Sandberg in the TC points standings by 297 points, 1452-1155. Ruscitti is third with 1064.
Francis Jr. entered the weekend leading Davis by just two points, but after Saturday, leads him by 81, 1322-1241. Lipperini is a solid third with 1128.
The races from Sonoma will be broadcast September 8 at 3:30 p.m. (ET) on NBC Sports Network. The next and final two races are at Houston the weekend of Oct. 4-6.