For the second consecutive year at Sebring International Raceway, a Ford Mustang GT4 claimed victory in the IMSA Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge.
While a couple series veterans – Scott Maxwell and Jade Buford – won last year, it was a pair of relatively new faces this time on the top step of the podium.
Kyle Marcelli and Nate Stacy held on for the final 20 of 47 laps in the two-hour timed race to secure Ford’s 45th victory in the Grand Sport (GS) class with the No. 60 Roush Performance / KohR Motorsports Mustang. This was the first series victory for both drivers, coming in Marcelli’s 24th series start and Stacy’s 4th.
“It feels great,” Stacy said. “The team worked flawlessly. We had a really good strategy, I’m really glad it worked out. It was kind of a gutsy move, but it worked out in the end. With these Continental Tires, it was just crazy good at the beginning. I had a bit of a push toward the end there, but it got hot and sticky. It was great all around.”
“It’s a heck of a start to the weekend and more motivation going into tomorrow’s 12-hour event,” added Marcelli, who is entered in the No. 14 Lexus RC F GT3 in the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Presented by Advance Auto Parts. “Today’s race was a team effort. Nate did qualifying duties and the opening stint of the race, and in a 27-car GT4 grid, there’s a lot of mayhem in those first few laps. He handled it well and worked his way forward, brought the car in in P6.
“Then we lucked out with our race strategy. At first, I wasn’t so sure about the one-stop strategy. The team was confident with it and it paid off, because that’s what inherited the lead with track position. Then it was just about managing the Continental Tires on our Ford Mustang. We had about a 55- or 51-minute green-flag run and it was just about managing tires, really, managing tires and conserving the car. We were a little bit tight on fuel as well. It just worked out. Big thanks to Roush Performance and KohR Motorsports.”
Exemplifying the tough competition in GS, the top five finishers in the class were made up of five different manufacturers. BMW once again finished runner-up with Toby Grahovec and Jayson Clunie in the No. 26 Classic BMW / Vess Energy Group, after BimmerWorld placed second for the manufacturer at Daytona back in January.
On the final step of the podium were polesitters and Daytona victors Spencer Pumpelly and Dillon Machavern in the No. 28 RS1 Porsche Cayman GT4. The No. 19 Stephen Cameron Racing Mercedes-AMG GT4 of Greg Liefooghe and Ari Balogh finished fourth, while fifth belonged to the Audi R8 of Jeff Westphal and Tyler McQuarrie in the No. 39 entry for new series team Carbahn Motorsports.
In the TCR class, it was a bittersweet victory for Compass Racing. After starting from the pole position and leading the majority of the race, the No. 77 Compass Racing Audi RS3 LMS of Tom Long and Britt Casey, Jr. slowed on course coming to the checkered flag, preventing the duo from achieving their second win in as many races.
However, the No. 77's misfortune paved the way for their teammates, Kuno Wittmer and Rodrigo Sales to claim their first TCR victory in the No. 74 Audi. The win was a series first for Sales, who is in the midst of his rookie season in the Continental Tire Challenge, while it’s the second victory for Wittmer, who returns to the series in 2018 for the first time in three years.
“I feel terrible for my own teammate,” said Wittmer. “If it was any other TCR, I wouldn’t care, but I feel terrible because they had pace, they qualified on pole and they deserved to be there. Unfortunately, they didn’t even get a result at the end, but we’ll take it.
“I mean, this is a championship, you fight tooth and nail for it, there’s a lot invested, a lot of work by the team and if you look at the way our weekend has developed, we missed Practice 1, Practice 2 and we barely made it to FP3. We qualified well, but we had no practice. We just stayed in it. We stayed patient and we kept fighting, fighting, fighting.”
Another Audi finished on the podium in third – the No. 10 of Kieron O’Rourke and Lee Carpentier for eEuroparts.com Racing – but Volkswagen prevented its podium sweep. Finishing runner-up were brothers Tanner and Luke Rumberg in the No. 31 Volkswagen Golf GTI for Rumcastle LLC in just their second Continental Tire Challenge start.
The Rumbergs weren’t the only pair of brothers that got attention during the Alan Jay 120.
In a battle that went down to the final straightaway, Mark Pombo in the No. 52 MINI JCW edged out the Street Tuner (ST) victory by a slim .276 seconds over brother Mat in the No. 73 MINI. The last time MINI completed a 1-2 sweep was at Watkins Glen in 2017, in which the results were flipped with Mat besting Mark.
“My brother and I, we have a level of respect for each other, so we’ll never hit each other,” Mark said. “We talked about it. ‘I’m not going to do anything crazy, so as long as you don’t do anything crazy in front of me, we’re going to be fine.’
“It was like the old days, man. Like, 10 years ago, him and I used to freight train fields and it was so much fun. We had a similar battle last year, just in reverse order and I told him I wasn’t doing anything crazy. We’re not going to go crazy passing each other. We’re teammates. MINIs, 1-2 baby. That’s all that matters.”
Rounding out the ST podium was that of Jason Rabe and Max Faulkner in the No. 21 Bodymotion Porsche Cayman.
The third round of the Continental Tire Challenge takes place May 4 – 6, with the series returning to Mid-Ohio for the first time since 2013. In the meantime, fans can catch the television broadcast of the Alan Jay Automotive Network 120 on Sunday, March 25 at 10:30 a.m. ET on FS1.