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24478As the 2009 Grand-Am Rolex Series season winds down, it marks its penultimate race, the Utah 250 at Miller Motorsports Park, <A HREF="http://my.is/forums/f47/2007-grand-am-daytona-prototypes-season-finale-pruett-robbed-340983/">Scott Pruett's least favorite track</A>, in Tooele, near Salt Lake City on Saturday 19 September at 5:30 PM. As is customary in most seasons of Grand-Am Daytona Prototype racing, the top three teams are all within striking distance of each other to win the championship. With their third-place finish at the previous race in <A HREF="http://my.is/forums/f47/grand-am-montr-al-miserable-amidst-again-off-again-rain-397343/">Montréal</A>, the GAINSCO/Bob Stallings Racing team and its drivers Jon Fogarty and Alex Gurney leap to the top of the overall Daytona Prototype Drivers' and Team Standings with 274 points, while the Canadian victory of the SunTrust Racing team and drivers Brian Frisselle and Max Angelelli puts them in a tie for second place with the Chip Ganassi Racing with Félix Sabatés team and drivers Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas with 269 points apiece. Not only is this the closest championship battle in any form of motorsports in 2009, as SPEED TV commentators reminded us, but it was made all the more unpredictable by the fact that none of the Top 3 teams had ever won in Utah.

This year also sees a couple of major changes to the duration and significance of the Utah race. For the past three years, the Miller event served as the season finale, and was also the second-longest event on the schedule with distances ranging from 1000 kilometers to nine hours. Now, for 2009, it not only cedes its season-closing position to the Grand Prix of Miami in Homestead, Florida, but the race itself is significantly shortened. As Scott Pruett so aptly put it, "This is going to change everything. We've been to Miller in the past for six or eight hours, and now we're going with the traditional two-hour, 45-minute race. That's going to change how we approach the race. It's all going to play a little differently when we're looking at how things are going to unfold, especially with the championship being so close."

Coming into Utah, the Chip Ganassi Racing with Félix Sabatés team and their #01 TELMEX Lexus/Riley faced an unexpected obstacle: Memo Rojas' bout with bronchitis and chest congestion, aggravated by the track's thin air at its 4000-ft. altitude. Thus, the team made the strategic decision to let Memo Rojas qualify and start the race, drive the minimal just-over-30 minute stint required by Grand-Am rules and then hand the car over to Scott Pruett. Considering the circumstances, and the fact that Rojas ran out of fuel on his final qualifying lap, his third-place qualifying position of 2:36.675 at 103.077 mph was respectable, but did not sit well with Brian Frisselle, driver of the #10 SunTrust Ford/Dallara. "It was really frustrating, because I caught Memo during my stint," Frisselle said. "I tried to move the gap back to get away from him, but he brought himself back to me and I was in his dirty air for my last lap - which is the fastest lap. I thought that was a cheap shot move." Rojas, naturally, saw things differently. "He did a cool down lap, and I did a cool down lap afterwards. I left a gap enough - about three car lengths behind me - so I never blocked him, because he never got that close. The lap after that was my quickest lap, so I don't understand why he felt I blocked him. We weren't that close anyway. I was happy because we improved from practice, when we struggled a bit. I've been sick all week, and I didn't feel good this morning, so it was good for me to come back and get a good qualifying effort." Qualifying on the pole for the fourth consecutive race was Jon Fogarty in the #99 GAINSCO Pontiac/Riley.

Saturday morning's practice session went quite well for the TELMEX Lexus, with Memo Rojas feeling better, and the team managing to complete 10 practice laps (more than any of the other teams), including the fastest of all, 2:38.133 at 102.1227 mph, by Scott Pruett.

As the race got under way, Brian Frisselle in the #10 SunTrust Ford/Dallara got his revenge for his perceived qualifying blockage by Memo Rojas by passing the Lexus driver on Lap 3. On Lap 14, Rojas entered the pits and handed over the helm to Scott Pruett. After emerging from the TELMEX Lexus, Memo Rojas said that "It went well, I mean, we haven't been 100 percent all week because of this sickness, but luckily with a two-driver team Scott (Pruett) will be in charge of things for the race. He's in real good shape. I'm looking forward to a good afternoon's race." On the SPEED TV broadcast, he also complained about how the second-place qualifying (and soon to be race leader) #12 Penske Porsche/Riley was splashing oil on his windshield.

On Lap 24, Scott Pruett is trying desperately to get past David Donohue in the #58 Brumos Porsche/Riley on the straights and short chutes, but cannot make his way past. Earlier, SPEED TV commentators had noted that races at Miller Motorsports Park tend to have few cautions, and, indeed, the first hour and part of the second were entirely caution-free, but Lap 30 saw the first caution period, for debris in Turns 6 and 18. Virually all the Daytona Prototypes entered the pits and, on the following lap, Alex Gurney beat everyone out of the pits, with Max Angelelli out second and Scott Pruett third, a sequence (#99, #10 and #01) that precisely reflected their standings in the season points. On Lap 34, Burt Frisselle in the #61 AIM Autosport Ford/Riley went on something of a contactfest, first with Darren Law in the #58 Brumos Porsche/Riley (which left the Porsche's right-side door partially open), and, on the following lap, with Scott Pruett, forcing smoke between the two and Frisselle off line.

On Lap 48, after a third caution period, Alex Gurney in the #99 GAINSCO Pontiac/Riley continues to lead Max Angelelli in the #10 SunTrust Ford/Dallara and Scott Pruett in the #01 TELMEX Lexus/Riley. Soon enough, Angelelli begins to lose ground to Pruett, and, 3 laps later, the gap just over three tenths of a second. On Lap 52, side-by-side contact occurs between Angelelli and Pruett in Turn 3, as it appeared Angelelli had slowed and locked his brakes. However, Angelelli held onto the position. By the following lap, Gurney's lead has blossomed to 2.243 seconds. Meanwhile, Angelelli is ahead of Pruett by .339 seconds. Lap 56 saw the checkered flag, which the #99 GAINSCO Pontiac/Riley took by 1.264 seconds over the #10 SunTrust Ford/Dallara, and the #01 TELMEX Lexus/Riley finished in third place, just as it had started. This was the Lexus' best-ever finish in Utah. Notably, all 11 Daytona Prototypes completed the Utah 250 on the lead lap.

With their victory in Utah, the GAINSCO/Bob Stallings Racing team and its drivers Jon Fogarty and Alex Gurney stretch their lead atop the overall Daytona Prototype Drivers' and Team Standings to 309 points. Eight points behind them, the SunTrust Racing team and drivers Brian Frisselle and Max Angelelli take sole position of second place, while the Chip Ganassi Racing with Félix Sabatés team and drivers Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas are in third place a scant two points behind. Still, with 36 points awarded for first place, it is still mathematically possible for the TELMEX Lexus to come from behind and snatch the championship. All will be decided at the season finale on Saturday 10 October at Florida's Homestead Miami Speedway. The race will be televised on SPEED TV at 1:00 p.m. Eastern Time.

Scott Pruett, for one, is happy about the new Miami season finale, while getting in a final, subtle dig at Utah. As he put it, "I think it's great that we're finishing up the season here. It's so much better than where we finished up the last few years. When you go to Homestead-Miami, there's a lot of excitement. It's a great track, and it's great for spectators because they see a lot of action from the grandstands. I think Grand-Am did absolutely the right thing by moving our race here to the season finale. Last year was my best memory racing at Homestead-Miami. We won, and we were dominant. I was really hooked up - it was one of the best cars I've had in a long time. Hopefully, we can continue that tradition this weekend." So do we, Scott, definitely...

Post-Race Quotes:

Scott Pruett, #01 TELMEX Lexus: "Memo really did a great job out there to overcome how he was feeling. He’s been sick all weekend and still toughed it out. Unfortunately, we had to pit a little earlier than we would have liked. This race was all about track position and we did all we could to try to get past out there. The crew did a great job and got us two positions in the pits, but that was really the only way you could get them today. We got everything we could. The car ran good all day long. We kept making changes to it, and it felt like we adapted to the track. We could go quicker than when we were in traffic, but with the turbulent air here you couldn't make a move. Everyone was nose to tail. The Miller race was exciting for the fans and exciting for the drivers, all the guys did a great job and now we're off to Miami. We would have liked to have the points a little differently, but it is what it is. We have three cars that are virtually identical in speed or dang close to it - that's what Grand-Am racing's all about. It's fun; it's close and I think it will be a great race for the fans. Unfortunately, we don’t hold our championship destiny in our hands anymore. We’ll just have to do our best at Homestead."

To read more from Scott Pruett, see his entries for his Champion's Corner blog on the official Grand-Am racing site, the pre-race <A HREF="http://community.grand-am.com/blogs/blogpost/d72b9b73-e45e-4f0a-b347-b7078e3d19bd">Need Great Result At Miller</A> and the post-race <A HREF="http://community.grand-am.com/blogs/blogpost/38a6f745-f717-4896-9938-dbfc345a09f5">Tough Race At Miller, Let Chips Fall at Homestead</A>.

Memo Rojas, #01 TELMEX Lexus: "I just tried to work through it (being under the weather), but it wasn’t real easy to breathe out there. I’m still not feeling real well. Obviously, it was a podium finish today, but it’s not the result we were hoping for. It was really the worst-case scenario for our championship hopes. We did what we could today. It was hard to pass on this track."

Our thanks to <A HREF="http://www.grand-am.com/rolex/">the official Grand-Am racing website</A> and the <A HREF="http://www.chipganassiracing.com/news/index.cfm?cat_id=381&cid=23847&tag_id=21">Chip Ganassi Racing website Media Center</A> for this information.
 

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