By Jeff Olson
If close championship battles are your thing, Road America is the place to be this weekend.
The IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship features close contests at the top of the standings in each of the four classes, but none closer than Daytona Prototype International (DPi), where two teams are tied for the lead, another team is two points behind, and another six points behind.
"It’s certainly nice to be up at the front this early in the season," said Oliver Jarvis, one of four racers tied at the top of the driver standings in the DPi class. "It’s a new experience for us. Normally, the start of the year is tough. … This year we started off on the front foot and got points on the board early."
Jarvis, who teams with Tristan Nunez in the No. 77 Mazda Motorsports Mazda DPi, is tied with Nunez and the two drivers of the No. 10 Wayne Taylor Racing Konica Minolta Cadillac DPi-V.R, Ryan Briscoe and Renger van der Zande, atop the driver standings after the first three races of the WeatherTech Championship season. The two teams also share the lead in the DPi team and manufacturer standings
As they approach Sunday’s main event in the IMSA SportsCar Weekend at the Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin track, Briscoe has history on his side. He won the GT Le Mans (GTLM) class with Chip Ganassi Racing the previous two seasons at Road America after finishing second in 2016 and third in 2017.
"I’ve been lucky enough to have a lot of success there," Briscoe said. "It’s always fun heading back. … It’s a track that’s built for high speeds and prototype cars with all the fast corners. I’m looking forward to it. We’re on a bit of a roll, but we’re working hard to get another win here. Hopefully, we’ll be quick enough and competitive enough to get the job done."
Just two points behind the co-leaders are Joao Barbosa and Sebastien Bourdais in the No. 5 JDC-Miller MotorSports Mustang Sampling Racing Cadillac DPi-V.R. Jonathan Bomarito and Harry Tincknell, teammates in the No. 55 Mazda Motorsports Mazda DPi, share fourth in the standings, just six points behind the leaders.
Barbosa and Bourdais have used consistency to their advantage; they have opened the 2020 season with three consecutive third-place finishes.
"It’s been a great start of the season, a lot better than what we had planned when we put the team together," Barbosa said. "Three podiums are very important for the team. … I’m very pleased with what we’ve achieved so far, but I think we can do just a little bit better now."
Van der Zande and Briscoe opened the season with a victory in January at the Rolex 24 At Daytona, along with endurance-event co-drivers Scott Dixon and Kamui Kobayashi, then finished sixth at the WeatherTech 240 At Daytona when the season resumed July 4. They followed that with a runner-up finish in the Cadillac Grand Prix at Sebring on July 18.
The bumps of Sebring are a far cry from Road America’s smooth and long, 4.048-mile surface, something that might be a disadvantage.
"Bumpy tracks are always good for us, whether it’s Detroit or Sebring," Van der Zande said. "Those tracks are always very good to us. Road America isn’t typically good for the Cadillac."
Nunez credited his team’s runner-up finish in the season-opening Rolex 24, along with third driver Olivier Pla, for the strong showing in the standings.
"The focus for us right now is to continue to score points and minimize mistakes, which I think we’ve done a really good job of doing from the first race of the season at the (Rolex) 24," Nunez said. "It was really crucial for us to have a good finish there. It’s the best we’ve had in the program since its inception. … We should be in really good position for the end of the year. It’s early, but it really does set us up well for the rest of the season."
For some, hope lies in the weather this weekend. Saying he thought it would be "impossible" to win at Road America because of the Cadillac’s slower straightaway speeds compared with the Mazda, Van der Zande said he’s hoping for rain.
"With the rain tires, (the Cadillac) is an easy car to drive and a fun car to go fast with," he said. "I hope it’s going to rain and that’s going to change things around a little bit. … When it rains, I think we have a chance. When it’s dry, I think not."
Live coverage of Sunday’s two-hour, 40-minute main event begins at noon ET on NBC network. Qualifying streams live at 2:45 p.m. ET Saturday on IMSA.TV.
Kelly Eager for Return to Road America, Site of His First LMP2 Victory
Patrick Kelly has two reasons to be confident and enthusiastic heading into the IMSA SportsCar Weekend at Road America.
First, he won his most recent race at Sebring International Raceway. Second, he won the last time he visited Road America, the 14-turn, 4.048-mile circuit in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin.
If he needs a third reason, it’s this: He’s leading the standings in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship’s LMP2 class heading into Sunday’s race, in which he’ll share the car with Simon Trummer. He also wants to shake some things loose.
"I certainly am looking forward to going wailing around Road America," said the native of Minnetrista, Minnesota who also scored the Motul Pole Award in the LMP2 class last time out at Sebring. "It’s such a fast track. It always cleans the cobwebs out."
Last year’s victory at Road America was his first run in the No. 52 PR1 Mathiasen Motorsports ORECA LMP2 07. Previously, he’d been racing LMP3 cars.
"Man, what a step up an LMP2 is from an LMP3," Kelly said. "The LMP3 car drives a little bit like a GT car with extra aero. Not to take anything away from them; I love the LMP3 cars, as well. Man, was it an eye-opener (getting into the LMP2), particularly at Road America. I’m cautiously optimistic, but I know the track."
He also loves the place. All of it.
"There’s an atmosphere about Road America that I just love," Kelly said. "It’s such a resort. I suppose I should be talking about all the things we’re going to do to the car, but I really love the area. I’m looking forward to going there. With all of us cooped up at home and working from home and whatnot, I’m just looking forward to it very much."