With one qualifying race in the books, competitors at the 2021 NASA Championships Presented by Toyo Tires, had one more qualifying race on Saturday to claw their way forward to give themselves their best shot at a NASA Championship on Sunday.
The stakes rise with the sun each day.
It is the combined results of qualifying races one and two that determine grid position for the Championships races on Sunday. Only the competitors who can blend a cocktail of preparation, speed, setup, support and a welcome dose of good luck can be crowned a NASA Champion.
Here’s how Saturday’s qualifying races unfolded.
The weeks leading up to the Spec Miata championship races could be a lesson plan for the fine art of negotiation. Cooperation is critical for success at draft-dependent Daytona International Speedway. If you want to succeed, you will need a drafting partner. Correction, if you want to succeed, you will need a number of drafting partners.
Of course, teams always try to push one another and alliances are most certainly formed in the days leading up to the race, but sometimes the situation on track means you need to love the one you’re with. That was the case for Saturday’s Spec Miata qualifying race, where winner Matt Cresci pulled away from his teammate Danny Steyn and found himself cooperating with Preston Pardus.
“For us to work together best, it is absolutely critical that as soon as we enter the banking, whether it’s Turn 6 or exiting the Bus Stop that we link up as soon as possible to get an absolutely mega draft,” Cresci said afterward. “So, as soon as I come out of Turn 6 or the Bus Stop, I’m dragging the brake to get him to latch onto my rear bumper as soon as possible and he’s doing the same for me. That is much faster, probably about a second a lap.”
The draft can create engine temperature issues for the following car, but Cresci and Pardus also seemed to have an answer for that.
“Temps were good, but Preston and I always have to alternate, so some simple hand signals, loop-de-loo, let’s swap positions. That’s how we keep the water temps down and that’s how we’re able to pull away.”
On the last lap, Cresci was trailing Pardus, but pulled out as the two entered the tri-oval, and was able to get by to take the win after starting from fourth.
“The start, it’s always a bit of a lottery. We all come onto the banking for the first time. Who knows who’s going where?” Cresci said. “After the restart, Preston Pardus and I saw a little bit of a gap and took advantage of it, worked together and yeah it was game over from there.
You would think that a Ligier JS P320 LMP3 car would almost ensure you a spot at the top of the podium in NASA’s Super Unlimited class. For 2021, the Super Unlimited class has more cars than any other Championships in NASA history, and there are 10 open- and closed-cockpit prototypes and a Ford Mustang with upward of a thousand horsepower on tap.
This year’s Super Unlimited class is more competitive than ever, but Dan Goldburg, who won Friday’s Q1 race, pulled it out again in Q2.
“Really the key for me was to get a good start. There are cars out there with a lot more horsepower than I have. The Mustang at the start was right up behind me. I got a good start and a good restart, and I was building the gap from there,” Goldburg said. “So once I got that gap, I’m pretty good in traffic, so once we got to traffic, I kept pushing and the rest kind of unfolded from there. I grew up running with NASA, so I’m happy to be out here having fun with the NASA crew and running the LMP3 car here.
Goldburg’s Ligier JS P320 LMP3 car creates about 450 horsepower and tops out at 180 in top gear, and he’s hoping that’s enough to push him to the big win on Sunday.
Super Touring 1
Justin Oakes really picked up speed midway through Saturday’s ST1 qualifying race, turning in the only two sub-1:54 laps of the race in back-to-back laps, which helped propel him to victory. That wasn’t quite how he had planned the race, but he had no complaints with the outcome.
“The plan was to start with our group, but unfortunately, one of the grid workers decided that they were going to hold me until the last overall, so I went out behind everybody and had to get through the other groups in the first lap,” he said. “And that’s why I was a little slower in the beginning.”
As the race continued, Oakes got race leader Terry Mathis in his sights and made his move.
“As the race went on I got a little more clear air in front of me and I could pick up the pace and then I figured out I was chasing down (Mathis) and I saw him, and that’s when I pushed a little harder,” Oakes said. “The tires are gone, but otherwise the car drove amazing. The team built a beast as usual. The car is basically perfect.”
Super Touring 2
After battling it out with Jonathan Giahn all day Friday, Ken Mantovani was expecting more of the same on Saturday. That’s exactly what he got, but for the second straight day, Mantovani came back to take the victory.
“During the warm-up he laid down the fastest lap in the ST class – a couple of tenths faster than myself – so I knew he had it in for me,” Mantovani said. “I went over to his pits and chatted with him. He really is a nice guy and this is his first time on the track. So I was like, ‘Wow, so you’re getting faster and faster, so I’m going to have my hands full for this race.’”
Mantovani was able to take advantage of a full-course caution and use it to his advantage.
“My lucky break was the fact that we got into traffic for that yellow flag,” he said. “I was able to make a move on the outside, he went on the inside and caught more traffic and then the gap just started growing bigger and bigger. So yeah, I’m really happy with today.”
Even though Mantovani has won both qualifying races, he isn’t taking anything for granted heading into Sunday’s championship race.
“I think it’s going to come down to the same situation today, where it’s literally a mistake or traffic that’s going to make the difference in the race.”
Super Touring 3
John Huebner knew it was going to be a battle with Eric Magnussen in Saturday’s ST3 qualifying. But he was able to use a great start and hold Magnussen off for the victory.
“It was a hell of a battle,” Huebner said. “I got lucky and got a jump on Eric at the start and was able to keep him behind me the whole time. He was right there with me putting the pressure on.”
Huebner’s job was made a little more difficult by traction problems he was having in his BMW E46 M3.
“I was really struggling with grip,” Huebner said. “I was sliding all over the place. I had to build a little gap before we hit those turns each time because the back end kept wanting to slide out.”
Charlie Buzzetti found himself running in third place in the 944 Spec race, so he thought he might have to do something about that.
“We had a good race up front, and I had a great draft going from third to first, and I figured I might as well be leading,” he said. “There’s no sense in driving around in the back. The guys did a great job, unfortunately a couple of guys got together and they hurt their position. It was unfortunate to finish under yellow, but we’re here at the end.”
Buzzetti thinks his earlier 924 chassis is a bit better for use at Daytona than the later-model 944s. With two qualifying race wins, he might be onto something.
“The car was really good, such a pleasure to drive,” Buzzetti said. “The 924S is just a bit more slippery than the 944, the coefficient of drag. It doesn’t show up at Cal Speedway, but it shows up here.”
Honda Challenge 2
Holden Metzner didn’t have the lead for long in Saturday’s Honda Challenge 2 qualifying race. But he did have the lead when it mattered. The race ended under a caution with Metzner in front.
“I wish we would have finished under green,” Metzner said. “I was following Chris Michaels, he had a mechanical so he pulled in and about a half-lap after that they threw the full course out on NASCAR Turn 1.”
This is Metzner’s first time racing at Daytona and he’s managed to pack in quite a bit of learning his first few days over the course.
“Yesterday, I learned a lot during the race and put myself in a bad position and I didn’t want to do that again,” Metzner said. “There’s a lot more strategy here than what I’m used to, so it’s cool. It’s fun and unique.”
Daytona is one of those tracks drivers want to compete on and Metzner said it definitely lives up to its billing.
“First off, it’s an awesome track,” he said. “I’ve wanted to come here for a long time. It’s super iconic and has tons of history.”
It’s never the ending anyone wants when a race finishes under the shadow of double-yellow flags, but sometimes it’s inevitable. When a car crashed on the outside of Turn 1 in the Spec E30 race, the double yellows came out, and there wasn’t enough time to clean it up and go green again.
By that time, Carlos Mendez had taken the lead in front of Scott McKay and Corey Smith, but the caution didn’t give him the last-lap buzz he was looking for.
“I started from third, but when I saw an opening, I passed Scott McKay and Corey Smith, and I just kind of hung out, and McKay kept drafting with me and we stayed out front, and we ended under double yellow,” Mendez said. “It’s not how I want to finish a race. For me the end is the most exciting part and I was looking forward to that ending, but, you know, a win is a win.”
When the green flag drops on Sunday, McKay will have plenty of opportunity to make the moves on Mendez that he didn’t have time for today.
Turner Hilliard and Christopher DeShong have had some close action through the first two days of racing. As the lone two Spec E46 cars in the field, they’ve battled each other and cars in other classes, as Hilliard made it 2-for-2, with the victory in Saturday’s qualifying race.
“Getting around some of the Honda Challenge cars – and a couple of them have a little more speed on the straightaways – makes it really interesting,” Hilliard said. “I think Chris caught a couple of drafts off the Honda Challenge cars, and I think I did too.”
Even though Hilliard has won both qualifying races, he isn’t about to take anything for granted, because there are no guarantees in racing, especially when the first two races have been pretty close.
“I think the name of the game is going to be starting out front and staying out front,” he said. “Hopefully, I can keep him behind me and work around some of the other cars out there and keep winning.”
American Iron races are always a battle and Saturday’s qualifying race was no different. Jeff Lindstrom and Coby Shield slugged it out and it was Lindstrom who came out on top.
“It was a lot of fun,” Lindstrom said. “The track was a little slicker than yesterday. If we didn’t have the yellow and a chance to do the restart, I don’t think I would have got Coby. He had a better car than me today. He probably drove better than me today, too.”
American Iron races are usually a crowd favorite due to the close nature of the racing.
“It’s a pretty evenly matched series,” Lindstrom said. “From power-to-weight-ratio standpoint, so you saw today what it’s like. I think we put on a good show.”
Both Lindstrom and Shield say the key to winning at Daytona is getting off to a good start.
“I think if he (Shield) gets ahead of me tomorrow I’m going to have a really hard time. He’s driving really nicely.”
American Iron Extreme
Current AIX champion Robert Shaw managed to put in a qualifying lap Friday, but didn’t make it to grid for Friday’s qualifying race because a differential oil cooling pump failed. With help from FedEx, he was back on track Saturday and back on top.
“We ran a good lap in qualifying, but the differential went up to about 250 degrees in one lap, so we decided to sit yesterday out,” Shaw said. After they got the new pump installed, they were ready to rock.
“We’ve been preparing for this for all year. We’ve been here twice now. We had tons of issues the first couple of times,” Shaw said. “Hell it took us five days to put a lap together. But after a lot of practice and a lot of preparation, she’s running good. So hopefully she’ll stay together.”
Shaw also needs to keep an eye on fuel consumption. His twin-turbo Mustang uses E85 and he’s concerned whether his 26 gallons fuel cell is going to be enough for a 45-minute race.
“If it’s dry, it’s looking promising,” Shaw said. “For tomorrow, fuel and weather. That’s what it’s going to come down to.”
Joshua Sooknanan took his second qualifying race win on Saturday, which should put him on pole for Sunday’s championship race, but victory is anything but assured, especially in Camaro-Mustang Challenge.
“For most of us it’s our first weekend here” Sooknanan aid. “Every time we go out we’re learning more, and in CMC we share all the information. So after this we’re going to go talk to each other about what works and what doesn’t work, so the field is getting faster and more competitive every time we’re on track.”
The double-yellow and the following “resumption” caught him off guard, and he had to fight back to regain lost positions when the race went green again.
He has no changes planned for Sunday other than more gas, new tires and motor oil.
After having a rough day on Friday, Darin Mock wanted to make some amends in Saturday’s Spec Iron qualifying race. He did exactly that, coming away with the checkered flag.
“It feels great,” Mock said. “We had a brake issue yesterday in the race, so we didn’t get to make it and started in the rear, so it always feels good to come from last to first.”
Mock said the team was able to get plenty of good data from Saturday on the brakes and the tires in the heat, which will be big, as Sunday’s race is scheduled for 3:45 p.m.
He did want to thank Cash Canada for racing him clean, along with his father and sponsors for helping out with everything he does. Racing at Daytona is always fun for Mock, who comes from a racing family.
“Oh, it’s awesome,” he said. “I grew up watching the 24-hour race here and the Daytona 500, so it’s pretty cool to race here for sure.”
German Touring Series 3
Randy Mueller is no stranger to the top step of the podium at the NASA Championships, so his win in Q2 Saturday was no surprise.
“We did minimal testing on Thursday,” Mueller said. “I know the track fairly well, so I didn’t have to do that, and we had been here earlier in the year so we had a good setup on the car.”
However, it wasn’t a gimme. Mueller was feeling pressure from behind from a fellow BMW driver Vytis Aranauskas, who finished P2 and has some momentum going into Sunday’s championship race.
“He definitely has some aggression and he can definitely wheel a car, and the more laps he turns here I’m sure the faster he’ll get,” Mueller said. “But he’s right there knocking at the door, so Sunday will be interesting.”
Bobby Pugh suffered mechanical failure Friday, overheating his engine and seizing the piston rings. Competitor and Q1 winner Bobby Christensen was kind enough to loan Pugh his backup car, and Pugh was generous to beat Christensen with it in Q2.
“I prepare by drinking my exogenous ketones by Pruvit. So, it gives you high energy level, helps you burn fat,” Pugh said. “Bobby’s a great driver. He didn’t really make any mistakes, and the draft here is crazy. If you can get behind somebody and get a run on him, you can go around him. It’s pretty cool. Our cars are parachutes. They have no aerodynamics, so anytime you’ve got something breaking your wind, it’s huge.”
Pugh likes the way the car is set up so other than lowering tire pressures a bit, he’s going to race it as is on Sunday. That is, if Christensen lets him use it again.
The 2021 Championship for NP01 was shaping up to be an epic contest between current champion Sam Mangiameli and Tony Brakohiapa, but Mangiamelli suffered a crash with damage that was irreparable without a replacement axle, so Brakohiapa came away with a big win Friday in Q1 and again today in the Q2 race.
“We made phone calls and did everything we could to get Sam back on track, but he had a bent axle,” Brakohiapa said. “Today, I was in the zone, doing my corners, my lines and my apexes. The track is not as fast as it was yesterday, my tires are falling off a bit, but we have new tires for tomorrow.”
The key to tomorrow’s race, Brakohiapa said, will be managing traffic and making smart, long-game decisions for making it to the end.
“You only have about three to five laps to get it sorted with the guy you’re racing with, because as soon as traffic comes in, then it’s kind of luck,” he said. “That’s where race craft comes in, strategy comes in.”
Super Touring 4
Burak Ozgunay captured his second straight ST4 qualifying race on Saturday, taking his Alliance Racing BMW M3 to victory.
“It was fantastic,” Ozgunay said. “It was a little hotter than yesterday, but it was still really good. The last couple of laps it was a little greasy. I needed to get a gap to Scott (Adams) and I was able to make a gap, so it worked fine.”
Naturally, Ozgunay will have a target on his back for Sunday’s championship race, but he said he will keep doing things the same way as he has the past two days.
“No change, as the car is working great,” he said. “And I think I’m doing OK.”
Super Touring 5
After finishing second to Carlos Mendez in Friday’s ST5 qualifying race, Nicholas Barbato was determined to turn the tables in Saturday’s event, which is exactly what he did.
“We were able to make a couple of changes overnight and I think that bought us some pace, for sure,” Barbato said. “The strategy was to try and get into the group ahead of us, work my way through traffic and try to stay away.”
Barbato said a lot of credit has to go to his crew Ronnie Vajdak and Walk Heinig, and he was looking forward to the championship race and another battle with Mendez.
“We had a battle yesterday and he got by me in traffic, so now it’s one for one,” he said.
He said the key to Sunday will be to race smart.
“I think it’s going to come down to traffic, minimizing mistakes, trying to stay out of his drafting tow and keeping the tires alive for that last 10 minutes because the tires were just starting to go away at the end,” Barbato said. “We have a 10-minute longer race tomorrow, so we’ll see what happens.”
Super Touring 6
Dan Miller came all the way from Washington state to race at Daytona, but he missed the Q1 race due to a blown oil line, so he didn’t take the green flag on Friday.
“Today was a different story, and the draft was incredible out there,” Miller said. “So, even though I’m one of the ST6’s, the ST5’s are pulling us along, so we were running faster times today than we even did yesterday in qualifying.”
Miller said he hopes the car shapes up after a final drive ratio change tonight, which will allow him to run in 944 Spec and Super Touring 6 on Sunday.
Thunder Roadster GTR
Because of the way points accumulate to determine grid positions for the start of Sunday’s Championship race, Thunder Roadster racer Alex Wolenski’s victory in the Q2 qualifying race will only help him so much due to a DNF in Friday’s race.
“Yesterday was a challenging day for me,” Wolenski said. “I was leading the race and I didn’t end up finishing the race, so today I wanted to keep a level head and not let anything behind me bother me and just persevere.”
Grid spots have yet to be posted, but Wolenski mathematically cannot be on pole. He can still bring home a championship if he sorts out the right race strategy, knowing full well the importance of the draft.
“With the draft, we’re so close together, you make one little mistake and four cars blow by you.”