In a seesaw battle with the defending race winning driver and team Friday at Miller Motorsports Park, Billy Johnson passed Bill Auberlen for the final time in Turn 1 of Lap 46 – the final lap of the two-and-a-half hour Salt Lake City 200 (SPEED, 1:30 p.m. ET, Oct. 3) – and held off the 2008 winner by 1.095 seconds to earn his second Grand Sport (GS) victory of 2009 and the first ever for co-driver Jack Roush Jr.
Johnson, who joined the Horsepower Ranch team in June at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, regained the lead with an inside pass of Auberlen, kept Auberlen at bay for the first-ever win for Horsepower Ranch. Johnson also won in March at Homestead-Miami Speedway, driving for Motorsport Technology Group.
The race, which started under bright skies and in 80-degree temperatures, ended in near pitch-black conditions – albeit the 30-plus headlights navigating the 4.486-mile course and flashes of lightning south of the track.
Johnson originally took the lead on Lap 31 from Dean Martin and led seven laps before Auberlen took the lead and held it at the line on Lap 38. Johnson put the No. 61 Valvoline/Roush Ford Mustang GT back out in front on Lap 39 on the front straightaway, and the two ran nose-to-tail for the next three circuits. On Lap 42, however, Auberlen slipped off the track momentarily, allowing Johnson to distance himself for about a lap.
It didn’t last long, however. Auberlen regained his composure and, on Lap 45, blasted past Johnson – who slipped off-line – for what he was hoping for his second consecutive victory and fourth straight for Turner Motorsport, which had won every GS race at Miller prior to Friday. But Johnson fought back, and drag-raced Auberlen all the way into Turn 1, where he took over the lead once again. Auberlen dogged him around the track, but couldn’t get past, instead giving himself and co-driver Matt Bell a second-place finish in the No. 96 Turner Motorsport BMW M3.
“The last few laps – how about the last 30 laps!” said Johnson, who has four ST victories to go along with his two GS wins this season. “I love racing in the dark. It’s awesome to have that opportunity in the KONI Challenge. Definitely having Bill Auberlen in your mirrors is not the easiest thing, especially with the blinding lights. We went back and forth I don’t know how many times. It was back and forth. Neither of us could see the road. It was a rough battle at the end – definitely good, hard racing. I was able to come out on top, and can’t thank everyone at Roush enough.”
Added Roush after the car’s third consecutive podium finish: “Man, I was sweating bullets. That was awesome. Billy did a great job. I can’t be more proud of our No. 61 Roush Valvoline Mustang. I had plenty of battles during my turn, too. I was battling a little bit of a push. I knew that was going to happen, because the fuel tank was full. It was a blast out there. I rarely want to give the car up, but it was hot in there and I think I have a few blisters.”
Auberlen rejoined Bell after missing the team’s last race, a victory in the Grand Prix de Trois-Rivières last month in Quebec.
“He had the strength on the straights; I had the strength on the braking, but not enough to make up the difference,” Auberlen said of Johnson. “He did a very good job and made no mistakes. One time I got by him and thought I had enough of a gap to get down the straight. To just get down the straight would be good, but he got by me. Oh, well. One time we rubbed, but I need my racing space, too. Matt did a great job – he did exactly what he’s supposed to do. The guy’s a front-runner every time. Turner Motorsport had won this race every year, so now, this defeat is horrible. But I guess second is okay – we’ll take the points and keep on trucking.”
Bell moved past Martin into third in the GS standings by one point, while point leader and fifth-place co-finisher Ken Wilden lost two points over James Gue and Bret Seafuse, who earned fourth. Wilden and Seafuse battled for the majority of the opening 22 laps, with Wilden taking the lead on the first lap, and Seafuse moving to second by Lap 6. The pair pitted within a lap of each other, with Martin holding onto the lead after Wilden brought the No. 59 Rehagen Racing Ford Mustang GT into the pits on Lap 25.
The only caution period came out on Lap 27 for debris in Turn 6, and the green flag flew to resume action on Lap 31, the same lap Johnson passed Martin, who had held a 10-plus second lead at the time.
Wilden now has 292 points, while Gue and Seafuse, in the No. 37 Trumansburg ShurSave Ford Mustang GT, have 274 points. A 14th-place finish in the Bosch Engineering Octoberfest Oct. 4 at Virginia International Raceway, regardless of what Gue and Seafuse do, will sew up Wilden’s first Grand-Am championship. Bell also has a mathematical shot at the title, but he is still 29 points behind Wilden.
Gaining six positions in the final laps was third-place finisher Joey Hand, the co-winner the 2007 GS race, in the No. 97 Turner Motorsport BMW M3 he shared with Chris Gleason, despite a second pit stop. The pair came from 17th.
Earlier in the afternoon, Dan DiLeo earned the pole position with a time of 3:09.544 (85.202 mph) in the No. 77 Maxwell Paper Products Co. Porsche 997. It was first career pole, and he and co-driver Bryan Sellers went on to finish 10th.