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Muscle Milk back on top

Highlands Today Special to Highlands Today
Published:   |   Updated: March 11, 2013 at 08:21 PM

Muscle Milk Pickett Racing returned to its winning ways Saturday in the American Le Mans Series presented by Tequila Patrón, the same day in which three class driver championship battles ended at Virginia International Raceway.

It marked a magical day for the ALMS in its debut at VIR.

Klaus Graf and Lucas Luhr teamed for a three-lap victory in the four-hour race driving Muscle Milk's Honda Performance Development ARX-03a. The day also belonged to Corvette Racing's Oliver Gavin and Tommy Milner, who clinched the GT title with a class victory; and Alex Job Racing's Cooper MacNeil, who clinched the GT Challenge championship thanks to a class win with Leh Keen.

CORE autosport's Alex Popow wrapped up the Prototype Challenge title with a third-place class finish in the No. 06 ORECA FLM09 as CORE teammates Colin Braun and Jon Bennett won in the No. 05 entry.

The P1 and P2 championships will go down to the season's final race — Petit Le Mans powered by Mazda at Road Atlanta. Level 5 Motorsports' Christophe Bouchut and Scott Tucker won in P2 in a back-and-forth affair with Conquest Racing's David Heinemeier-Hansson and Martin Plowman.

In GT, Gavin and Milner led twice for more than three hours and took the lead for good at the one-hour, 15-minute mark in the No. 4 Corvette C6 ZR1. The victory also sewed up the team championship for Corvette Racing and manufacturer title for Chevrolet.

The Gavin/Milner duo received a good omen at the race's start: Mark Patterson in the No. 20 Dyson Racing Lola-Mazda spun at the first turn, and Gavin narrowly escaped unscathed. He went back and forth early with Extreme Speed Motorsports' Johannes van Overbeek, the GT pole winner, in the early going. The pairing swapped the lead twice before Gavin assumed command during the race's second caution.

"I was hoping things would go well for us, with this being my 100th start," Gavin said. "When I managed to get through the melee in Turn 1, I thought this could very well be our day.

"Things worked out for us today, but we've worked at it. We made our own luck. We clambered and put ourselves in the right position. We executed that four times this year, and that's why we won the championship."

MacNeil and Keen looked destined for a runner-up finish in GTC but took the lead on the next-to-last lap when JDX Racing's Michael Valiante stopped for a late splash of fuel. Keen and the No. 23 AJR Porsche 911 GT3 Cup held off NGT Motorsport's Jeroen Bleekemolen by 0.423 seconds.

The victory also gave Alex Job Racing its first ALMS team championship since 2004.

After two races with electrical and mechanical issues, the Muscle Milk HPD ran faultlessly for the entire weekend. Graf took pole position and set an all-time VIR lap record for the 17-turn, 3.27-mile layout. Luhr recorded the fastest lap of the race and also went quicker than the previous record.

"It was very good to win, especially when you know that we are always the quickest car on track," Luhr said. "In the last two races we were as fast as we were today, but we had some small technical issues. It's nice not for just us drivers but for the whole team to finally be rewarded for their hard work."

CORE autosport's sixth PC victory was the latest highlight in what has been a dominating season. Bennett and Braun won by a lap over PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports' Rudy Junco and Marino Franchitti. It wasn't without drama, though. Bennett, starting from the class pole, lost positions in the Turn 1 chaos but held steady in third place for most of his stint.

It was at times a rough-and-tumble affair for both Bennett and Braun, who won for the third time this season.

"We ended up tangling with a GTC car early, and then we took another strong hit to the car," Bennett said. "It was becoming a tough day. I knew Colin and I needed to keep pushing to try for the driver's championship. I had an uneventful end of my stint and handed it over to Colin and he went like a rocket ship like he usually is."

Popow, who drove with Tom Kimber-Smith, finished on the PC podium for the eighth time in as many races to win his first ALMS championship. It seemed in doubt in the early-going as the No. 06 ORECA suffered moderate rear damage after being hit from behind on the opening lap.

Tucker and Bouchut won together in P2 for the fifth time this season in a class battle that had more ups and downs than VIR's layout. But in the end, the No. 055 HPD ARX-03b came from the back of the grid to a class victory.

"Unfortunately the tires got blistered in qualifying, so the team made the decision to change them before the race," Tucker said. "With the longer race we figured we could get caught back up. So I just had to stay out of trouble and give the car to Christophe in good shape without any damage and our plan worked."

Gonzalez, Tucker and Luis Diaz finished third in class driving the No. 95 car. But it was excluded after it failed the post-race stall test; the engine did not shut off when the air intake was sealed.

The final race of the 2012 American Le Mans Series presented by Tequila Patrón is the 1,000-mile/10-hour race from Road Atlanta on Oct 20. (863) 386-5841