In two identical cars with two nearly identical driver lineups, two Mazda MX-5s have near identical points scores heading into the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge season finale at Petit Le Mans Powered by Mazda.
Just one point separates the CJ Wilson Racing duo of Chad McCumbee and Stevan McAleer from Freedom Autosport’s Andrew Carbonell in the ST class, which takes precedence over GS.
Andrew Davis and Robin Liddell will clinch the GS class title by scoring points, with an insurmountable 28-point gap to their closest rivals.
But in ST, Carbonell’s full-season co-driver, U.S. Marine Staff Sgt. Liam Dwyer, had to miss the Virginia International Raceway round due to a minor medical issue. So Carbonell is left as Freedom’s lone title fighter going into Road Atlanta.
McCumbee and McAleer have been together as teammates for several seasons but this year McCumbee has really come into his own as a top-flight sports car driver. The two have won twice, in the rain at Watkins Glen and in dominant fashion at Lime Rock in the No. 5 ModSpace-backed Mazda.
Meanwhile in the No. 26 Freedom Autosport Mazda, Carbonell and Dwyer won at Mazda Raceway back in May, courtesy of a last lap pass from Carbonell on teammate Tom Long. Consistent throughout, the No. 26 car has only finished outside the top-10 once all season.
Defending ST class champion Eric Foss has a remote mathematical shot at the title in third place, 15 points back of McCumbee and McAleer, in the No. 56 Murillo Racing Porsche Cayman. But realistically he’d need to win and have both Mazdas finish outside the top 10 to retain his crown.
With the No. 5 car just one point ahead, 241-240, the math is simple for the championship. Whichever car finishes ahead claims the title in this season that’s been a seesaw battle in terms of who’s led the championship.
“I’m actually super happy,” McAleer told Sportscar365 after a hard-fought runner-up finish last race at Circuit of The Americas.
“We beat our contenders in the points. We maybe wanted them a little further back than they ended. I would have believed we’d have more than a one-point lead, given our results.”
McCumbee added, “We need to make sure we are as efficient as we can be to try to come out with a championship. It’s obviously a lot of pressure but you can’t think about it.
“We have a gap on the Porsches, but they’ll probably be a little stronger than we are at Atlanta. It’s gonna be a spirited battle with another of our Mazdas. We just need to hit on all four cylinders, and do what we gotta do.”
Carbonell has made several last-lap passes for position this year, which may prove important if he can wrest the points lead away from McAleer and McCumbee.
He pulled off his latest one at COTA two weeks ago, ending fourth after getting past Seth Thomas’ No. 38 Next Level European Porsche Cayman.
“You’ve got to fight for every point, every position. It was really about staying in the battle and not letting them getaway,” Carbonell said.
“The Porsche started to go away at the end and we closed in. We traded the spot a couple of times but I was finally able to gap him just enough to hold him off.”
Freedom had a better run than did CJ Wilson’s team last year at Road Atlanta. Carbonell and Randy Pobst finished second, while McCumbee and McAleer ended 10th.
It’s the confidence of a good result that gives Carbonell added motivation heading into the final race.
“Road Atlanta is a good track for us. We had a good finish there last year,” he said. “It has a long straight but some corners that really benefits the MX-5. We should be strong there to decide the championship.”
McAleer, meanwhile, returns to the site where he captured his Mazda MX-5 Cup title, with the same team, in 2012.
For the CJ Wilson Racing team, it’s also the site of its first win of any kind there as a team, back in 2011 in MX-5 Cup.
“This is about as deep as you can take it. It’s all about the last race,” team principal CJ Wilson told Sportscar365. “There’s no scenario other than us finishing in front of them that will work out in our favor.
“It’s cool to see two Mazdas battling for the championship. I know how hard both of us have worked.”
Whoever emerges on top will be the first Mazda ST champion since Pierre Kleinubing did so in an iMoto MazdaSpeed 3 in 2012.