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NTB Trans-Am: Saunders Scores Win on Streets of Grand Rapids

27 July 1998

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich., Bill Saunders, of Dallas, Texas, scored his second-straight win of the 1998 NTB Trans-Am season with a 44.869-second margin over Bruce Qvale, of San Francisco, while Chris Neville, of Scottsdale, Ariz., finished third at the West Michigan Grand Prix in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Saunders, driving the No. 8 AutoLink Chevrolet Corvette, started the 64-lap, 101.12-mile race on the outside pole and stalked early race leaders Paul Gentilozzi, who started on the pole, and Brian Simo, who started third, before Gentilozzi dropped out of the lead with a broken suspension link.

"We had two problems," said Gentilozzi. "First, the hood let go and flew off, with no warning. After that, the car was ugly, and Brian was able to get around. Then a suspension linkage broke and I was just peddling for points."

Once in second behind Simo's No. 2 Valvoline Ford Mustang Cobra, Saunders made his bid for the lead on lap 44 as the duo swept through Turn Five on the 1.58-mile, 13-turn Scott Brayton Memorial street circuit. Successful in taking over the lead, Saunders checked out on the 30-car NTB Trans-Am field, cruising to his second career victory while a fierce battle for the remaining podium positions raged between Simo, Neville, John Miller IV and Qvale.

"As a team, we had decided to let Brian (Simo) go by early if he wanted to," said Saunders. "This race wasn't going to be won during the first three-quarters of it ... we wanted Brian to chase Paul (Gentilozzi) for a while, if that's the pace he chose to run. We knew there would be yellows, and 64 laps around here is a long, long time .. we really just let the race come back to us. This race had the best NTB Trans-Am crowd I've ever seen. The Grand Rapids fans are just incredible ...most of them had never been to a race, and now we've made them race fans forever. The officials and volunteers here have done a great job."

With 10 laps remaining, Miller IV, in the No. 64 PLC Direct Camaro, had advanced from his start in 16th up to fourth, behind Saunders, Simo and Neville. Four laps later Miller's charge toward the front was over as he fell victim to a broken differential, elevating Leighton Reese to fourth while Qvale, who was on a tear through the field after a lap-40 spin, held the fifth position.

"I'd lost my rhythm and spun," said Qvale. "Then I got in a zone and established some consistency .... the car was exactly the way it should be at the end of a race."

As Saunders completed the final two laps, Simo faded from second to fourth, while Qvale, in the No. 44 Huffaker/Qvale Motorsports Mustang Cobra, made a last-lap move on Neville's No. 40 ARCO Camaro for second and Reese, in the No. 66 Phillips 66 Pontiac Grand Prix, rounded out the top-five.

Neville's third-place result was his first career podium finish and earned the NTB Trans-Am rookie points leader the DynoMax Turn On The Power Award for turning in the best drive of the race.

"Finishing on the podium is the best feeling in the world," said Neville. "We put our heads together to figure out what we needed to do to get on the podium, and it's finally worked out."

After eight races, Gentilozzi, who finished sixth, maintains his NTB Drivers' Championship points lead with 217, while Saunders is second with 175, followed by Simo, 173; Neville, 164; and Miller IV, 160.