Ernie Francis Jr. could not have had a more perfect weekend.
The Florida resident won Sunday’s 100-mile Trans Am Championship Presented By Pirelli race at VIRginia International Raceway at Alton to complete a sweep of the weekend Trans Am doubleheader.
The six-time Trans Am title winner held off Chris Dyson by .911 second in a five-lap shootout to the finish that followed the last of the race’s three full-course cautions to claim his 46th career Trans Am Championship Presented By Pirelli win.
Sunday’s win allowed Francis to pass Scott Pruett and move to fourth place on the all-time win list with his 23rd overall TA victory.
With Sunday’s win, Francis, who is seeking a seventh straight TA crown, moves to a 37-point advantage over Tomy Drissi in the championship points standings with Dyson standing third 11 points behind Drissi.
‘It was a really good points weekend for us,” Francis said following his sixth career TA victory at VIR.
“We tried to maximize everything we could. Going into the last three rounds coming up, I just want to try to get the biggest points lead I can and take home another championship.”
Francis led all 31 laps of the 100-mile race and appeared to have the race in hand until a full-course caution occurred on lap 22. He held a lead of over five seconds over Dyson when the full-course caution was displayed.
The caution erased Francis’ lead and set up a five-lap sprint to the finish. Dyson made a valiant effort, keeping his Ford Mustang glued to the rear bumper of Francis’ Ford Mustang. He took several looks at making a bid for the lead, but Francis was able to fend off Dyson and take the win.
“Chris gave me a helluva run,” Francis pointed out.
“He was on my bumper most of the race, and really kept me honest. I had to try to stay focused and keep looking ahead. I knew if I started looking in my mirrors he was going to get by me. I just couldn’t make a mistake at all. I just tried to drive as perfect of a race as I could.”
Dyson said he gave Francis a hard run at the end but could not make the pass for the lead.
“We had enough to reign Ernie in, just not enough to get by,” Dyson pointed out.
“It was a helluva battle. I had something for him, but I don’t think I could have gotten him without taking us both out, or, at least, knocking him off the road. We’re not here to do that.”
Both drivers said the late caution period changed the complexion of the race.
“The late caution was not what I wanted to see,” Francis remarked.
“I had a gap and was running a steady pace. I knew Chris was going to be strong coming into that last little stretch. I just had to give it everything I had and try to take it home.”
The caution period gave Dyson a final chance to try to win the race.
“It gave me another bite at the apple,” Dyson said.
“I had screwed up a little bit through Four (Turn 4) and Five (Turn 5) about midway through (the race) and he (Francis) pulled out through some traffic and had gotten out to about seven or eight seconds. It (the gap) was pretty steady, so I was thankful for the yellow just to get another look. We made it exciting. He had to work for it today.”
Amy Ruman finished third in a Chevrolet Corvette to take the final spot on the podium. TA2® Powered by AEM points leader Mike Skeen claimed his fourth TA2 class win of the season while finishing fourth overall in a Chevrolet Camaro. Saturday’s TA2 race winner, Tyler Kicera, finished fifth overall in his Ford Mustang and was the runner-up in the TA2 class.
Simon Gregg finished fourth in the top-tier TA class behind Ruman and finished eighth overall. Richard Grant completed the top five in the TA class and placed 16th overall.
Former NASCAR Cup Series driver Paul Menard drove the Dodge Challenger that Boris Said drove to a second-place finish in Saturday’s race on Sunday. Menard worked his way up to third place with 10 laps to go but was forced to retire the car with four laps remaining in the race after encountering a mechanical issue.
History was made Sunday with the 31-lap, 100-mile Trans Am race as it included drivers in all five Trans Am classes. Fifty-one drivers took the green flag for the all-inclusive race. It was the first time since 2015 that Trans Am has included all of its classes in one race.
Sunday’s Trans Am race, like all of the events included in the Heacock Classic Gold Cup Weekend at VIR, was held without fans.