The Trans Am Series presented by Pirelli TA2-class season finale at Daytona International Speedway on Saturday was dramatic from start to finish.
After the dust settled with post-race reviews and technical inspections, Thomas Merrill (No. 99 Mike Cope Race Cars Ford Mustang) had scored his third TA2 powered by AEM victory of the season, while teammate Tony Buffomante (No. 34 Mike Cope Racing Ford Mustang) staged an impressive comeback to finish second ahead of third-placed Dillon Machavern (No. 77 Liqui-Moly / Prefix Ford Mustang).
“The last few laps were pretty busy, pretty aggressive, but fair — fair both ways,” said Merrill of his battle with teenaged polesitter Sam Mayer. “Our car was very good, and I felt his car was very good, so it was a (tight) race for the lead there at the end.
“The Big Diehl Racing / Mike Cope Race Cars crew was unbelievable,” Merrill continued. “They gave me the best car in the field. It was my job to bring it home in first place.”
Sixteen-year-old NASCAR K&N champion Sam Mayer (No. 92 SLR / Fields Racing / M1 Racecars Chevrolet Camaro) started on pole, but it was Merrill who shot to the front of the pack at the start ahead of 2018 TA2 champ Rafa Matos and 2019 TA2 champion-elect Mark Miller. Buffomante quickly slotted in to third as Mayer looked to move up from fourth.
Under braking for Turn 1, Mayer and Buffomante made contact, sending the No. 34 Mustang back down the order to 24th. Mayer was issued a drive-through penalty and fell back to eighth.
Merrill built a seven-second lead before debris on the track forced the first of four caution periods and grouped the field back up. Both Miller and Jacob Mosler (No. 17 SLR / Fields Racing / M1Racecars Chevrolet Camaro) fell victim to the flying wreckage. Miller pitted to change two flat tires and continued; Mosler wasn’t as lucky and his day ended with a pierced transmission.
On the restart, Merrill held off the challenging Matos for the lead. Again building his lead, Merrill’s gap was erased once again after another full course yellow following a mechanical issue that ended Matos’ strong run.
After a pair of back-to-back cautions, Mayer caught Merrill following a late restart and the two swapped the lead several times. Mayer made his final bid entering the NASCAR oval on the 26th lap, but a two-car incident on the front straight brought about a race-ending caution as Merrill closed out his 2019 season on a high note.
Following post-race inspections, Mayer’s entry was found to be out of compliance and was disqualified from the race.
Buffomante’s strong drive through the field following his early incident rewarded him with third, later promoted to second. The run was Buffomante’s Trans Am swan song, as the five-year veteran driver will step away from competition pass the torch to his 11-year-old son who is continuing the family tradition and pursuing a racing career.
“He (Mayer) just drove right through us,” Buffomante explained. “At a track like Daytona, a drive-through penalty is not big enough — especially when you get a caution. Those guys just drive right back up there.
“It was unfortunate for us. We had a good car, but I spent a bunch of time backwards after I spun out. Then I had to work back through the pack. I would have liked the last couple of laps to not be run under the caution; I think we would have made it interesting. We were hoping for another win here, but it was great to end up on the podium. ”
Lawless Alan (No. 52 AutoParkIT Ford Mustang), the 19-year-old TA2 Rookie of the Year, finished fourth after an early pit stop to fix loose wiring while Misha Goikhberg (No. 10 BC Race Cars Chevrolet Camaro) took fifth.
Miller, after hitting debris, ran fifth before retiring late in the race due to a coolant leak.
“This was not the way we wanted to end the season,” said Miller. “Our car was very, very good. We had contact at the beginning of the race that put us back. Then we were able to put on a good showing. I had a good car until I found myself driving in my own antifreeze. I thought it might have been a tire, but then I saw the temperature gauge.
“I got hit a few times, but it was fun.”
The showing at Daytona International Speedway closed out the 53rd Trans Am Series season. The series returns to action Feb. 29-March 1, 2020 at Sebring International Raceway.