Panther Wins Firestone Indy Lights Race with Dillon Battistini; Sherman Third
Panther Teammates Take Two of Three Podium Spots in Season Opening Race
HOMESTEAD, Fla. (March 29, 2008) – Just eight days after turning his first laps on an oval circuit, Panther Racing newcomer Dillon Battistini took his No. 15 Dallara all the way to victory lane in the Firestone Indy Lights season-opening Miami 100. Panther’s race was fulfilled when fellow rookie Brent Sherman drove his No. 16 entry from a starting position of 13th into third place on the podium, a run that included passing four cars in the final two laps.
“This is surreal,” Battistini said after he climbed from his car in victory lane. “I can hardly believe that I won my first oval race here, but when you have a great team like Panther it makes my job easy. I had my hands full at the start for a bit, but the car just kept getting better and better. This oval racing is a true challenge, but when the Panther car was as good as it was today, I knew I could have an incredible day.”
For Panther, the victory was their 10th in Indy Lights and second at Homestead. Ironically, the last time the team won the first race of the season, it was at Homestead’s 1.5-mile oval with a little-known British driver raised outside of London. That driver, Mark Taylor, went on to win seven of 11 races en route to the 2003 championship. Now Battistini follows the same script as his countryman in Panther’s car and his expectations have him set on a run at the league championship.
But his biggest challenge might come from teammate Sherman, who likely would have been battling with Battistini for the victory if it had not been for a disappointing qualification effort on Friday night. Sherman, looking to transition from NASCAR into an open-wheel star, was patient as his No. 15 car continued to improve, and saved his best for the final two restarts of the race.
"The car was unbelievable, it just kept getting better,” Sherman said. “I don’t want to say that we were saying our tires, but we thought there would be some cautions that we would be able to gain some track position on, and before I know it, it’s two or three laps to go.”
Sherman took the final restart of the race on Lap 60 in eighth place, and climbed two positions to sixth as he blew past the white flag. Then, as he entered the first turn, he stuck the nose of his car in the marbles, passing another pair of cars, earning him a podium finish in his first career Indy Lights start, and his first open-wheel race in the past eight years.
“I’m just happy to be on the podium,” Sherman admitted. “I mean, I’m sitting back in eighth, thinking about how I’m going to get past all this traffic? But it was the car, it stuck on the last lap as good as it did on the first. I appreciate the opportunity the Panther guys have given me. A podium on my first Firestone Indy Lights start; I’m pretty excited about it.”
Battistini drove hard from the start of the race, and despite falling back as far as sixth, moved back towards the front of the field. Listening to spotter Pancho Carter, who coached the Englishman through the field, Dillon moved back into second when he passed pole sitter Raphael Matos on Lap 43. Two late-race cautions looked as though they could spoil Battistini’s victory chance, but a late eight-lap sprint to the finish was enough, as Panther’s new pilot blew past Richard Antinucci with four laps remaining and pulled away for the win.
“I can’t say enough about my spotter Pancho Carter, he was unbelievable in helping me around the track,” Dillon said. “I could tell by listening to him that he knows how to win an IndyCar race. This is a special day for us and it’s great that Brent ran well too, but we both have a long season ahead and together we hope to win a lot of these Indy Lights races.”
Both Panther drivers will test Monday at Sebring International Raceway before a double-header weekend on the Streets of St. Petersburg.