Game on in this year’s Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship. Two race weekends ago, Hunter McElrea trailed early season pacesetter Braden Eves by a seemingly daunting 41 points in the quest for a scholarship valued at over to $300,000 to move up to the Indy Pro 2000 Championship Presented by Cooper Tires, the next rung on the Road to Indy, in 2020.
But following a second-place finish yesterday and a hard-earned victory this morning for Pabst Racing, New Zealander McElrea now trails Eves, whose Cape Motorsports team endured an unusual struggle this weekend, by just nine points heading into the final four races of the season.
“It was a bit of redemption today,” commented McElrea. “We really dominated this weekend, quickest in practice and double pole, but I had a bad first lap yesterday and Christian drove amazing. But today was our day. It wasn’t easy – it’s never easy – but that was as close to a perfect race as I’ve come.
“I knew Christian would be quick early on because he had new tires, so I had to have a clean start and just keep hitting my marks. Once we had a good gap, it was just about maintaining that. I pushed a bit toward the end to get fast lap, because every point is important, but then we backed it off to bring it home. Pabst Racing deserves this, they’ve put a lot of belief in me and given me an amazing opportunity, as has Mazda Motorsports, so I’m so happy.
“It was an amazing weekend and we have momentum now. My focus is just to keep doing this, worrying about my own performance and getting as many points as I can. If I keep working hard, I’ll keep getting up here.”
Yesterday’s winner, Christian Rasmussen, also 19, from Copenhagen, Denmark, maintained his excellent run of form by finishing second for Jay Howard Driver Development, while Colin Kaminsky (Pabst Racing), from Homer Glen, Ill., rounded out the podium in third.
McElrea, who was born in Los Angeles, Calif., and lived much of his life on the Gold Coast of Queensland, Australia, started from the pole for the second day in a row, once again with Rasmussen for company on the front row of the grid. Clearly having learned from his mistake yesterday, when he left a small opening which was gratefully accepted by his rival, McElrea made an exemplary start to this morning’s 20-lap race and maintained his advantage on the opening lap.
The pair exchanged fastest laps a few times in the early stages, but even though the gap between them never stretched to more than 1.2 seconds, McElrea remained in control before finally taking the checkered flag for his second win of the season – and Augie Pabst’s second PFC Award as the winning car owner – by just 0.5652 of a second over fellow rookie Rasmussen.
Kaminsky chased gamely after the leading pair but was unable to offer a serious challenge. Instead, he came under increasing pressure from Zach Holden (Legacy Autosport), from Greenfield, Ind., who came up only a half-second shy of the podium.
Another tremendous start by Englishman Matt Round-Garrido saw his BN Racing Tatuus USF-17 vault from 10th on the grid to sixth on the opening lap. Unfortunately, this time he was unable to maintain that pace and had slipped back outside the top 10 by the end.
Jak Crawford, 14, from Houston, Texas, emerged in fifth place, marking a strong debut for the Cape Motorsports team by once again emerging as the Florida-based team’s best finisher…but only just as Darren Keane, from Boca Raton, Fla., posted the drive of the race and comfortably earned the Tilton Hard Charger Award after charging from 17th on the grid to sixth.
Series leader Eves, from New Albany, Ohio, ended his disappointing weekend with a lackluster seventh-place finish. Eves, who had won the opening four races of the season, will be looking to bounce back when the series resumes at Oregon’s Portland International Raceway, the site of his series debut one year ago, on the weekend of August 31/September 1.
Provisional championship points after 11 of 15 races:
- Braden Eves, 260
- Hunter McElrea, 251
- Darren Keane, 207
- Colin Kaminsky, 199
- Christian Rasmussen, 198
- Manuel Sulaiman, 161
- Cameron Shields, 137
- Bruna Tomaselli, 131
- Jak Crawford, 130
- Reece Gold, 125