By Steve Wittich
Rinus van Kalmthout (VeeKay) won the day and the first Indy Lights race of the weekend. But, it was Oliver Askew that won the season and the 2019 Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires Championship and the three-race NTT IndyCar Series scholarship that goes with it.
VeeKay’s dominant 9.9 second green to checkered flag victory is his fifth victory of the year and the 15th in his Road To Indy career. That means the two long-time rivals are tied with 15 wins each.
The win was the fourth in the last five Indy Lights races at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca for Juncos Racing, moving them out of a tie with Tasman Motorsports and PacWest racing as the winningest Indy Lights teams at the iconic road course.
For the fourth time this season, Toby Sowery finished on the second step of the podium. His points he gathered for his sixth podium of the year, moved the HMD Motorsports/Team Pelfrey rookie past Ryan Norman into third in the championship. That means three different teams represent the top three in the championship.
Sowery leads Norman by three points and Megennis by nine points in the entertaining battle for third place in the championship.
Robert Megennis was able to get past his championship-winning teammate on the opening lap and was able to hold Askew off for the next 29 laps.
“It feels good to be back on the podium,” explained the New Yorker to TSO Ladder. “It feels like we are getting back in the swing of things. This is the best I’ve driven since Road America. It’s nice to finish off the season on a strong note and let’s go get another one tomorrow.”
Askew’s fourth-place finish was enough to clinch the Indy Lights championship and three-race NTT IndyCar Series scholarship that goes with it. Unfortunately, it brought an eight-race podium streak to an end.
We’ll have more on Askew’s impressive championship run over the next couple of days.
The first Road To Indy race of the weekend, the 30-lap Cooper Tires Indy Lights Grand Prix Presented by Allied Building Products, began immediately after an exciting NTT IndyCar Series qualifying session. The ambient temperature was 79F, and the track temperature was 114F.
VeeKay was the first driver to get to the Andretti Hairpin, getting through the 190-degree corner before the rest of the field. Behind him, Megennis got a great start, getting past his teammate Askew and looking to the outside of Sowery in Turn 2. Sowery got a better drive off the corner and held the spot.
Belardi Auto Racing rookie Lucas Kohl had a moment on the run up the Rahal Straight, dropping the seventh place that he had gained at the start.
The running order at the end of the first lap was: VeeKay, Sowery, Megennis, Askew, Kellett, Malukas, Norman and Kohl.
On the second lap, Kellett dropped his left side Cooper Tires off track at the exit Turn 4, dropping the fifth spot to Malukas.
VeeKay was the only driver to start the 30-lap race on sticker tires, and he put them to good use. He was able to build a push-to-pass safe gap of just under two seconds after the first three circuits of 30 lap race.
“It would be pretty evident that is was,” explained Sowery to TSO Ladder. “We kind knew it would be because it is a high deg(radation) track for the tires, but we didn’t realize how much it would be. We were pushing at the start with push-to-pass, but it was just shooting in the dark.”
On Lap 5, Malukas started to put pressure on Askew for fourth place but wasn’t able to get around the Index Invest sponsored No. 28.
VeeKay continued to push his Soul Red No. 23, turning the quickest lap of the race to that point and building his lead to 3.6 seconds over Sowery.
On Lap 8, it became evident that VeeKay was not taking it easy, bouncing wildly over the pyramid curb at guarding the inside of Turn 8 and sliding sideways into the second half of The Corkscrew.
The running order after one-third of the race was complete was VeeKay, Sowery, Megennis, Askew, Malukas, Kellett, Norman and Kohl.
The drivers settled in to take care of their Cooper Tires, and at the halfway point of the race, VeeKay’s lead over Sowery was 5.61 seconds. Sowery had a substantial 6.3 second lead over Megennis, who was less than a second ahead of his teammate Askew.
Askew continued to pressure Megennis for the next five laps, and with ten laps remaining he was 0.75 second adrift.
VeeKay’s lead upfront with one-third of the race remaining was an extremely comfortable 8.1 seconds.
With five laps remaining, Askew took a look to the inside of Megennis in Turn 2, but Megennis defended effectively. Not long after that, Askew was out of the extra 50 horsepower push-to-pass activations.
VeeKay took the white flag 9.3 seconds ahead of Sowery, but behind the front pair, the battle for third, fourth, and fifth was covered by less than two seconds. The drivers were nose-to-tail as they reached the iconic Corkscrew, but they held station, crossing the line within 1.1 seconds of each other.