By Steve Wittich
The penultimate USF2000 race of the 2019 season featured everything that makes the Road To Indy Presented by Cooper Tires great. Plenty wheel-to-wheel side-by-side action, a pass for the lead, and Road To Indy family helping each other.
Christian Rasmussen made a pass to collect his third race win in the last six races. Championship contenders Hunter McElrea and Braden Eves went side-by-side for a large portion of the circuit. And, Pabst Racing helped Jay Howard Driver Development get Rasmussen’s car on the grid.
In the morning qualifying session, Rasmussen had a gearbox fail spectacularly, damaging the 2.0L power plant in the process. The Jay Howard Driver Development crew with help and a loaned gearbox from Pabst Racing was able to get the No. 6 ready to go in time for Saturday’s afternoon race.
“I’m always flat out, no matter what,” said the Dane, who thanked Pabst Racing for the help on the podium. “I’m always going for the win, always pushing. The second half of the season has been really good for us, and if I keep showcasing my talent, I hope I can get a career out of this. But I’m so happy to be racing here. I’ve been playing this track on video games since I was a kid. To drive the Corkscrew and feel the car get lighter, the compression at the bottom, it’s amazing.”
McElrea, who fell to third on the start was able to get past Eves daringly, finishing two spots ahead of his championship rival and growing his championship lead to 12 points.
The Pabst Racing Kiwi will start at the tail of the 18-car field for today’s finale after a non-team related issue meant he couldn’t set any laps in the morning qualifying. His rival for the advancement scholarship Eves will start on the inside of the third row.
“Today was super unfortunate (in qualifying), but that’s the way it goes sometimes,” said McElrea after standing on the podium for the 12th time this season. “I am so proud of the Pabst team, to get me back out on track for the race. They worked their tails off, from this morning until literally right before the race. It’s not a win, but with the scenario, we’re in now, it’s the best second I’ve ever gotten. I have new tires tomorrow but it will be a different type of race, going through the field, but it will be about coming through the field.”
For the fifth time this season, Pabst Racing veteran finished on the podium. The 20-year-old starts on the pole for Sunday’s championship decider and is looking for his first win and third place in the championship.
A win would help his teammate by keeping essential points away from Eves. It would also guarantee Kaminsky finishes the championship in third place. He leads that battle by four points over Rasmussen and five points over Darren Keane.
Eves was the first driver to arrive at Turn 2 and was the first to exit. Behind him, Rasmussen was able to get around McElrea for third after the Soul Red No. 22 dropped his right-side tires at the exit of the hairpin.
The running order at the end of the first lap was: Eves, Rasmussen, McElrea, Kaminsky, Jak Crawford, Eduardo Barrichello, Wyatt Brichacek, Sulaiman, Keane, Holden, Sundaramoorthy, Gold, Duppell, Bogle, Tomaselli, Siegel, Miller and Ori.
Leader Eves immediately came under pressure from Rasmussen who was able to make a textbook pass, out braking Eves while on the inside line in the Andretti Hairpin.
“Pretty intense,” is how Rasmussen described the first few laps to TSO Ladder. “I managed to get by Hunter (McElrea) on the first lap. I set up Braden (Eves) coming out of (Turn) 11 going into (Turn) 2. I managed to get by with a clean pass. I knew that he was not going to fight me hard because he’s fighting for a championship. I had to do it. I want to win just as much as these guys even though I’m not fighting for a championship.”
McElrea immediately began putting pressure on Eves and at the end of the fourth lap, made a move to outside of his chief championship rival on the outside of the final turn. The pair went side-by-side up the front straight and through Turn 2 before McElrea was able to complete the pass with the preferred inside line in Turn 3.
“I have raced him (Eves) wheel-to-wheel a lot this year, and he’s usually pretty clean,” said the 19-year-old. “Obviously, there is a lot on the line. Our careers are on the line. It was pretty intense. I tried to go around him on the start and to be fair; I would have done that as well.
“I got alongside him at the last corner and drove alongside of him the whole way down the straight; then I outbroke him at Turn 2. I was along side of him for that turn. I got the move done.”
McElrea’s teammate Kaminsky was watching that battle closely and was able to take advantage, setting up Eves in Turn 4 before getting past him in Turn 5.
After the race, McElrea told TSO Ladder that Kaminsky is the best teammate he’s ever had, and Kaminsky said to us that getting past Eves to help his friend and teammate was “huge.”
By Lap 7, Rasmussen’s lead had grown to 3.5 seconds, but McElrea had just turned his quickest lap of the race. Over the next few laps, the points leader was able to shrink the lead to just under three seconds. The gap remained steady for the next five laps, but Rasmussen was able to pull a more significant gap over the final five laps winning by a significant 4.5 seconds.
Eves was not able to get close to Kaminsky, finishing over four seconds behind the last spot on the podium. The Cape Motorsports driver did have cover from behind with 14-year-old teammate following him for the final 16 laps of the race.
The top ten at the half-way point of the 20 lap race was Rasmussen, McElrea, Kaminsky, Eves, Crawford, Barrichello, Keane, Brichacek, Sulaiman and Gold.
Barichello spent the second half of the race defending the sixth spot, while also catching Eves and Crawford. Late in the race, Eves could be happy that he had the cover from Crawford as the three drivers behind him were separated by only 2.1 seconds.
Further down the order, Wyatt Brichacek had an impressive Road To Indy debut finishing in eighth place while piloting the JHDD, CSU | One Cure/Lucas Oil sponsored No. 5 for Jay Howard Driver Development.