At the halfway point of tonight’s season finale for the NASCAR Nationwide Series, Sam Hornish Jr. had a narrow lead in the driver’s championship as Austin Dillon – the points leader going into the race – dealt with handling problems that was preventing him from charging to the front.
Hornish, the pole sitter for today’s race, led the opening lap and was able to gain a critical bonus point on Dillon, who started 11th at the green flag. The Penske Racing trio of Hornish, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano (who is competing for the NNS owner’s championship today in the No. 22 car against the No. 54 of Kyle Busch) quickly settled into the top three spots early, while Busch and Kyle Larson followed in pursuit.
Larson and Busch managed to both get by Keselowski around Lap 15, while Dillon was only able to make minimal progress in the opening laps (moving up one spot to 10th by Lap 20) before falling back several positions with a loose No. 3 Chevy.
Meanwhile, Larson continued his rise as he passed Logano for second at Lap 33 before setting his sights on Hornish for the lead a few laps later. And on Lap 39, the future driver of Earnhardt Ganassi Racing’s No. 42 Sprint Cup car proceeded to take that lead away after clearing Hornish off Turn 2.
Larson quickly built a considerable lead, while Hornish promptly slid back to fifth behind Busch, Logano and Matt Kenseth before the first caution came out at Lap 47 for debris. On the subsequent stops, Busch was able to take the lead with Kenseth following in second to set up a Lap 52 restart.
Kenseth leaped ahead of the pack off the restart, but the run was short-lived as the yellow came out again for Corey Lajoie’s spin off of Turn 4. Lajoie, who was running 21st and is making his NNS debut today, then bounced lightly off the inside front-stretch wall before coming to a stop.
Under caution No. 2, Dillon opted to come to the pits at Lap 57 for more chassis adjustments to try and cure his car’s handling issues. The decision cost him track position, however, and he had to line up 23rd when the green came out again at Lap 61.
With Hornish lurking in third, Busch and Kenseth dueled for the lead before the former won out at Lap 63. However, Keselowski made a charge for the lead and was ahead of Busch by another debris caution at Lap 66; farther back, Dillon had peeled off five positions to move into 18th at that point.
The race resumed at Lap 70, and Keselowski pulled away as Busch, Logano, Hornish, Larson and Kenseth had it out amongst themselves behind him. When everything shook out after a few laps, it was Logano that had emerged with the runner-up position, and on Lap 83, he shot past Keselowski down the backstretch for P1.
Logano was ahead by about two seconds over Keselowski when yet another debris caution came out shortly before Lap 100 of 200. However, he was able to keep the lead after pit stops, with Busch, Kenseth, Larson and Hornish behind him. Dillon took the Lap 102 restart in 12th position.
The two-day Chris Griffis Memorial Mazda Road to Indy Test concluded on Sunday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.
Combined times after the two days of running are below, with Nico Jamin (Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires) and Oliver Askew (Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires) remaining on top from Saturday to Sunday, and Darren Keane (Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda) supplanting Andres Gutierrez at the head of that field.
Previous notebooks are linked here (Friday, Saturday), with additional Sunday notes to follow.
Several drivers pulled double duty between series, namely Parker Thompson (Exclusive Autosport in Pro Mazda and USF2000), Carlos Cunha (Juncos Racing in Indy Lights and Pro Mazda) and Aaron Telitz (Team Pelfrey in Pro Mazda, RJB Motorsports in USF2000). Telitz (above) added a run in Pro Mazda in Team Pelfrey’s No. 82 car; the Wisconsinite has done a lot of the series’ testing for the new Pro Mazda Tatuus PM-18, and had hoped to run all three series. We’ll have more meanwhile on Thompson and Exclusive’s double in the days to come; the Michael Duncalfe-led team out of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan was one of three new Pro Mazda teams adding those cars to USF2000 efforts (Pabst Racing, BN Racing) this week.
There were a handful of drivers that changed cars or teams for Sunday’s second day of the test, primarily in USF2000. While Keane ran both days at Newman Wachs, the Brian Halahan-managed team ran David Osborne and Oscar DeLuzuriaga in the Nos. 37 and 38 cars, taking over from Jake Craig and Max Peichel. Osborne switched from Team Pelfrey, where he ran Saturday, and where Jacob Loomis ran Sunday. Justin Gordon ran a second Exclusive Autosport chassis, switching to the No. 90 on Sunday after running the No. 92 Saturday.
The PM-18 best lap set by Askew is more than three seconds faster than the series’ official track record (Pato O’Ward in 2016, at 1:22.8800, 105.941 mph). Askew’s best time of 1:19.8142 averages 110.010 mph around the 2.439-mile circuit. Neither the Indy Lights nor USF2000 cars eclipsed the existing lap records in those categories.
Drivers largely extolled the PM-18’s outright pace and potential with the horsepower upgrade, in what is a significant step forward for the series. “Following prototype testing of the new PM-18, I believed that we had a special race car and this weekend’s testing confirms that,” said Dan Andersen, Owner and CEO of Andersen Promotions. “Based on team and driver comments, this is a fantastic race car and I am very pleased with what Tatuus, Elite Engines and my team have assembled. It fits perfectly in between the USF-17 and the IL-15 in terms of lap times and, more importantly, it takes what a driver learns in the first step and introduces higher HP, higher grip and higher aero. This will be a great training car for years to come, and seeing our program now with three excellent and well-designed cars is very satisfying to me.”
Keane, one of the few veterans (relatively speaking) within USF2000 was plugged in this weekend as the only driver outside Pabst Racing to threaten the top of the timesheets. “It’s a good boost in confidence for me heading into next year. I am really happy with how everything is going with the team. They are a great group of guys and it’s just really good to see us improving and being where we want to be,” he said.
Rinus Veekay hailed the Indy Lights Dallara IL-15 Mazda this weekend in his first test there, although the talented Dutch teenager may well focus on Pro Mazda next season and shoot to win that championship, and continue his battle with Askew established in USF2000. “The car is very nice, quick,” noted VeeKay. “You can really feel the downforce and it was a pleasure to drive.”
The MRTI is done with official running for the year, but the $200,000 MRTI Scholarship Shootout remains in December at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park, the former Firebird Raceway, outside Phoenix. The winner of that will get a ticket into USF2000 for the 2018 season.
Full MRTI spring training will take place at Homestead-Miami Speedway in February 2018, with undoubtedly a bevy of driver and team announcements to come over the following months.