Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Title drama builds as Veach takes Indy Lights win at Watkins Glen

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WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. – Zach Veach went from fifth to first on the opening lap of the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires race at Watkins Glen International and never looked back en route to his second win of the season on the top rung of the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires ladder.

Meanwhile, behind him, the title chase took a big shakeup going into next week’s season finale at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, with Santiago Urrutia going off course, then puncturing his left front tire, pitting and falling to last place in the 12-car field.

Coupled with Ed Jones (Carlin) finishing second behind Veach (Belardi Auto Racing), and suddenly Urrutia’s points lead that began the day at 17 points is down to one point leaving the day.

Veach’s run from fifth to first on the opening lap was miraculous, and he was by polesitter Urrutia at the Inner Loop (Bus Stop) after picking off three cars by the exit of Turn 1.

Urrutia’s weekend came unglued by way of not having done any long runs in practice. He hadn’t run very many long stints in practice or qualifying – he’d only done a total of 12 practice laps before qualifying in the two official sessions – and his tires went off as the race went on.

He had held off a train of Jones, Andre Negrao and Kyle Kaiser before it all went away on Lap 15. Jones made it past, then Negrao, and then Kaiser within a two-lap period.

While Urrutia was fifth and at least still moderately in play, when he went off on Lap 19 that was the end of his race chances. He needed to pit, and it dropped him to the rear of the field.

Two other title contenders also needed to pit owing to damage, in Felix Serralles and Dean Stoneman. Stoneman made something out of his race by setting fastest race lap but only ended 10th, while Serralles recovered to seventh.

Veach came through to win with a margin of victory of 3.6268 seconds over Jones, who scored his first road course podium since winning the first of two races on the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis weekend back in May.

Negrao, meanwhile, banked his fourth straight podium finish overall. Kaiser was fourth and Neil Alberico a season-best fifth for Carlin.

The result today leaves Urrutia just one point ahead of Jones (319-318), with Stoneman (296), Veach (288), Serralles (281) and Kaiser (279) all with a mathematical possibility and within 40 points going to the final two race weekend doubleheader at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca next weekend.

Said Veach, post-race: “I saw an opportunity and I had to take it. I noticed that the inside lane was moving faster at the start so I knew I would be in a good position. When I found myself beside Negrao going into Turn One, I thought I had a chance. I had to get off the corner well and get into Santi’s draft and I did just that.

“We knew how fast Santi was and I wasn’t sure I had the car to match him, so my goal was to get around him and lead as many laps as I could. My pace stayed the same and I saw him dropping off and then disappear, so I had to work on keeping the gap and just keep going.

“It’s so emotional. This is one of my happiest wins. In all my previous wins, we’ve been fast all weekend and here, we had clutch problems in qualifying, then had a starter problem just before the race and we had to come from fifth to win. I pushed hard to build up a gap and I managed my Cooper tires to the end.”

Davison, Daly, Kaiser, highlight underdogs of Indy 500 qualifying

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James Davison and Kyle Kaiser had uphill battles ahead of qualifying for the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500.

Davison, in a one-off joint effort involving A.J. Foyt Racing, Jonathan Byrd’s Racing, and Belardi Auto Racing, appeared to have enough speed to make the “500” field, but a crash on “Fast Friday” put all those hopes in big jeopardy as the team needed to scramble to repair the No. 33 Jonathan Byrd’s Chevrolet in time for qualifying.

However, thanks to a herculean effort that saw the team stay at the track until the early hours of Saturday morning, the car was repaired in time for qualifying, and the team survived a chaotic final hour that saw Conor Daly, James Hinchcliffe, and Pippa Mann all vying alongside them for the final two spots in the field.

In the end, Davison survived the bumping to make the 33-car field, taking the 33rd and final spot in Saturday, and saw a dramatic increase in speed on Sunday to average 226.255 mph, putting him a very solid 19th on the grid.

An emotional James Davison walks back into Gasoline Alley after making the Indianapolis 500 field on Saturday. Photo: IndyCar

“It’s been an incredible weekend for the team after our mishap on Friday,” Davison revealed after Sunday’s qualifying.

He continued, “We had to endure a very long night, obviously it’s always depressing when you have a crashed car around here. We punched above our weight on bump day, and got ourselves in, but didn’t show our hand. We really laid it down on pole day to move from 33rd to 19th. It’s basically two days in a row the team has been rewarded for their hard work, making the show and moving up 14 positions on the grid. Unexpected results are always really nice in motorsports and we got that today with our improvement, substantially. Just very proud of the entire team and want to keep the momentum going next week.”

Conor Daly, too, had a stressful Saturday, as his No. 17 United States Air Force Honda – a joint effort with Dale Coyne Racing and Thom Burns Racing – lacked speed most of the week.

“Fast Friday” yielded some promise, as his quickest no-tow speed was 226.752 mph, good enough for 26th on the no-tow chart that day.

Saturday, however, proved a struggle. Unable to find the speed on his first two runs – he was bumped out of the field after his second attempt – he needed a third and final effort to make the field.

A four-lap average of 224.874 mph didn’t leave him much wiggle room, but it was just enough to get Daly into the field, as he took 32nd on the board. He’ll start 33rd after averaging 224.429 mph on Sunday.

Conor Daly survived a stressful qualifying weekend to make the Indy 500 field. Photo: IndyCar

“No dramas (on Sunday), but we’re fighting for miles an hour. All I can do is put my foot down and do the best we can for our incredible partners at the U.S. Air Force. It’s incredible to be here with them and at this point, I’m just thankful to be in the field. I’d like to be a lot quicker, but we’ll see what we can do in practice tomorrow to improve our race car,” Daly detailed after Day 2 of qualifying.

Kyle Kaiser and Juncos Racing faced a similar uphill battle, but theirs was down to experience. Juncos was entering its second “500” after debuting last year, and their debut wasn’t exactly a smooth one.

Spencer Pigot and Sebastian Saavedra only qualified 29th and 31st respectively, though Saavedra was able to finish on the lead lap in 15th. Pigot, meanwhile, fought major handling issues all race long and languished six laps off the lead at race’s end, finishing in 18th.

The 2018 outing didn’t appear much easier, as the team tackled it with rookie driver Kyle Kaiser, with last year’s Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires champ trying to make the “500” in his first attempt.

“Fast Friday” looked to be a bad omen, as they were 33rd on the no-tow speed charts at the end of the day.

But, Saturday qualifying saw a drastic turn in fortunes, and to the positive side. Kaiser qualified with a four-lap average of 225.934 moh, good enough for 21st at the day’s end, and putting them well clear of any bumping drama.

His Sunday run of 226.398 mph exceeded expectations even further, and he will start Sunday’s race in 17th.

Kyle Kaiser during Indy 500 qualifying. Photo: IndyCar

“What an amazing day. I am in shock right now that we are going to be starting 17th for the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500,” an elated Kaiser exclaimed after Sunday. “It was a stellar performance by the team. They gave me a super quick car for qualifying. The conditions were very challenging as the wind picked up and it got really hot, but we made it through and put in the best lap in these conditions. I am so proud of the entire Juncos Racing crew and I am thrilled to represent NFP in the race next weekend.”

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