Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Martin emerges from latest Cape teammate scrap for USF2000 title

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The form book followed the preseason script in Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda almost to a T.

The two top returning drivers in the series, Anthony Martin and Parker Thompson, switched from their respective single-car teams to the proverbial powerhouse of the championship, Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing, and promptly set the stage for a title bout.

And it’s not the first time this has happened in recent years. The two more prominent title battles in recent years occurred with Matthew Brabham and Spencer Pigot in 2012 and Scott Hargrove and Neil Alberico in 2013; lesser teammate title tilts were Florian Latorre and Jake Eidson in 2014 (with RC Enerson proving the interloper) and Nico Jamin and Aaron Telitz last year.

The Martin-Thompson bout felt most akin to the Brabham-Pigot one, though. You felt for both of them at various points throughout the year and you really never wanted either of them to lose the crown, because both had worked so hard to deserve it.

Ultimately Martin ended ahead on a more significant seven-to-four win advantage over Thompson, and also had one fewer direct pitfall that hurt his points hopes. Two finishes of 15th or worse were enough to doom Thompson despite an otherwise sincerely consistent season.

For Martin, who follows the lineage of other Australians who are trying to make it in America – Will Power and Ryan Briscoe come to mind as two of the most successful, along with New Zealander Scott Dixon – the title may have been the make-or-break moment of his career going forward.

Thompson, Martin, Franzoni. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
Thompson, Martin, Franzoni. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

The 21-year-old from Kalgoorlie never got too high or too low throughout the year. Bounce backs from two incidents in Toronto to a runner-up in the second race there and a crucial three-race weekend sweep at Mid-Ohio were among the deciding factors in the title win.

Earlier, though, Martin had taken as much a psychological win at Lucas Oil Raceway outside Indianapolis when he used a slower car as a pick on Thompson, denying him a near certain victory. It propelled Martin forward to two more wins at Road America to cap off a four wins-in-five race stretch, to counter Thompson’s prior run of three wins in four races earlier in the season.

“Yeah mate, it’s been a big roller coaster ride essentially,” Martin told NBC Sports. “Parker and I swapped points numerous times. The big thing for me was putting my head down and moving on to the next thing.

“I made the pass at Lucas Oil to take the win there, and that started a chain of events. Grabbed a couple wins at Road America, Toronto, then Mid-Ohio – the big turning point – I grabbed some important points there. The past was the past and you couldn’t change it; you just had to move forward.”

Martin had shifted from John Cummiskey Racing, where he overachieved as a rookie on a single-car team renowned for excellent car preparation. With the Capes, he took the next step.

“For sure, yeah the team developed me as a driver,” Martin reflected. “They got me better the technical aspects, and I suppose they’ve toughened me up!

“Dom and Nicholas really push you. But at low moments they pick you up. Move forward and attack it. For as well as the technical aspect, they’ve helped me grow. We’ve had an awesome car all year. When I go out, I have a good car underneath me. They’ve helped me grow.”

Martin was not present at the weekend’s Chris Griffis Memorial Mazda Road to Indy test, thus missing his first shot to test a Pro Mazda car, but he’ll be in line for a step up there next year.

In the interim, he’ll be back home in Australia, carrying the torch and flying the flag as potentially that country’s next big open-wheel star. He raced with Jordan Lloyd and Luke Gabin here, with all three having had their moments in USF2000 in 2016.

An IndyCar iRacing Challenge at Talladega? Drivers have discussed it

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If Dale Earnhardt Jr. is interested in an IndyCar iRacing event on an oval, he might like the latest idea being kicked around by NTT Series drivers.

“I personally would want to run at Talladega, but I don’t think that’s an option,” Arrow McLaren SP driver rookie Oliver Askew told NBCSports.com in a Friday interview about his simulation work for the second round of the IndyCar iRacing Challenge. “IndyCar drivers have a group chat with iRacing, and someone had the idea of running at Talladega, and I thought it was brilliant.”

It actually would be a throwback of sorts as a USAC-sanctioned race with Indy cars at Talladega nearly happened 40 years ago.

The IndyCar iRacing Challenge will be running its second consecutive road course Saturday at Barber Motorsports Park (2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN or streaming here).

Of the four remaining races in the six-race series, there’s a chance that three of them could be ovals: A Drivers’ Choice track April 11; a “Random Draw” April 18 and a non-IndyCar “Dream” track May 2 (the April 25 race will be at Circuit of the Americas).

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IndyCar drivers are voting on next week’s track, and the options include high-speed ovals such as Texas Motor Speedway and Michigan Speedway.

A multicar crash at Talladega last October. (Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Talladega apparently isn’t on the list for next week, but surely it could be considered for a future race if it meant having Earnhardt in the field. The 15-time NASCAR Most Popular Driver is a six-time winner at Talladega, and the NASCAR on NBC analyst’s family is synonymous with the 2.66-mile oval where his late seven-time champion father won a record 10 times.

“I hope he can make that happen,” Askew said of racing against Earnhardt. “I hope IndyCar can grant his wish on that.”

The addition of Earnhardt would fit well with an IndyCar iRacing Challenge that already features champions from NASCAR (Jimmie Johnson) and Supercars (Scott McLaughlin).

Will Power would like to see more of that.

“I think that would be great if we can get big-name drivers from other series,” Power said. “Getting a couple guys from Europe would be cool.”