Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

MRTI: Friday St. Petersburg notebook

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Friday saw all three series of the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires hit the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida for practice and qualifying ahead of Race 1 on a double-header weekend for all three series as they kick off their 2018 seasons.

Some familiar faces rose to the occasion in qualifying for Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires and the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires, while a new face ended up taking pole in the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda.

Below are reports on happenings from all three series.

Indy Lights: Aaron Telitz Edges Pato O’Ward for Race 1 Pole

Belardi Auto Racing’s Aaron Telitz, who scored a victory in Race 1 at St. Petersburg last year, put himself in prime position to do the same in 2018, scoring pole for Race 1 with a lap of 1:05.128, about one-and-a-half tenths quicker than Andretti Autosport’s Pato O’Ward, who qualified second.

Colton Herta, who won Race 2 on the streets of St. Petersburg last year, qualified in third for Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing, while Santiago Urrutia, Telitz’s teammate at Belardi, qualified fourth. Juncos Racing’s Victor Franzoni, last year’s Pro Mazda champion, qualified fifth in his Indy Lights debut.

Results are below. Race 1 for Indy Lights rolls off at 1:05 p.m. ET on Saturday.

Pro Mazda: Askew Survives Frantic Final Minutes to Grab Race 1 Pole

Oliver Askew will lead the Pro Mazda field to green in Race 1. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

The final minutes of Pro Mazda qualifying were about as frantic as they get, with a number of drivers taking the top spot, only to be overtaken by the next car on the track, and then again by the next car on the car, and so on.

All told, at least five different teams had drivers at or near the top of the time charts as qualifying drew to a close. In the end, it was Oliver Askew and Cape Motorsports, last year’s USF2000 champions, surviving the last-minute chaos to take pole for Race 1 with a lap of 1:08.103, almost two tenths of a second ahead of the second-place run from Exclusive Autosport’s Parker Thompson.

RP Motorsport Racing rookie Harrison Scott impressed on his debut, qualifying a strong third after leading the session at various points, with the Juncos Racing duo of Carlos Cunha and Robert Megennis rounding out the top five.

Qualifying results are below. Pro Mazda Race 1 rolls off at 12:10 p.m. ET on Saturday.

USF2000: Jose Sierra Knocks Off Kyle Kirkwood to Take Surprise Race 1 Pole

Jose Sierra surprised many by qualifying first for Race 1 of the USF2000 weekend. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Cape Motorsports’s Kyle Kirkwood and DEForce Racing’s Jose Sierra found themselves in a duel for the pole at the end qualifying. Sierra actually led the way, but Kirkwood managed to take the top spot from him on his final lap.

Sierra, however, had one more trick up his sleeve and retook the top spot as the session came to end, and the 18-year-old native of Mexico will lead the USF2000 field to the green for Race 1.

Kirkwood managed to qualify in second, followed by Pabst Racing’s Kaylen Frederick in third. Newcomer Igor Fraga was fourth for Exclusive Autosport while Zach Holden, one of Sierra’s teammates at DEForce, qualified fifth.

Results are below. Race 1 for USF2000 rolls off at 10:15 a.m. ET.

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James Hinchcliffe on Andretti: ‘It’s certainly the place I want to be’

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Since before the start of the 2020 NTT IndyCar Series season, James Hinchcliffe tirelessly has worked to ensure the future would include a full-time return in 2021.

And with an opportunity to run the final three races this season with Andretti Autosport, there seems a surefire (albeit unlikely) path.

“If I go out and win all three,” Hinchcliffe joked with IndyCar on NBC announcer Leigh Diffey in an interview Friday (watch the video above), “it would be hard for them to say no, right?”

Regardless of whether he can go unbeaten at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course next weekend or the Oct. 25 season finale at St. Petersburg, Florida (where he earned his first career win in 2013), Hinchcliffe will have the chance to improve his stock with the team that he knows well and now has an opening among its five cars for 2021.

All three of Hinchcliffe’s starts this season — the June 6 season opener at Texas Motor Speedway, July 4 at the IMS road course and the Indianapolis 500 — were with Andretti, where he ran full time in IndyCar from 2012-14.

“Obviously, the plan from January 2020 was already working on ’21 and trying to be in a full-time program,” he said. “I’ve really enjoyed being reunited with Andretti Autosport, and everybody there has been so supportive. It’s been a very fun year for me on track. It’s been kind of a breath of fresh air in a lot of ways.

“It’s certainly the place I want to be moving forward. We’ve been working on that, working on those conversations. Genesys has been an incredible partner in my three races. We’ll be representing Gainbridge primarily, but Genesys will still have a position on our car in the last three.”

Gainbridge is the primary sponsor of the No. 26 Dallara-Honda that was vacated by Zach Veach, who left the team after it was determined he wouldn’t return in 2021. Hinchcliffe can empathize having lost his ride with Arrow McLaren SP after last season with a year left on his deal.

“You never want to earn a ride at the expense of somebody else in the sense that has happened here with Zach,” Hinchcliffe said. “I feel bad that he’s not able to see out the last three races of his season. I’ve got a lot of respect for him off track. He’s been a teammate this year, a colleague for years before that and honestly a friend for years before that. I’ve got a lot of time for him and his family. I understand a little bit of what it’s like in that position and what he’s going through.”

Hinchcliffe is ready to seize the moment, though, starting with the Oct. 2-3 doubleheader race weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He had been hoping to add the Harvest Indy Grand Prix to his schedule and had been working out for the possibility.

“Then last week I had given up hope (and) was resigned that wasn’t happening,” he said. “I told my trainer, ‘I think we’re done for this year.’ Three days later, this call comes. I’m glad we didn’t make that decision too early. I feel great physically.

“I look at it as a great opportunity to continue to show I’ve still got what it takes and should be there hopefully full time next year on the grid.”

Watch Hinchliffe’s video with Leigh Diffey above or by clicking here.