Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

MRTI: IMS road course Saturday recap

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While the first day of racing at the Royal Purple Synthetic Motor Oil Grand Prix of Indianapolis supporting the Lupus Foundation of America was somewhat routine, Day 2 was the exact opposite, as chaos was the name of the game for the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires.

The Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires saw a thrilling, if not somewhat controversial, duel for the win between a pair of series veterans that culminated in contact between the two, with the race winner completing a weekend sweep.

The Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda both saw the championship leaders entering the weekend survive all the carnage and attrition to take victories.

Reports on the events from all three series are below.

Indy Lights: Herta Outlasts Aggressive Urrutia to Win Race 2 and Complete a Weekend Sweep

Colton Herta at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Andretti Steinbrenner Racing’s Colton Herta and Belardi Auto Racing’s Santi Urrutia staged a duel for the ages in Indy Lights Race 2 on Saturday, and it ended up being Herta who came out on top while Urrutia was left seething in defeat.

Urrutia led most of the race after passing Andretti Autosport’s Pato O’Ward, who started on the pole, on Lap 2, while Herta ran slightly deeper in the field, and actually made contact with Urrutia’s teammate Aaron Teltiz as they battled for third in the opening laps – Herta tried diving inside of Telitz in Turn 1 on Lap 2, but both tried to take the racing line into the corner and ran wide after slight contact.

Still, both continued, with Urrutia leading O’Ward and Herta, while Telitz quickly regrouped to run in fourth for much of the race.

Lap 20 was when things started to get interesting at the front, as Herta got around O’Ward for second and set his sights on Urrutia, while O’Ward eventually limped into the pits in the final laps with a tire that was going down.

Up front, Herta and Urrutia pressed each other very hard, with Urrutia aggressively taking the inside line into Turn 1 and pushing Herta out wide on corner exit whenever he tried a pass.

Their battle hit its peak as they approached the 3-lap-to-go mark, with Herta trying a pass through Turns 8,9, and 10, while Urrutia desperately tried to defend. As they approached Turn 1 with three laps left, Urrutia again dove inside to take the line away, with Herta again trying an outside move.

This time, Herta hung on around the outside to stay wheel to wheel with Urrutia, and when the Belardi driver tried to pinch Herta off track entering Turn 2, they made contact that sent Urrutia into a spin.

Herta’s car suffered no damage and he cruised home to take the win and complete the weekend sweep, while Telitz ended up in second due to the troubles of Urrutia and O’Ward. Juncos Racing’s Victor Franzoni rounded out the podium, while a frustrated Urrutia ended up fourth.

An elated Herta could  barely contain himself in Victory Lane.

“I can’t believe it. I have not swept a weekend on the Mazda Road to Indy, and we needed it to get back into the championship,” he revealed. “To get two wins at Indy is just spectacular – now I want to win the Freedom 100 and sweep the month!”

Andretti’s Ryan Norman and Dalton Kellett finished fifth and sixth, while O’Ward languished in seventh at the checkered flag.

Full results are below. O’Ward remains in the championship lead, but only by one point over Herta. Urrutia is not far behind either, sitting six points out of the lead in third.

Pro Mazda: Thompson Outduels Cunha for Win in Attrition-Filled Race 2

Parker Thompson made a late pass on Carlos Cunhas to take the win in Race 2. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Pro Mazda Race 2 was chaotic from the outset, as Juncos Racing teammates Robert Meggenis and Rinus VeeKay, who started fourth and fifth, got together on the front straightaway as they took the green flag. Both suffered damage, but while Meggenis was able to continue, VeeKay – the points leader entering Race 2 after finishing second in Race 1 – dropped out after his Tatuus PM-18 suffered too much damage.

The VeeKay/Megennis contact resulted in a full-course caution, and a Lap 5 restart saw Juncos driver Carlos Cunha pounce on Cape Motorsports’ Oliver Askew, who led from the pole in the early laps.

Cunha got around Askew on the outside entering Turn 1, with Exclusive Autosport’s Parker Thompson following suit in Turn 7. Askew’s day took a dramatic turn in the next few laps, as he began dropping back somewhat and defended his position aggressively, resulting in a drive-through penalty when he made contact with a another car.

Up front, Cunha held the lead, while RP Motorsport Racing’s Harrison Scott – the Race 1 winner – got around Thompson for second, with the Top 3 all running nose to tail.

Scott’s day, however, came to an abrupt end only a few laps later, when his car slowed on the front straightaway with a mechanical problem. Simultaneously, teammate Lodovico Laurini stopped on track, causing another full-course caution in a disastrous day for the RP Motorsport team.

Cunha continued to lead on the Lap 12 restart, but Thompson was now all over his gearbox, and Thompson was able to slipstream Cunha on the run up to Turn 1 at the beginning of Lap 17 and dove inside entering Turn 1.

Thompson pulled away from there to take the win, with Cunha hanging on for second.

Thompson revealed that the win was an emotional one, with he and team battling back from engine issues at the beginning of the weekend to win a place he loves.

“I was tearing up at the checkered flag and my engineer, Tim Lewis, was just screaming on the radio. It was so awesome to get a win here – it doesn’t get much better than winning at the Racing Capital of the World!” Thompson detailed “It was tough out there today. We made a gamble on a low-downforce setup and it played out. I avoided the melees at the start and kept everything intact. We set fastest lap after fastest lap and that makes weekends like this so special, starting from back in sixth and taking the victory.”

Team Pelfrey’s Sting Ray Robb rounded out the podium following a tense battle with teammate Andres Gutierrez and the aforementioned Askew, who got back into the Top 5 after his penalty. Robb emerged in third, with Askew finishing fourth. Gutierrez completed the Top 5.

FUll race results are below. Thompson now leads VeeKay by 22 points in the Pro Mazda championship, with Cunha in third, 30 points out of the lead.

USF2000: Kirkwood Survives Late Cautions and Restarts to Take the Win

Kyle Kirkwood survived several late cautions to led every lap in Race 2 on the way to victory. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

The facts and figures of USF2000 Race 2 may lead you to believe that Kyle Kirkwood had it somewhat easy, as he led every lap from the pole to score the win.

But, the numbers only tell a small portion of the story. While Kirkwood led from the pole, chaos reigned behind him. Swan-RJB Motorsports’ Alex Baron and BN Racing’s Jamie Caroline made contact on the opening lap, knocking Baron to back of the field.

Later, a hard-fought battle for second ended in tears for Caroline and Pabst Racing Services’ Kaylen Frederick, who made contact in Turn 4. Frederick spun into the gravel trap, but did continue after getting restarted, while Caroline retired due to damage.

Their incident created a full-course caution, putting drivers like Pabst’s Rasmus Lindh and Newman Wachs Racing’s Darren Keane right behind Kirkwood. Baron, meanwhile, had charged all the way back up to seventh, and was in position to challenge for a podium, and maybe even a win.

Racing resumed on Lap 14, with Kirkwood holding the lead from Lindh, while Baron continued his charge and found himself in third on Lap 17 when Newman Wachs’ David Osborne spun off course, resulting in another full-course caution.

Racing resumed on Lap 19, giving the field one green-flag lap before the finish. Baron got around Lindh for second, but was unable to challenge Kirkwood for the win as Pelfrey’s Bruna Tomaselli spun and made contact with another car in Turn 11 while approaching the restart.

That incident created another caution, sealing the win for Kirkwood, with Baron, Lindh, Keane, and James Roe Jr., on his debut with Swan-RJB, rounding out the Top 5.

“To come here and win in the USF2000 series is unbelievable,” Kirkwood said afterward. Oliver (Askew) swept the weekend last year, so I’m disappointed I didn’t do that, but it’s amazing to win here.”

Baron, too, was pleased at race’s end.

“I can’t be totally disappointed with what happened today because only a few days ago, I wasn’t sure I’d even make it here,” he revealed. “The victory yesterday was a great reward for all the hard work to get me here, and the second-place today is a bit bittersweet because I thought it could be better. I had an unfortunate incident at the start, but I took advantage of the two safety car periods to show what I’m made of, and what the team is made of.”

Full race results are below. Kirkwood now leads Baron by 13 points in the championship. DEForce Racing’s Jose Sierra, who suffered mechanical problems right after the race started, sits third, 42 points behind Kirkwood.

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IndyCar: Which drivers need to start or continue comebacks in 2019?

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With the 2018 IndyCar Series season already far back in our rearview mirror, it’s not too soon to start looking ahead to the 2019 campaign, which begins on March 10 at St. Petersburg, Florida.

When you look at how 2018 ended up, several drivers either didn’t have the season they had hoped for and are looking to make big comebacks in 2019, or perhaps began comebacks in 2018 after prior difficult seasons.

Let’s take a look at who is due – or in some cases, overdue – for an even stronger season in 2019:

RYAN HUNTER-REAY: RHR isn’t overdue by any stretch, having started his “comeback” of sorts in 2018. His fourth-place season finish was his best in the series since winning the championship in 2012.

He also earned two wins – Belle Isle II and the season finale at Sonoma – his first visits to victory lane since winning twice in 2015.

Had it not been for three DNFs in the second half of the season, Hunter-Reay likely could have finished in the top 3 at season’s end.

It was good to see him come back into prominence after frustration the last two seasons (12th in 2016 and 9th in 2017).

Hunter-Reay still has several more good years in him and it would not be surprising to see him finish even higher in 2019 – and potentially once again being a championship contender.

SIMON PAGENAUD: After winning the championship in 2016 and finishing second in 2017, Pagenaud definitely had an off-season by his usual standards in 2018, finishing sixth in the IndyCar standings.

The French-born driver failed to win a race for the first time since 2015 and had just two podium finishes (also the most since 2015).

One of the most telling stats from what was a frustrating campaign is Pagenaud and the No. 22 led a total of just 31 laps across the 17-race 2018 season, the fewest laps led in a single season in his entire IndyCar career.

He also had the second-worst average per-race finish of his career (8.6), after having average finishes of 6.1 in his championship season and 5.3 in 2017.

Of course, looking at things from a glass half-full viewpoint, Pagenaud went from a winless and disappointing 11th place finish in 2015 to become champion in 2016. Could history repeat itself in 2019?

By all measures, 2018 was definitely an off season for Pagenaud. Look for him to make a significant comeback in 2019.

Or, to borrow a line Pagenaud said to teammate Josef Newgarden during their early 2018 season “autograph battle,” it’s your move, bro, for 2019.

SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS: The French driver had perhaps the best comeback season of any driver in 2018.

When former CART champ Jimmy Vasser and James “Sulli” Sullivan joined forces with Dale Coyne Racing just prior to the start of the 2018 season, Bourdais was the hand-picked driver to carry the DCR with Vasser-Sullivan banner.

Bourdais did not disappoint. He started the season with a win at St. Petersburg and enjoyed his best overall season finish – seventh – in an Indy car since capturing the fourth of four straight CART/Champ Car World Series championships in 2007.

It was also Bourdais’ best career IndyCar finish, topping his previous best season finishes of 10th in both 2014 and 2015.|

Bourdais, who turns 40 in late February, finished the season strong with two top 5 and two other top 10 finishes in four of the last five races. That’s a good harbinger of even better things to come in 2019.

GRAHAM RAHAL: It was a tough season at times for Rahal, who turns 30 in early January.

Not only did he have his worst season finish – eighth – since 2014 (19th), he failed to win even one race (also for the first time since 2014) and had just one podium finish (2nd at St. Petersburg).

As if to add insult to injury, Rahal had two of his three season DNFs in his final two races (4th lap crash at Portland and a battery issue at Sonoma).

Rahal is overdue for the kind of season he had in 2015, when he won two races, had six podiums and finished a career-best fourth in the overall standings.

While Rahal has the equipment and personnel to do better, something just didn’t click in 2018. Will things turn around in 2019?

MARCO ANDRETTI: The grandson of Mario and son of Michael Andretti continues to be a work in progress – with emphasis on the word “progress” when it came to his 2018 performance.

Although he remains winless since 2011 and hasn’t had a podium finish since 2015, Marco Andretti still showed overall improvement in 2018, including earning his first pole (Belle Isle I) since 2013.

With a fifth-place finish in the season-ending race at Sonoma, Andretti jumped from 12th in the standings to finish the season tied for eighth place with Graham Rahal, Andretti’s best overall showing since finishing fifth in 2013.

Andretti had a strong second half of the 2018 season, with a top 5 in the season finale at Sonoma, as well as three top 11 finishes in five of the last eight races.

Don’t be surprised if he closes in on a top 5 finish in 2019. Andretti Autosport continues to improve overall as a team, particularly with Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay and now Andretti, as well.

JAMES HINCHCLIFFE: It was a strange season for the Mayor of Hinchtown.

He failed to qualify for the Indianapolis 500, had just one win and two podium finishes, yet ended up with a 10th place overall finish in the standings, his best performance since finishing 8th in both 2012 and 2013.

The Canadian driver went on a hot streak early in the second half of the season, winning at Iowa and finishing fourth in his hometown race in Toronto.

But DNFs at Pocono and Portland, as well as three other finishes of 14th (Mid-Ohio) and 15th (Gateway and Sonoma) likely cost him a chance of potentially finishing as high as eighth.

There was also the emotional, gut-wrenching crash involving Schmidt Peterson Motorsports teammate and longtime best friend, Robert Wickens, at Pocono. While Hinchcliffe tried to put on a happy face and showed support to his fallen mate, it wouldn’t be surprising if Wickens’ injury constantly dwelled on Hinchcliffe’s mind.

With the Indianapolis 500 heartbreak, the firing of engineer Lena Gade (who lasted just five races before her ouster), the injury to Wickens, and the overall second-half season struggles, Hinchcliffe is to be commended for finishing as high as he did in the final standings given the overall circumstances he had to endure.

At the same time, it’s likely a season he wants to wipe away from his memory bank and turn a forgettable season in 2018 into what Hinchcliffe and his team hope is an unforgettable season in 2019.

TONY KANAAN: A new team, new outlook and racing for legendary A.J. Foyt offered a great deal of promise for Tony Kanaan in 2018.

Unfortunately, the Brazilian native suffered through the worst season ever in his IndyCar career, finishing 16th in the overall standings.

Prior to 2018, Kanaan had experienced just one other season outside the top 10 (11th in 2013, the same year he won the Indianapolis 500).

Admittedly, TK, who turns 44 on December 31, is the oldest full-time driver on the circuit. But it doesn’t look like he’s lost much with age.

Rather, three DNFs and a career single-season low of having led just 20 laps over 17 races took its toll on Kanaan.

He will return for 2019, driving a second season for Foyt. But things need to dramatically improve for Kanaan, who hasn’t won a race since 2014.

Follow @JerryBonkowski