MRTI: Freedom 100/Lucas Oil Raceway preview

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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All three series of the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires visit their first ovals of the 2018 season, though they’ll be at different venues to do so.

The Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires heads to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for their annual Freedom 100 (5/25 at 12:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN) while the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda head to Lucas Oil Raceway for the Freedom 90 (Pro Mazda) and Freedom 75 (USF2000).

But, for all three, each event represents the first oval race of the year, a unique challenge after a string of road and street courses.

Ovals proved to catch a couple MRTI drivers out last year, and they’ll all look to capitalize on the first left-turn-only event of the year.

Talking points for all three series are below.

Indy Lights

  • A ridiculously close title fight sees Pato O’Ward, Colton Herta, and Santi Urrutia separated by only six points entering the Freedom 100. All three have won races in 2018, but all three have also had off races as well. The Freedom 100 will be a new challenge for O’Ward, who has never run an Indy Lights race on an oval before, while Herta will look to make up for last year’s Lap 1 crash. Urrutia had a quiet drive to fifth that day, but he’ll look for much better this year.
  • Aaron Telitz had a well-documented tough start to 2018, but he has finishes of fourth, third, and second in the last three races. He finished second in this race last year, and finishing one spot better on the podium could put him back in title contention. Telitz is also pulling double-duty this weekend and will race at Lucas Oil Raceway, piloting an extra entry with USF2000 team Arms Up Motorsports as a teammate to Keith Donegan.
  • Of note: Team Pelfrey returns to the Indy Lights grid with Davey Hamilton Jr. Also, Chris Windom was set for his own Indy Lights debut with Belardi Auto Racing, but a crash in testing did too much damage to the No. 33 Dallara IL-15 he was set to drive, so he won’t be competing this weekend.
  • Dalton Kellett will start the race on the pole. The starting grid is below.

Pro Mazda

  • This marks the oval debut for the Tatuus PM-18. It’s been a hit so far on the road and street courses, shattering previous Pro Mazda track records in the process, and there’s no reason to think it won’t be a success on ovals either.
  • Parker Thompson leads Rinus VeeKay in the championship by 22 points entering the weekend. However, that is far from a comfortable margin, as a weekend that’s even remotely off-song will let VeeKay slash that points lead, or even take it back altogether. Neither driver has ever won on an oval, and both will look for such an accomplishment this weekend.
  • Carlos Cunha has quietly had a nice start to 2018, with three podiums helping to put him third in the championship. He sits 30 points behind Thompson, but Cunha seems to get better every week, and a victory this weekend would put him squarely in the title hunt.
  • Harrison Scott has a pair of wins and a second, but also three finishes of ninth or worse. The Briton has been blindingly fast in recent races, and he has all the potential to make a title run himself. However, he’ll need to conquer ovals along the way, along with leveling out the “feast or famine” results. Nonetheless, he will be a driver to watch on Friday night.
  • Oliver Askew appeared to regain his championship form on the IMS road course, with two poles and finishes of second and fourth on the weekend. He’ll look to build off that at Lucas Oil Raceway.

USF2000

  • Friday night’s outing at Lucas Oil Raceway will see many USF2000 drivers compete in their first ever oval races. Alex Baron has the most oval experience, given his prior Indy Lights experience. But, nearly the entire rest of the field, including championship leader Kyle Kirkwood, will contest an oval race for the first time. As such, Friday night’s event will be all about adapting to the brand new challenge.
  • Kirkwood and Baron have distanced themselves from the rest of the USF2000 field – Kirkwood leads with 106 points, with Baron second on 93 points, and they’re the only drivers to win so far in the 2018 USF2000 season. Jose Sierra is third, but another 29 points back of Baron.
  • However, the gap between third and sixth (Sierra, Igor Fraga, Julian Van Der Watt, and Darren Keane) is a narrow 13 points. And the likes of Calvin Ming, Kory Enders, and Lucas Kohl are also within striking distance, so the battle to fill out the podium could be quite intense. And if Kirkwood and Baron should falter, any one of those drivers could find themselves in Victory Lane.

The Freedom 100 rolls off at 12:30 p.m. on Friday on NBCSN. USF2000 kicks things off at Lucas Oil Raceway at 6:05 p.m. ET that night, followed by Pro Mazda at 7:05 p.m. ET.

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Jack Miller wins the MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix as Fabio Quartararo stops his downward points’ slide

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Jack Miller ran away with the MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix at Motegi as Fabio Quartararo stopped his downward slide in the championship when a last-lap accident from his closest rival in the standings caused Francesco Bagnaia to score zero points.

Starting seventh, Miller quickly made his way forward. He was second at the end of two laps. One lap later, he grabbed the lead from Jorge Martin. Once in the lead, Miller posted three consecutive fastest laps and was never seriously challenged. It was Australian native Miller’s first race win of the season and his sixth podium finish.

The proximity to his home turf was not lost.

“I can ride a motorcycle sometimes,” Miller said in NBC Sports’ post-race coverage. “I felt amazing all weekend since I rolled out on the first practice. It feels so awesome to be racing on this side of the world.

“What an amazing day. It’s awesome; we have the home Grand Prix coming up shortly. Wedding coming up in a couple of weeks. I’m over the moon; can’t thank everyone enough.”

Miller beat Brad Binder to the line by 3.4 seconds with third-place Jorge Martin finishing about one second behind.

But the center of the storm was located just inside the top 10 as both Quartararo and Bagnaia started deep in the field.

Quartararo was on the outside of row three in ninth with Bagnaia one row behind in 12th. Neither rider moved up significantly, but the championship continued to be of primary importance as Bagnaia put in a patented late-race charge to settle onto Quartararo’s back tire, which would have allowed the championship leader to gain only a single point.

On the final lap, Bagnaia charged just a little too hard and crashed under heavy braking, throwing away the seven points he would have earned for a ninth-place finish.

The day was even more dramatic for the rider who entered the MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix third in the standings. On the sighting lap, Aleix Espargaro had an alarm sound, so he peeled off into the pits, dropped his primary bike and jumped aboard the backup. Starting from pit lane, he trailed the field and was never able to climb into the points. An undisclosed electronic problem was the culprit.

For Quartararo, gaining eight points on the competition was more than a moral victory. This was a track on which he expected to run moderately, and he did, but the problems for his rivals gives him renewed focus with four rounds remaining.

Next week, the series heads to Thailand and then Miller’s home track of Phillip Island in Australia. They will close out the Pacific Rim portion of the schedule before heading to Spain for the finale in early November.

It would appear team orders are not in play among the Ducati riders. Last week’s winner Enea Bastianini made an aggressive early move on Bagnaia for position before the championship contender wrestled the spot back.

In his second race back following arm surgery, Marc Marquez won the pole. His last pole was more than 1,000 days ago on this same track in 2019, the last time the series competed at Motegi. Marquez slipped to fifth in the middle stages of the race, before regaining a position to finish just off the podium.

In Moto2 competition, Ai Ogura beat Augusto Fernandez to close the gap in that championship to two points. Fernandez holds the scant lead. Alonso Lopez rounded out the podium.

Both American riders, Cameron Beaubier and Joe Roberts finished just outside the top 10 in 11th and 12th respectively.