The first rung on the Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires open-wheel development ladder provided some of the best entertainment this afternoon at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca and ensured that the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship will remain undecided until tomorrow’s conclusion of the 15-race season.
Denmark’s Christian Rasmussen continued his recent run of success by claiming an emphatic victory for Jay Howard Driver Development, while New Zealander Hunter McElrea (Pabst Racing) finished second and claimed a bonus point for setting the fastest lap of the race.
McElrea’s teammate, Colin Kaminsky, finished third ahead of Cape Motorsports’ Braden Eves who was unable to match the speed he had displayed yesterday when claiming the pole position.
McElrea now leads Eves by 12 points, 342-330, although he will be obliged to start 18th and last for tomorrow’s season finale following a mechanical problem in qualifying this morning; Eves will line up in third.
Pabst Racing’s double podium finish stretched its lead in the Team Championship to 14 points over Cape Motorsports, 384-370.
Eves laid out his stall by utilizing two of his weekend allocation of three sets of Cooper tires during qualifying yesterday afternoon. The ploy enabled him to claim pole position — and a potentially vital championship point — but it became apparent soon after the start of the 20-lap race that Pabst Racing’s tactic of saving a fresh set of tires for the race was the more optimal solution.
After desperately clinging onto his advantage for the opening two laps, Eves fell an easy victim at the Mario Andretti Hairpin to Rasmussen, who had displaced McElrea from second place at the start. Once into the lead, Rasmussen, 19, quickly romped clear to claim his third win of the season and another PFC Award for team owner Jay Howard.
Eves narrowly maintained third place for the next couple of laps until he bowed to the inevitable, and both McElrea and Kaminsky swept past into second and third. McElrea then posted a string of fastest race laps but Rasmussen was already out of reach and the Kiwi had to be content with his 12th podium finish of the season.
Fortunately for Eves, instead of plummeting further down the field, he now had the luxury of being pursued by teammate Jak Crawford, who dutifully maintained position and at the same time prevented Eves from coming under attack from Brazilian second-generation racer Eduardo Barrichello (DEForce Racing).
A third Cape-entered Tatuus USF-17 driven by Darren Keane finished close behind in seventh. Keane also secured the Tilton Hard Charger Award after working his way up from 10th on the grid.
Wyatt Brichacek, from Johnstown, Colo., made an impressive debut for former USF2000 and Indy Lights champion Jay Howard’s team, finishing eighth, as Mexican Manuel Sulaiman (DEForce Racing) and Zach Holden (Legacy Autosport), from Greenfield, Ind., completed the top 10.
“Braden defended, but not enough for me to stay back,” said winner Rasmussen after the race. “It was a good move and I just took off from there. I’m always flat out, no matter what. I’m always going for the win, always pushing.
“The second half of the season has been really good for us, and if I keep showcasing my talent, I hope I can get a career out of this. But I’m so happy to be racing here. I’ve been playing this track on video games since I was a kid. To drive the Corkscrew and feel the car get lighter, the compression at the bottom, it’s amazing.”
McElrea commented: “I understand Braden racing really hard. If I was in his position, I would be, too. But I knew we were quicker, so I went for it. We had to make a move. Today was super unfortunate (in qualifying), but that’s the way it goes sometimes. I am so proud of the Pabst team, to get me back out on track for the race. They worked their tails off, from this morning until literally right before the race. It’s not a win, but with the scenario we’re in now, it’s the best second I’ve ever gotten. I have new tires tomorrow but it will be a different type of race, going through the field, but it will be about coming through the field.”