Californian Phillippe Denes solidified his lead in the TireRack.com Road to Indy iRacing eSeries Presented by Cooper Tires by scoring yet another virtual victory Wednesday evening at the Watkins Glen International road course. Credit also to native New Yorker Andre Castro, who spun out of contention in the opening race, then bounced back magnificently in Race 2, climbing from 16th on the grid to score an unlikely victory for Legacy Autosport.
A succession of incidents during two action-packed 20-minute races led to six different drivers splitting the podium honors. New Zealand’s Hunter McElrea finished second in the first race for Pabst Racing, chased home by Braden Eves (Exclusive Autosport). In the nightcap, Kory Enders (DEForce Racing) had to be content with his second place after a thrilling battle with Castro, while Christian Brooks chased them home in third for Exclusive Autosport.
Denes put all of his iRacing experience to good use in qualifying as the Indy Pro 2000 Championship Presented by Cooper Tires contender clinched yet another SimMetric Driver Performance Labs Pole Award. McElrea lined up second on the grid ahead of Castro, with the other chief title protagonist, Eves, rounding out the second row of the grid.
The long back straightaway at Watkins Glen affords a tremendous drafting opportunity and virtually assures that the race leader is unable to shake off his pursuers. So it proved this evening. But the fastest part of the 3.37-mile track also leads into one of the trickiest sections – the notorious Inner Loop “bus stop” chicane, which is always a magnet for trouble. Again, so it proved this evening.
Denes narrowly held onto his lead for the first couple of laps before, predictably, the drama reached its crescendo at the Inner Loop. Three cars entered the corner virtually abreast, with Eves somehow emerging in the lead – from fourth place – Denes falling to fifth and Castro spinning all the way to the back of the pack.
McElrea took his turn in the lead next time around, with Eves, Denes, Brooks and Jacob Loomis (BNRacing), from Corinth, Texas, all jockeying for position. An error by Eves at the Inner Loop on Lap 6 cost him a few places, while Brooks also fell out of contention when he spun at the same place a couple of laps later.
The final stages saw Denes and McElrea fighting for top honors, with Denes eventually prevailing by just 0.366s.
An even closer battle for third place saw Eves squeak ahead of Loomis on the final lap, with Prescott Campbell (Exclusive Autosport) surviving as best of the rest in fifth.
Indy Lights racer Danial Frost (Andretti Autosport) followed in a distant sixth ahead of Max Kaeser (Miller Vinatieri Motorsports) and a steady Nate Aranda (Juncos Racing), who earned his best finish so far in eighth. Peter Dempsey (Turn 3 Motorsport) ran ninth until the final lap when he lifted off to allow Enders past, thereby ensuring himself a 10th-place finish and the coveted pole position for Race 2.
Another fraught encounter saw Dempsey and Eves exit the fray when neither of them was prepared to give an inch to each other as they fought for the lead of Race 2 entering the Inner Loop for the third time. Both were out on the spot.
Enders gratefully took over the lead but it wasn’t long before Denes, who had started 10th, began to fill his mirrors. Castro, too, had taken advantage of a series of incidents to charge through the pack into third.
The decisive moment in the race came after six laps when Denes was assessed a drive-through penalty for his part in an incident a little earlier which caused the unfortunate Kaeser to spin out of the race.
Enders continued in the lead, but Castro soon had him in his sights. The pair then staged a thrilling – and clean – battle in the waning stages. They exchanged positions several times before Castro timed his run to perfection and executed a nice pass into the Inner Loop on the final lap to secure his second win in as many weeks.
Enders backed up his podium finish from WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca a couple of weeks ago by finishing a close second, with Brooks a lonely third after Indy Lights racer Ryan Norman (Andretti Autosport) lost ground with a quick spin just a few laps from the end. Norman held on for fourth, while Denes overcame his penalty to slip past Dempsey for fifth on the final lap.
Another late change of position saw eSeries debutant Toby Sowery (Belardi Auto Racing) slip past Campbell for seventh, with Flinn Lazier (Lazier Racing) and Aranda completing the top 10.
Denes continued to display his mastery by claiming the TSOLadder.com Fastest Race Lap Awards in both races. Consequently, Denes now holds a commanding 34-point advantage over Eves heading into next week’s concluding pair of races at the virtual Iowa Speedway oval.
Provisional championship points after eight of 10 races:
1. Philippe Denes, 191
2. Braden Eves, 157
3. Andre Castro, 134
4. Max Kaeser, 121
5. Hunter McElrea, 110
6. Danial Frost, 103
7. Jacob Loomis, 85
8. Flinn Lazier, 81
9. Kory Enders, 73
10. Michael Myers, 69