Local favorite Braden Eves vaulted from sixth in the Indy Pro 2000 Championship Presented by Cooper Tires points table to second on Wednesday afternoon, scoring a finely judged victory for Exclusive Autosport at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.
Current points leader Danial Frost (Turn 3 Motorsport) kept his lead with a strong second-place finish, while popular Canadian Parker Thompson bounced back from a dismal season-opening weekend earlier this month at Road America to finish close behind in third for DEForce Racing.
The Indy Pro 2000 Grand Prix of Mid-Ohio Presented by Cooper Tires Honoring First Responders got off to a hot start with the top eight cars in qualifying separated by just over half a second. Eves, the reigning USF2000 champion, scooped his first Cooper Tires Pole Award by a scant 0.0394s over Frost. Sting Ray Robb qualified third for Juncos Racing with Thompson in fourth.
After the first attempt at a start was waved off because the full 17-car field wasn’t properly aligned, Eves timed his getaway perfectly the second time to lead Frost into the first corner, and the top two slowly edged clear of Thompson, who had found a way past Robb at the start.
There was nothing to choose between the two leaders. Eves, though, made not the hint of a mistake even with Frost hot on his heels.
Eves got a brief respite when the caution flags flew at half-distance following a spin for top-10 runner Moises de la Vara (DEForce Racing) at Turn Six. Frost hoped the restart might allow an opportunity for him to seize the lead, but again, Eves was up to the challenge. Though his lead was always tenuous, he held on to take his first Indy Pro 2000 victory by just 0.3024s.
Eves’ performance also ensured a first PFC Award for Michael Duncalfe as the winning car owner.
“This is one of my favorite wins ever. It feels so good,” Eves said. “This is my home race so I always want to do well here; but man, last year was the beginning of what could have been the demise of a championship. I was able to save it in the end — save my chance at the scholarship and my dreams of the future — so to come back this year and win is great.
“Danial put pressure on me the entire race, I couldn’t get away from him. He had great pace and kept me on my toes the whole way. The Exclusive Autosport guys did a great job to give me a car I could put on the pole, but I think we can make even a few more improvements for tomorrow and keep it on top.”
Frost was content to finish second, realizing the importance of the season-long championship which offers a scholarship valued at over $600,000 to ensure graduation onto the top step of the Road to Indy ladder in a rejuvenated Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires next year.
“Our pace was there, it’s just so difficult to pass here so track position is key,” Frost explained. “Tomorrow we need to do a better job in qualifying to get that first place. I’m happy with the result, though. I didn’t want to take any stupid risks just to get a couple more points. It’s early in the season and there’s plenty more in play.”
Thompson, too, was delighted with his third-place finish, especially with young teammate Manuel Sulaiman chasing him home just 1.8 seconds in arrears.
Road America winner Artem Petrov (Juncos Racing) finished fifth ahead of Colin Kaminsky (Pabst Racing), who fought off race-long challenges from Devlin DeFrancesco (Andretti Steinbrenner Autosport), Hunter McElrea (Pabst Racing) and Jacob Loomis (BNRacing with Team Benik).
After starting 15th, Loomis’ ninth-place effort earned him the Tilton Hard Charger Award.
A disappointed Robb rounded out the top 10 following an off-track excursion at the exit of the Keyhole.
A qualifying session tomorrow at 8:45 a.m. will set the starting lineup for the next 25-lap race in the first-ever midweek standalone tripleheader which will start at 12:30 p.m. The grid for Race 3 (series Round 5), set to start at 4:45 p.m., will be determined according to each driver’s fastest race lap in the mid-day race.