Simply put, nobody was better in Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires this weekend than Hunter McElrea.
The rookie Andretti Autosport driver delivered a dominant performance Sunday, leading all 35 laps from the pole in the Indy Lights at Mid-Ohio to score his first series win in the No. 27 car.
The victory capped one of the most dominant Indy Lights weekend performances of the season, as McElrea was never not the fastest driver in a session. McElrea led both practices, was the fastest qualifier and led Sunday’s race flag-to-flag.
“I’m just relieved,” McElrea said. “I knew I could do this. This weekend, I just wanted to go back to having fun and letting everything handle itself. I can’t thank everyone who has supported me. It means a lot, and I’m just really relieved and really happy with this.”
McElrea beat Andretti Autosport teammate Matthew Brabham to the finish by 2.6826s. Championship leader Linus Lundqvist rounded out the podium by finishing third for HMD Motorsports with Dale Coyne Racing.
Andretti Autosport drivers followed suit to put all four team cars in the top five. Rookie Christian Rasmussen finished fourth in the No. 28 Road to Indy/Stellrecht, while Sting Ray Robb finished fifth in the No. 2 Sekady.
Robb catapulted to fifth with an electrifying pass in the final corner on Benjamin Pedersen of Global Racing Group with HMD. Robb had been hounding Pedersen over the final laps, and Pedersen locked up his tires entering Turn 12. That allowed Robb to jump alongside Pedersen and take the position.
The move cost rookie Jacob Abel a seventh-place finish, as the slight contact between the two cars in front of him caused him to lock his brakes and spin into the grass in Turn 13. He finished 11th in the No. 51 Abel Speedwagon.
McElrea was challenged a few times on the 13-turn, 2.258-mile permanent road course. The first came in Turn 4 on the first lap after taking the green flag, when Lundqvist, who started second, tried to stay side by side with McElrea and the two made slight contact.
From there, it was McElrea’s race to lose. By lap 20, he had a nearly six-second lead on Brabham and more than 15 seconds on Lundqvist. But a lap 23 caution bunched the 13-car field on his gearbox for one last shot at the dominant driver.
Entering Turn 1, James Roe spun the No. 12 TJ Speed Motorsports entry. The Irishman got stuck in the gravel trap and needed to be pulled out, forcing a full-course yellow. It was the only caution of the day.
As the race resumed on lap 25 for a 10-lap dash to the finish, McElrea quickly pulled away.
McElrea, a New Zealand native who was born in Los Angeles and grew up in Australia, is the fifth different winner in eight Indy Lights races this season. He is the third driver this season to score his first career win, following Danial Frost on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and Rasmussen at Road America.
The other two race winners this season are Brabham, at St. Petersburg, and Lundqvist, who has four wins on the season.
McElrea was relieved finally to add his name to the list of Indy Lights winners in 2022, a feat he likely should have accomplished in the season-opening race on the Streets of St. Petersburg.
The second runner-up in last year’s Indy Pro 2000 championship was nearly as strong at that race in February, scoring the pole and leading the first 11 laps. But a mistake from the lead put McElrea in the wall and ended his day early.
“Ever since St. Pete when I threw that one away, it was really mentally tough,” he said. “I’ve probably been letting that affect me too much, still just trying to force it a bit much.
“I hope this sets the precedent for the second half of the season. I think for sure this weekend is as perfect as they get. It’s very good for the rest of the year.”
Lundqvist extended his stronghold on the championship with his sixth podium finish of the season. He leads Robb by 87 points. Brabham rose two positions to third, 96 points back. McElrea climbed three spots to fourth, 98 points back.
Indy Lights is back in action Saturday, July 23 for the first oval race of the season at Iowa Speedway. Indy Lights at Iowa Speedway begins at 12:15 p.m. ET, live on Peacock Premium and INDYCAR Radio Network.