A dramatic pair of races as part of the Cooper Tires USF2000 Grand Prix saw championship contender Jace Denmark (Pabst Racing) and impressive series debutant Mac Clark (DEForce Racing) claim victories at Portland International Raceway. But the overriding story at the end of the day concerned the three title protagonists: Denmark, his Pabst Racing teammate Myles Rowe and Cape Motorsports’ Michael d’Orlando.
All three were involved in a variety of incidents and will head into Saturday’s season finale separated by just seven points. At stake is a scholarship valued at $406,926 for the champion to graduate onto the next step of the Road to Indy, the Indy Pro 2000 Championship Presented by Cooper Tires, in 2023.
Denmark won the opening race of the day, chased home by VRD Racing rookie Nikita Johnson. Thomas Nepveu (DEForce Racing) finished third.
“I’m really happy to come away with the win. It was a hectic Turn 1, first lap. The start was crazy. I got hit in the back, but came out on top. The yellows set us back a little bit but we stayed in the lead for the second restart. My teammate caught me, we had a little battle, but I brought it home for the win.”
Denmark’s hopes of a sweep were halted by a mistake from Rowe at the first corner in the later race, which opened the door for a disbelieving Clark to take the victory. Fellow rookie Nicky Hays secured his best finish, second, for Cape Motorsports with Billy Frazer completing the podium for Exclusive Autosport.
Denmark’s day began in perfect fashion as he snagged his third Cooper Tires Pole Award of the season, and second in succession, during qualifying this morning. Fourteen-year-old Johnson impressed again by posting the second fastest lap for VRD Racing, while Nepveu and points leader Rowe shared row two on the starting grid.
Denmark made sure he kept the door firmly closed under braking for the notorious Festival Curves complex of corners on the opening lap, and duly emerged in the lead ahead of Nepveu, a fast-starting Hays and Rowe as Johnson found himself shuffled down the order. A little farther back in the pack, Nicholas d’Orlando (younger brother of Michael) fell victim to one of the almost inevitable concertina-style incidents which necessitated a full-course caution while his Exclusive Autosport Tatuus was removed from harm’s way.
Denmark held firm out in front at the resumption, and again following another brief caution after top rookie Jagger Jones (Cape Motorsports) was involved in another incident at Turn 2. Rowe, who had moved up to third place on lap 8, overtook Nepveu at the final restart and soon began to pile the pressure on his race-leading teammate. At the same time, Johnson, having worked his way up from seventh, was catching both of them.
The pivotal moment of the race, and perhaps the championship, came with five laps remaining when Johnson edged alongside Rowe on the back straightaway. Rowe, unwilling to cede the position without a fight, ran wide onto the grass at the following chicane and slipped all the way to 13th.
Denmark reeled off the remaining laps to win comfortably from Johnson, who earned a career-best second, and Nepveu.
Clark, the USF Juniors Presented by Cooper Tires championship leader, capped an impressive USF2000 debut for DEForce Racing by finishing fourth ahead of Jacob Douglas (Exclusive Autosport). Danny Dyszelski secured the best result in his young career for Jay Howard Driver Development in sixth, which was comfortably enough to claim his second Tilton Hard Charger Award of the season after having started 16th.
Denmark once again lined up on pole position for the evening race with Rowe alongside him at the front of the grid. Denmark again hugged the inside line for the run toward the Festival Curves, only for Rowe to misjudge his approach and ram heavily into the polesitter from behind. Rowe’s car speared high in the air before continuing without a front wing, while Denmark trailed into the pits with rear end damage.
Rowe continued for a couple of laps before also heading to the pit lane. His crew quickly replaced the front wing, leaving Rowe to resume, albeit a lap down to the leaders. He later set the fastest lap of the race, worth what could be a crucial championship point, as he battled on to a 16th-place finish after being assessed a 30-second penalty for avoidable contact.
Clark, who had started seventh, emerged from the first-corner melee in the lead and never looked back. Hays was equally surprised to find himself in second ahead of Frazer and the elder d’Orlando, who had been involved in an incident during the opening race. The top four positions remained unchanged until the finish, which occurred under a full-course caution after the young d’Orlando made contact with the barrier at Turn 10.
“That was crazy, I was almost crying in the car. It was like the seas just parted for me going into Turn 1,” related Clark. “I knew I had to brake late and try to get some guys on the inside. There was contact between the two Pabst cars in front and I just took the road through that I had. After I secured the position — I was praying it wouldn’t go full- course yellow — then it was just hit my marks and bring it home.
“I’m so pumped about this weekend. My main goal was to get experience, hopefully for next year, and we’ve done more than that. It’s been amazing. We only found out we were doing this race last Tuesday, it was such a last-minute deal, so I’m so happy to be here and to get my first win. I can’t thank my dad enough, and everyone at DEForce Racing.”
Ethan Ho (VRD Racing), capped a solid USF2000 debut by rising from 18th on the grid to 11th to claim the Tilton Hard Charger Award.
Augie Pabst, along with Ernesto and David Martinez, took home the two PFC Awards as the winning car owners.
More fireworks are expected in tomorrow’s title-deciding, 25-lap finale which will see the green flag at 10:15 a.m.