The air of unpredictability that has characterized this year’s Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship continued Saturday morning in a fraught season finale at Portland International Raceway. Michael d’Orlando claimed his fourth victory of the season for Cape Motorsports. More importantly, d’Orlando vaulted from third in the points table to first after Pabst Racing teammates Jace Denmark and Myles Rowe were both involved in another first-corner incident.
The results assured d’Orlando of a scholarship valued at $406,926 to graduate onto the next step of the Road to Indy — the Indy Pro 2000 Championship Presented by Cooper Tires — in 2023.
Cape Motorsports teammate Nicky Hays continued his breakthrough weekend by once again finishing second. Christian Weir completed the podium for Turn 3 Motorsport.
After a pair of hectic races on Friday, Rowe and Denmark still maintained the top two positions in the drivers’ championship heading into the 18th and final race of the season. They were separated by a mere six points, with d’Orlando only one more point adrift in third. Denmark narrowed the gap on Rowe by one marker by virtue of his series-equaling fifth Cooper Tires Pole Award of the season (and a clean sweep of this weekend’s three races), while Rowe once again lined up on the outside of the front row of the grid. D’Orlando was mired back in sixth.
On Friday, Denmark’s title hopes were dented by a readily-admitted mistake by a crestfallen Rowe at the first corner. This time it was Canadian Thomas Nepveu who began the carnage. Nepveu had started third in his DEForce Racing Tatuus USF-22 and was eagerly eyeing an opportunity to finally secure his first win of the season.
Unfortunately, he mirrored Rowe’s error yesterday by caroming into the rear of Denmark’s car under braking for the tight first corner.
As an innocent Denmark was sent spinning, Rowe jinked to his outside, only to make heavy contact with outside second row qualifier Nikita Johnson (VRD Racing). Rowe also collided with another car at the exit of the chicane, puncturing his right-front tire.
In an instant, both Pabst cars had been relegated to the back of the field. Rowe was relatively fortunate, able to continue after his team changed a wheel. Denmark, by contrast, spent five laps in the pits while his crew changed some damaged suspension parts.
Johnson, yesterday’s winner Mac Clark (DEForce Racing) and Jacob Douglas (Exclusive Autosport) were also eliminated in the fracas.
Nepveu continued in the lead under caution while the carnage was cleared, followed by Hays and d’Orlando. The Canadian was assessed a drive-through penalty for incident responsibility by race control, which he served immediately after the restart.
D’Orlando had no trouble moving ahead of teammate Hays on the following lap, then spent the remainder of the 25-lap race maintaining his advantage. Hays acted dutifully as rear gunner to repel the advances of Weir, in third, with Jagger Jones, aboard a third Cape car, running strongly in fourth despite having started way back in 17th.
The top four positions remained unchanged as d’Orlando scored an emotional victory. Rowe, meanwhile, fought a magnificent comeback by rising from 15th to fifth, but it wasn’t enough to prevent d’Orlando from sealing the season spoils by just six points.
“I’m so proud of everyone,” d’Orlando said after his triumph. “The team put together a great car this year. Nicky Hays was out there, he was wide, he was holding everyone off, and I’m sure he would have liked to have that win but I just didn’t let him have it. But I just fought so hard in that one, especially throughout the whole year. It’s been a long time coming — three years — and I’ve put every ounce of my effort and soul into this, and I’m so glad it paid off.
“I can’t even explain these emotions. I’ve had this dream since I was six years old, maybe even younger. Its’s been in my blood since then. Becoming a champion has always been a dream of mine and although this is only a step on the way to IndyCar, it makes things a lot easier for me. I’d like to thank everyone – Cape Motorsports, Rising Star Racing, all my sponsors for coming out here and making this possible. We are the champions!”
Brothers Dominic and Nicholas Cape took home the PFC Award as the winning car owners, while Jones ensured a clean sweep of the hardware by taking home the Tilton Hard Charger Award.
Over $1.1 million in prize money and awards will be distributed tomorrow evening at the traditional Championship Celebration.