Quinn Armstrong made up for a disappointing qualifying session earlier in the day by climbing from sixth on the grid to win this afternoon’s opening round of the new USF Juniors Presented by Cooper Tires season at Sebring International Raceway for DEForce Racing.
Polesitter Joey Brienza had to settle for second place, just ahead of Exclusive Autosport teammate Jack Jeffers.
Brienza couldn’t quite match the pace set by Armstrong during the lone official practice session held earlier in the morning in cooler conditions, but when it mattered in qualifying, his time of 2m10.600s was more than a half-second clear of everyone else. Brienza thus claimed his first Cooper Tires Pole Award as well as the honor of leading the way toward the green flag for the 10-lap race.
An impressive start for the field of new Tatuus JR-23 race cars saw four contenders running side by side as they headed toward the dauntingly fast – and bumpy – Turn 1, but it was Brienza who held his nerve, and the lead. Teammate Jeffers followed in second, while Armstrong somehow managed to muscle his way through to third at the exit: “Thank God, it’s a wide track,” he said with a broad smile.
Brienza led by more than a second by the completion of the opening lap, but Armstrong continued his march forward, fighting quickly past Jeffers and then making rapid inroads into Brienza’s advantage.
The two leaders were virtually tied together after three laps as they continued to stretch away from Jeffers in third.
Heading down the long Alec Ullman Straight for the sixth time, Brienza’s steering wheel momentarily went blank due to an obscure technical glitch, which in turn caused a balky change into top gear. The brief loss of momentum played into the hands of Armstrong, who drew alongside before the braking area for Turn 17 and then moved into the lead for the first time.
The young Australian maintained his advantage until the finish to cement the victory. He also secured the Tilton Hard Charger Award after making up five positions from the start, while DEForce Racing’s David and Ernesto Martinez earned the PFC Award as the winning car owners.
“I started sixth and we knew we would have to work to go forward, but that we could go forward,” related Armstrong. “We showed the pace in practice, and we put that into practice in this race. I had an amazing start and was able to get to third pretty much straight away, just chipped away at second and managed to get to first. Then it was just qualifying laps for the rest of the race. This is the exact way you want to start the year. There’s no better place to finish the race and I’m happy about how this season has begun.”
Brienza managed to keep going, despite the intermittent electrical problem which enabled Jeffers to close to within a second at the checkered flag.
Nicolas Giaffone (DEForce Racing) emerged from a thrilling midfield battle to finish fourth ahead of Ethan Barker (VRD Racing), Lucas Fecury (DEForce Racing) and VRD Racing’s Jimmie Lockhart, who ran as high as fourth before slipping back in the closing stages.
Two more races Friday will complete the opening event of the 16-race season, starting with Race 2 at 9:20am ET.