As with the earlier USF Pro 2000 Presented by Cooper Tires race, the third-place starter in Saturday afternoon’s USF2000 Presented by Cooper Tires contest at Sebring International Raceway stole a march on both front-row qualifiers to take a lead he was never to relinquish. This time it was Lochie Hughes, from Surfers Paradise, Australia, who translated the hole-shot into his second win of the season for the Jay Howard Driver Development team.
Simon Sikes, from Augusta, Ga., claimed the bonus points for both pole position and fastest race lap, but for the second race in succession had to settle for a second-place finish for Pabst Racing. Hughes’ teammate, Evagoras Papasavvas, from Loveland, Ohio, completed the podium in third.
Sikes continued where he left off at the Spring Training preseason test at Sebring by turning the fastest time in qualifying Saturday morning to secure his second Cooper Tires Pole Award. But an aggressive move at the first corner by Hughes also allowed a fast-starting Elliot Cox (Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing Development), from Indianapolis, Ind., to move into second place at Turn 1.
Sikes regained one position from Cox later on the opening lap, and after a red-flag stoppage to remove the cars of VRD Racing teammates Zack Ping, from Buford, Ga., and Nikita Johnson, from Gulfport, Fla., Sikes quickly homed in on Hughes to commence a protracted battle for the lead.
Sikes briefly found a way past into Turn 1 on the ninth lap, only for Hughes to regain the advantage with another strong move at Turn 17. Sikes redoubled his efforts on the 12th and final lap, drawing alongside Hughes as they raced into Turn 17, Sunset Bend, but Hughes was able to hang on and secure his second win of the year.
Papasavvas overtook Cox for the third position a couple of laps after the restart, although his hopes of challenging for the lead were dealt a blow on the seventh lap when he made a mistake in the Turn 15/16 complex of corners. Papasavvas instantly fell back into the clutches of both impressive 14-year-old debutant Max Garcia (Pabst Racing), from Coconut Grove, Fla., and Cox, who had slipped back to fifth. Cox then glimpsed an opportunity to make a move on Garcia at Turn 17, diving to the inside under braking, whereupon contact between the pair caused both cars to spin.
Last year’s USF Juniors Presented by Cooper Tires champion, Mac Clark, from Milton, Ont., Canada, was the biggest beneficiary, emerging to claim fourth for DEForce Racing.
Cox recovered to cross the finish line in fifth ahead of Chase Gardner, from Prosper, Texas, although a post-race penalty for avoidable contact later dropped Cox two positions in the final results. Gardner, who was promoted to fifth, his best finish to date for Exclusive Autosport, also took home the Tilton Hard Charger Award after rising from 13th on the grid.
Hughes’ effort ensured a second PFC Award of the season for Jay Howard as the winning car owner.
The Cooper Tires Grand Prix of Sebring will continue Sunday morning with a second qualifying session at 9:35 am EDT to establish the grid for the fourth race of the season, which is due to see the green flag at 1:40 p.m.