MONTEREY, Calif. – Braden Eves had only one thought on his mind entering Sunday’s Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship season finale at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca: He needed to win.
Eves trailed New Zealander Hunter McElrea by 12 points entering the season finale. He was well positioned on the starting grid, lining up third, while the unfortunate McElrea was 18th and last after being hobbled in qualifying by a broken throttle position sensor.
While many of the front-runners had the advantage of a fresh set of Cooper tires on a track that is notoriously hard on tires, Eves would have to make do with used rubber.
Undaunted and completely fired up, Eves vaulted from third to first on the opening lap, then held off a series of challenges throughout a thrilling 20-lap contest to claim the victory – his sixth of the season – and put the championship beyond the reach of McElrea, who could manage no better than seventh.
Saturday’s winner Christian Rasmussen drove another excellent race to climb from 10th on the grid to second for Jay Howard Driver Development, while McElrea’s Pabst Racing teammate, Colin Kaminsky, capped a strong season with another third-place finish.
Remarkably, Eves’ crown was the record-extending ninth in a row for Florida-based Cape Motorsports, although Pabst Racing gained some consolation by securing its third-straight team championship.
The initial start was clean with Kaminsky – on pole for the third time this season – maintaining his advantage as the field headed downhill toward Turn Three. Eves tucked in behind Kaminsky, edging ahead of first-time front row starter Eduardo Barrichello, then dived boldly to the inside in the middle of the corner to wrest away the lead. It was a forceful maneuver but crucial to Eves’ title aspirations. Kaminsky was forced to run wide over the exit curbs which enabled Barrichello to regain second place.
The yellow flags waved shortly thereafter following an incident in turn three involving Jak Crawford, who had started fifth but was obliged to restart well adrift of the field. After one more lap behind the Pace Car, Eves continued to lead from Barrichello and Kaminsky, although it wasn’t long before Rasmussen entered the picture, too, after a typically bold opening few laps which saw him gain four positions on the opening lap and then two more at the restart.
Eves remained under intense pressure, initially from Barrichello and then from Kaminsky, who dived past the Brazilian under braking for turn two on lap eight, with Rasmussen also following suit. Two laps later, Rasmussen displaced Kaminsky from second and then posted the fastest lap of the race as he closed onto Eves’ tail. It seemed to be only a matter of time before the Dane would make his move but Eves was up for the challenge and Rasmussen held enough respect not to attempt anything too rash.
Kaminsky, though, remained right behind in third, and on Lap 14 managed to sneak back past Rasmussen at Turn three. By now there were five cars in the lead train, with Eves battling for his life to fend off Kaminsky, Rasmussen, Barrichello and Zach Holden, who had made good progress from eighth on the grid.
Rasmussen was the next to make a move, diving past Kaminsky under braking for turn two. The pass initially cost him a little ground to Eves, but he was back on the leader’s tail with three laps still remaining. Eves, though, was up to the task. The Ohioan was inch perfect, despite the pressure, never allowing Rasmussen to get close enough to make a late lunge, and the victory – and the championship – was his.
“That was the hardest race of my life, without a doubt. Everyone around me [at the start] had new tires. I had used tires, but I had to win to win the championship,” said Eves. “I had to go for the lead in the first corner, and the guys behind put pressure on me the entire race. I’m so happy to finish with the form we had earlier in the season. We started off so well, but it felt like it was slipping away, which put so much pressure on me. I got a stroke of luck, with the issue he had in qualifying, but Hunter did an incredible job. I have so much respect for him, he really pushed me. This was the hardest year of my life by a mile.
”This is everything I’ve dreamed about all my life. I have to pinch myself, to make sure I’m not still dreaming! I’ve been trying to make a career in racing and the Road to Indy is how you do it, it gives opportunities to people with talent who earn their way up the ladder. All that matters now is that I’ll be racing next year in Indy Pro 2000.”
Second place for Rasmussen – his seventh podium in the last eight races – was enough to secure third place in the championship over Kaminsky on a tie-break.