McElrea Tightens USF2000 Title Fight

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Hunter McElrea celebrates his Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship victory Saturday at Portland Int'l Raceway. (Al Steinberg Photo)
Hunter McElrea celebrates his Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship victory Saturday at Portland Int'l Raceway. (Al Steinberg Photo)

PORTLAND, Ore. – The battle for the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship tightened to a single point, 285-284, as Hunter McElrea claimed a comfortable victory Saturday at Portland Int’l Raceway.

At stake is a scholarship valued at close to $300,000 to move up one step on the Road to Indy ladder to the Indy Pro 2000 Championship Presented by Cooper Tires in 2020.

The New Zealander qualified on pole position this morning for Pabst Racing, then edged away gradually from season-long championship leader Braden Eves during the 25-lap Cooper Tires USF2000 Grand Prix Presented by Allied Building Products. The victory was McElrea’s third of the season.

“The start was the most stressful part of the race – I had a car inside and a car outside, but it was my corner,” said McElrea. “I got through cleanly, and just put my head down and pulled away. I tried to conserve for the first few laps to see where the group was, and then started pushing harder to extend the gap. But races like that are what you hope for – Pabst Racing gave me a perfect car and that made my life so much easier. When you’re in front, you can control things and focus on your own thing. The championship is in the back of my mind, it’s extremely close now, but I’ll focus on getting poles and wins and things will take care of themselves.”

Eves narrowly held on to second place ahead of Denmark’s Christian Rasmussen, who finished on the podium for the fifth successive race.

McElrea, who had finished on the podium in all but two of the first 11 races, maintained his advantage over second-place qualifier Eves at the tight Festival Curves chicane on the opening lap. The pair remained tied together for the opening eight laps and soon began to edge away from Rasmussen in third. But then McElrea really hit his stride, turning a string of consistently fast laps to stretch his lead with every turn around the 1.964-mile road course. His eventual winning margin was 4.8713 seconds.

Instead of challenging for the win, Eves, who had won five of the first seven races this year, had to work extremely hard to fend off Rasmussen. They were separated by just a half-second at the checkered flag.

The top three quickly distanced themselves from the pack, which saw 14-year-old Jak Crawford exchange places several times with Colin Kaminsky. Kaminsky finally took the place for good on lap 19, following a mistake by Crawford, who also lost a position to Cape Motorsports’ Darren Keane in the closing stages.