LEXINGTON, Ohio – The wide-open nature of this year’s Indy Pro 2000 Championship Presented by Cooper Tires was exemplified perfectly Thursday at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.
Juncos Racing teammates Artem Petrov and Sting Ray Robb scored one win apiece from a pair of thrilling 25-lap contests which provided some spectacular wheel-to-wheel action at the midweek Grand Prix of Mid-Ohio Presented by Cooper Tires Honoring First Responders.
Canadian Devlin DeFrancesco claimed a slender points lead following a pair of podium finishes for Andretti Steinbrenner Racing, while rising New Zealand star Hunter McElrea finally put a difficult start to his season behind him with a fine second-place finish in the final race for Pabst Racing.
Ohioan Braden Eves continued his good work from Wednesday by claiming another Cooper Tires Pole Award for the Exclusive Autosport team during an extremely competitive qualifying session this morning. Eves edged out Robb by just .0208 of a second. Pre-event points leader Danial Frost also was within the same tenth of a second as the top seven were blanketed by less than a half-second.
Eves duly held the lead from the start but was unable to put any space between himself and a snarling pack of Tatuus PM-18s battling away in his wake.
Petrov lost no time in working his way forward from his fourth-place starting position. A race winner earlier this month for the first time at Road America, Petrov swept past Frost for third place on lap three under braking for Turn Four, and two laps later rounded up teammate Robb for second.
A couple of laps later Petrov made his move on Eves, sweeping through into the lead into turn four, and soon began to cement his authority.
A brief full-course caution after nine laps, following a spin by Colin Kaminsky in turn four, saw Petrov in the lead, followed by Eves, Canadian Parker Thompson, who had moved swiftly from sixth on the grid, then Frost and DeFrancesco, who was also on the move after qualifying eighth.
Petrov benefited from a huge battle in his wake, moving clear and going on to an emphatic victory by over eight seconds.
Some rain sprinkles added even more spice to the closing stages as the on-track action intensified. Eight cars were packed together in the battle for second, with positions changing on a regular basis. On lap 20, Eves’ defense finally came undone when he was forced into a spin at Turn Two. He resumed to finish a disappointed ninth.
DeFrancesco took advantage of the melee to leapfrog both Thompson and Frost, thereafter holding onto second until the end.
Behind, after slipping from second to sixth in the early stages, Robb mounted a spectacular comeback, finally usurping Frost from third with just three laps remaining. A mistake on the final lap saw Frost slip all the way to eighth behind Thompson, DEForce Racing teammate Manuel Sulaiman, McElrea and Moises de la Vara.
After being involved in early incidents, Jacob Loomis, Colin Kaminsky and Kory Enders all took advantage of the opportunity to make pit stops and take a fresh set of Cooper tires. Their aim? – to wrestle the fastest lap of the race and the coveted Cooper Tires Pole Award for the third and final race of the week.
It was Loomis who came out on top, snagging his first Indy Pro 2000 pole by a narrow margin over Kaminsky and Enders. Among those who didn’t have the luxury of fresh tires, Frost, Robb, Petrov and McElrea were blanketed by just .0105 of a second. They would line up from fourth to seventh on the grid.
The track was entirely dry again for the final race and, unsurprisingly, the action was intense during the early stages. Eves once again was unfortunate, falling victim to contact at turn two on the opening lap which necessitated a pit stop for repairs.
Kaminsky and Frost both muscled their way past Loomis on the opening lap. A couple of laps later, after somehow managing to race side-by-side all the way from turn four to turn nine, the pair clashed wheels as they headed up Thunder Valley. Kaminsky headed forlornly to the pits, his race done, although Frost was able to continue, albeit at the back of the pack.
Incredibly, another of the title protagonists, Petrov, also suffered damage during the early laps. He, too, was out of contention for the win, although Frost did gain the small consolation of a championship point for the fastest lap.
All of a sudden Robb found himself in the lead, and he was soon able to establish a small but comfortable margin over Loomis. McElrea, though, was on the move, having started seventh. He found a way past Loomis for second after 12 laps and gradually began to whittle away at Robb’s two-second advantage.
The two leaders ran nose-to-tail for the final couple of laps, but a joyful Robb kept his wits about him and finally, in his 49th Indy Pro 2000 start, was rewarded with a long overdue maiden victory.
McElrea was content with second, while Loomis narrowly held onto third, only to subsequently lose the position due to a technical infraction.
DeFrancesco therefore was gifted third, which was enough to catapult him into a one-point advantage over Robb heading into another double-header at Mid-Ohio next week, August 8-9, in support of the NTT INDYCAR SERIES.