The 17-year-old Mexican sophomore Pato O’Ward continued his domination of the early season in the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires season, with his fourth win in five races to open the 2016 campaign and extend his points lead.
The driver of the No. 80 Gap Guard/Topo Chico supported entry for Team Pelfrey scored the pole by several tenths, led flag-to-flag in the 29-lap, 40-minute, caution-free race, and captured the win by 6.8509 seconds.
Not bad for a driver who has been on a weekend-to-weekend commitment with the team, having only been confirmed for St. Pete and Barber initially and then extended into the full month of May earlier this week.
O’Ward’s likely closest challenger, teammate Aaron Telitz in the No. 82 Rice Lake Weighing Systems entry, got caught out in the opening lap skirmish following a battle with Will Owen in the No. 23 AMR entry for Juncos Racing.
By Turn 7 Telitz ventured off course, with another car also off in the background. After starting second, the Wisconsin driver fell to 10th and without a yellow flag, would struggle to recoup the lost time.
From there, O’Ward was able to put on a clinic by gapping the field anywhere from three to five tenths of a second per lap.
He had a lead of 1.538 seconds after the first lap, 2.2757 by Lap 2, 3.5649 by Lap 5, 5.2047 by Lap 10 and 7.6606 by Lap 17.
With Telitz out of the fray, Owen made it into second early after a pass of him and ran a solo race from there, with no issues from behind him either.
Australian rookie Jake Parsons in the No. 00 Smart Mind Institute car for Juncos also made it up a spot, from fourth to third, and was able to maintain his pace over more experienced teammate Garett Grist in his No. 5 Lander Property Management/Mac Tools/Blacklist Lifestyle entry for Juncos for the rest of the race.
O’Ward had a 7.2961-second gap to Owen on Lap 28 and received the white flag. He took the checkered flag a lap later at a slightly reduced gap of 6.8509 seconds.
Parsons made it home in third for his first career podium with Grist fourth and Nico Jamin in fifth. Jake Eidson was sixth and Telitz made it back to seventh, a spot ahead of the fourth Juncos car, driven by Nicolas Dapero.
Bobby Eberle took the National class win in ninth, now driving for JDC Motorsports in his No. 13 car.
Post-race, O’Ward admitted it was harder than it looked. He tried to conserve his Cooper Tires over the course of the race to ensure he had enough tires left for a restart if needed.
Owen said he’s driving better this year than he did last year, but admitted he had nothing for O’Ward on this afternoon. He braked better than Telitz into Turn 7 and that was enough to secure the position, another podium at a track where he has a past Pro Mazda podium and a USF2000 win.
Parsons was thankful to secure his first podium and said managing his brakes was the toughest part of his race.
Unofficial results are below with the second race of the weekend set for 10:20 a.m. on Saturday morning.
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