Johnson, 15, Dominates USF Pro 2000 Finale for VRD
PORTLAND, Ore. – Fifteen-year-old Nikita Johnson put on a clinic in this afternoon’s third race of the VP Racing Fuels Grand Prix of Portland weekend, the season finale for USF Pro 2000 Presented by Cooper Tires. Johnson, from Gulfport, Fla., took the lead with a bold move at the first corner and held on to score his second victory in just five end-of-season starts as he looks to step up from USF2000 Presented by Cooper Tires on a full-time basis in 2024.
Salvador de Alba, from Guadalajara, Mexico, rebounded from a disappointing first couple of races at Portland International Raceway to finish a strong second for Exclusive Autosport. It was enough to secure third in the championship. Jonathan Browne, from Ratoath, Ireland, also returned to prominence after a poor sequence of results to secure the final podium position for Turn 3 Motorsport.
Yesterday’s winner, Michael d’Orlando, from Hartsdale, N.Y., started at the front of the field for Turn 3 Motorsport after snagging his sixth Cooper Tires Pole Award of the season. But d’Orlando was unable to hold off a charging Johnson, who drove around the outside at Turn One, which gave him the preferred inside line at Turn Two and a lead he never looked like losing.
In stark contrast to yesterday’s all-green race, today’s was strewn with incidents and caution periods, five in total. The restarts were crucial, but despite his tender years, Johnson was perfect in every single one as he led all 25 laps to take an accomplished victory.
Lirim Zendeli (TJ Speed Motorsports), from Bochum, Germany, and Kiko Porto (DEForce Racing) ran third and fourth in the early stages before colliding on the entrance to the Turn Nine/10 chicane. Both were out on the spot.
On one of the early restarts, Pabst Racing’s Jace Denmark, from Scottsdale, Ariz., dived to inside of d’Orlando for second place at Turn One. Stuck on the outside line, d’Orlando chose to take to the escape road, which immediately dropped him from second to 11th.
Denmark glimpsed an opportunity to go for the lead at Turn One following another restart after 14 laps, whereupon a huge sideways slide caused mayhem behind as virtually the entire field converged on Turn Two together. Denmark’s teammate, Myles Rowe, from Brooklyn, N.Y., was one of the casualties, forced into the pits to repair damage.
Browne, who started seventh, emerged from the melee in second place, with de Alba hot on his heels, although the Mexican finally took the place for good with a fine maneuver under braking for Turn One following another restart after 20 laps. De Alba kept the pressure on Johnson for the final seven laps without quite getting close enough to attempt a pass.
Denmark chased home Browne to snag his second fourth-place finish of the weekend, followed by d’Orlando, who did well to salvage fifth after his early off-course excursion. Italian Francesco Pizzi (TJ Speed Motorsports) finished hot on his heels and just ahead of Jordan Missig (Pabst Racing), from Channahon, Ill., who earned his fifth Tilton Hard Charger Award after making up 11 positions during the 30-lap race.
VRD Racing’s Dan Mitchell gained another PFC Award as the winning team owner
Rowe, who yesterday clinched a Discount Tire Driver Development Scholarship valued at $664,500 to ensure graduation to INDY NXT by Firestone in 2024, and his Pabst Racing with Force Indy team will formally receive their awards at the traditional Championship Celebration tomorrow evening in Portland.
After that the focus will switch toward the 2024 season, starting with the annual two-day USF Pro Fall Combine test at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Grand Prix road course on October 21/22.
Provisional championship points after 18 of 18 rounds:
1. Myles Rowe, 391
2. Kiko Porto, 326
3. Salvador de Alba, 291
4. Michael d’Orlando, 288
5. Lirim Zendeli, 259
6. Francesco Pizzi, 259
7. Jace Denmark, 252
8. Jonathan Browne, 230
9. Jack William Miller, 212
10. Joel Granfors, 206
Nikita Johnson (#17 Allen Exploration, LLC/Walker’s Cay-VRD Racing Tatuus IP-22): “I took control of the race in Turn One. I started in second, broke pretty late, went around the outside of Turn One and ended up in the middle for Turn Two and came out in first position. After that I just put my head down and pushed very hard. We had the car, thanks to the VRD crew, who gave me a rocket ship. We had a lot of yellows but I just did my best at the restarts. I think the restarts are what won the race. After that I just had to go to the finish, keep on knocking out nice laps. I want to thank my sponsors – PSA Check, Allen Exploration, Walker’s Cay and Tiger Precision Products – also Dan (Mitchell), Jacob (Loomis), Branden (Graham) and everybody at VRD for making this possible.”
Salvador de Alba (#91 Archandel/Red Cola/Mecano/Z Motors-Exclusive Autosport Tatuus IP-22): “I am very happy with this last race of the season. It was a really good race. I started ninth and finished second. It was a good way to end the season in thinking about next year. Let’s hope everything comes together and we make it back to the U.S. next year.”
Jonathan Browne (#2 Human Centred Movement/CRPS Awareness-Turn 3 Motorsport Tatuus IP-22): “It was a tough race with a lot of restarts but I was able to capitalize on a few incidents and make my way through the field and up to second. Unfortunately I lost it to Salvador there at the end. I had to hang on from Jace who was applying pressure. It was a fun race but definitely tough work.”