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A bigger crowd, a live TV appearance and bragging rights in the biggest race of the season.

It must be time for the Freedom 100, for the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Since the revived Indy Lights ran its first Freedom 100 at IMS in 2003, there’s been a bevy of surprises, some stunning finishes and a higher level of interest for this race than almost any other event on the Mazda Road to Indy schedule.

And when you consider 23 of the 33 starters in the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 are Mazda Road to Indy graduates, including nine Indy Lights champions, you realize that the Freedom 100 is the site to meet and watch the rising stars before they run the “Greatest Spectacle of Racing.”

Indeed, a record nine Indy Lights champions have qualified for the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500: Spencer Pigot (2015), Gabby Chaves (2014), Sage Karam (2013), Josef Newgarden (2011), JR Hildebrand (2009), Townsend Bell (2001), Scott Dixon (2000), Oriol Servia (1999) and Tony Kanaan (1997). In addition, Jon Beekhuis (1988) will work the pit lane for ABC, with Townsend Bell (2001) and Paul Tracy (1990) in the NBCSN booth.

Chaves and Newgarden, of those nine, are past Freedom 100 winners.

Winning the Freedom 100 hasn’t always been a guarantee of success for the rest of the season or for graduating into IndyCar.

Each of the first nine winners from Ed Carpenter in 2003 through Newgarden in 2011 graduated to IndyCar and made at least one series start. However, three of the last four winners – Esteban Guerrieri, Peter Dempsey and Jack Harvey – have a combined zero starts in IndyCar. Dempsey continues to work with Juncos Racing as an engineer, while Harvey has been present with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports in coaching and spotting roles. He’s still keen to make it into IndyCar though and has been present this month at the Speedway.

So who might shine this Friday at noon ET, with live coverage on NBCSN?

TSO is particularly noting two series veterans – Zach Veach and RC Enerson – who are the two strongest bets to become the seventh different winner in eight races this year.

Veach, of Belardi Auto Racing, made it over 200 mph in testing at 201.455 mph in his No. 5 Dallara IL-15 Mazda during Monday’s test session. The lap time is unofficial, but nonetheless, the 22-year-old of Stockdale, Ohio is poised for his fourth career series win heading into this weekend.

“To be the first Indy Lights driver to go over 200 mph, then to be P1 in no-tow times and tow times for most of the afternoon is great,” he said. “I was beat in the tow times right at the end by my teammate. I never look at the speeds around here, so when I did the quick lap this morning and came in to the pits, I looked up at the pylon, saw 201 and had to ask if that was the average!

“The lap felt quick, but I didn’t know how quick this car needed to feel to be quick. We were working on qualifying setup this morning, so I set that on my second lap. It had to have had a tow in it somewhere, but we’re still in the 199s in no-tow times, so to be close to 200 mph on our own really speaks to how good our Belardi cars are. I’ve never felt so good going into a Freedom 100.”

Enerson, meanwhile, could lead the Schmidt Peterson four-car brigade this weekend. The native of New Port Richey, Fla., in the No. 7 Lucas Oil/Curb Records-backed car, has endured a number of mechanical woes throughout the season that have limited the talented 19-year-old from fulfilling his potential.

Schmidt Peterson enters this race having finished 1-2-3-4 last year, and with eight wins in the first 13 Freedom 100s (2004, 2005, 2007, 2009-2012, 2015). So whether its Enerson, Pro Mazda champion Santiago Urrutia or race rookies Andre Negrao and Heamin Choi, you expect their cars should be strong. Choi replaces Scott Anderson this race for his second start of the year, having also driven at Phoenix. Likable Brazilian Negrao, meanwhile, was apologetic and keen to recover after his pace lap accident took him out of the second race on the Indy road course before it even began.

While Veach is an oval veteran, teammate at Belardi Felix Rosenqvist makes only his second oval start. Rosenqvist led the afternoon test session on Monday and was wowed by his inaugural experience of the legendary 2.5-mile palace of speed.

“The last time I felt so excited driving a race car was when I was in Macau for the first time, in 2010. After that, nothing really seemed special until I came here. It’s just a fantastic track. It’s awesome to drive here. You have to be so committed turning in to the turns,” said the driver of the No. 14 car.

With Belardi having won in 2013 and 2014 – both in photo finishes led by Dempsey and Chaves – don’t put it past them winning their third Freedom 100 in four years this weekend.

TSO will also be monitoring Kyle Kaiser, team leader at Juncos Racing this year, who came out of the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis weekend a happy camper to end on the podium. In the No. 18 InterVision/NetApp/Juniper Networks car, the cool Californian will look to capitalize on his year of experience and topple the Schmidt Peterson train this weekend. Teammate Zachary Claman De Melo will be learning throughout his first Freedom 100.

Carlin’s trio of points leader Ed Jones, Felix Serralles and rookie Neil Alberico will be interesting. The team is owed a better year on the IMS oval than it did last year. Max Chilton didn’t even get to start the race due to a pre-race fuel leak; Jones, meanwhile, had a late race crash that ended his hopes. Jones has been strong this season, of course, as the only two-time race winner and with a 21-point lead on both Urrutia and Kaiser. Alberico, fourth in testing on Monday and a guest photographer during Indianapolis 500 qualifying weekend, is due for a good result in his Rising Star Racing-supported entry, which sees PennGrade Motor Oil on the sidepods of his Carlin blue No. 22.

At Andretti Autosport, rookie Dean Stoneman is emerging as a man to watch. The Englishman bagged his first win in the most recent race on the Indy road course, and will look to emulate countryman Harvey as an Indy Lights winner of both the road course and oval races while in his No. 27 Stellrecht entry. Teammates Shelby Blackstock and Dalton Kellett should be good as well; Blackstock has an added bonus with mom Reba McEntire confirmed to give the command to fire the Mazda engines for the race.

Team Pelfrey struggled in Monday’s test and with neither Juan Piedrahita nor Scott Hargrove overflowing in confidence heading into the weekend – Hargrove having just returned from a one-off IMSA Porsche GT3 Canada event at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park – hopes aren’t particularly high here. But the beauty of having lower expectations is that when you exceed them, you become a pleasant surprise and a good story line.

What TSO is watching this weekend.

Tires, tires, tires. The Cooper Tires allow you to run slightly higher in the groove through the turns here than do their IndyCar brethren and as such, drivers may be a little more ambitious going into Turns 1 and 3. But beyond the additional half lane – perhaps full lane if you’re lucky – is tire management. Tire conservation over 40 laps and 100 miles is always a factor and he who hangs on best and most consistently will be one to reckon with in the final few laps.

The points championship is also very important to note here. Just 59 points separate the top half of the 16-car field, from first-placed Jones down to eighth-placed Enerson. A bad result here could knock you even further back and potentially cost you your championship hopes and the shot at the $1 million Mazda advancement scholarship that goes with it. With Rosenqvist, Veach and Enerson 52, 57 and 59 points in arrears, respectively, this could be a pivotal weekend to make hay or fall by the wayside.

Then, there’s a big rivalry starting to develop between Stoneman and Urrutia. It’s really getting scrappy between the two after the last weekend of the year at the Indy road course. If it’s the two of them battling for the win in the final laps, get your popcorn ready.

Freedom 100 schedule

Thursday, May 26, 2016

  • 9am-12pm – Practice
  • 1:15pm-2:15pm – Qualifying

Friday, May 27, 2016

  • 12:30pm-1:20pm – Freedom 100 (40 laps)

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