For the third time in four years, the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires’ Freedom 100 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway featured a thrilling, you-had-to-see-it-to-believe-it photo finish.
The one driver on the winning end this go-around was Englishman Dean Stoneman of Andretti Autosport, driving the No. 27 Stellrecht Dallara IL-15 Mazda, who edged points leader Ed Jones in the No. 11 Jebel Ali Resorts and Hotels entry for Carlin by a scant, 0.0024 of a second.
The margin of victory supplants the previous closest finish ever mark at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2013, when Peter Dempsey beat Gabby Chaves by just 0.0026 of a second as part of that incredible four-wide photo finish that also included Sage Karam and Carlos Munoz.
Then a year later in 2014, Chaves redeemed himself with a seemingly mountainous 0.0050 of a second win by comparison, over Andretti’s Matthew Brabham. Chaves was Brian Belardi’s second straight winning driver.
So after coming up short on the last two photo finishes it had been a part of in the Freedom 100, Michael Andretti’s team has now finally broken through courtesy of the rookie who’s hitting his stride and has now won in only his second oval start ever.
Stoneman also matches Jack Harvey in winning at least one of the two road course races at IMS, then following it up with the Freedom 100 win a couple weeks later.
The field started by points owing to yesterday’s initially truncated, then canceled qualifying session.
Jones would start from pole ahead of Santiago Urrutia, Kyle Kaiser, Felix Serralles and Stoneman, with others further down the order in Row 7 – Juan Piedrahita and Dalton Kellett – proving pleasant surprises as the day went on.
Reba McEntire gave the command to start engines and her son Shelby Blackstock started 10th for the race.
A two-lap caution delayed the start of green flag running because of debris on track.
Once cleaned, the race restarted on Lap 3, but it was game over for Kaiser in his No. 18 Juncos Racing entry early with a heavy crash on the high side exiting Turn 4. For a driver who’s noticeably improved his craft and consistency in 2016, it was an unfortunate setback for the Californian sophomore as his “evil crash out of the first lap in 2015 twin” made an unwelcome comeback.
“I’m massively disappointed. I caught the high side,” Kaiser told NBCSN’s Jon Beekhuis after being checked, cleared and released from the infield care center.
On Lap 8 the race restarted with Jones still leading Stoneman, RC Enerson up to third after starting eighth in his No. 7 Lucas Oil/Curb Records entry for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, then Serralles, Urrutia, Zach Veach, Blackstock and Andre Negrao the top half of the 16-car field. Kellett and Piedrahita had already gained a few spots and were ninth and 10th.
From there though it was set for another classic Stoneman vs. Jones battle as these two, along with Urrutia, are shaping up as this year’s Indy Lights true title rivals. Stoneman, showing remarkable poise and guts for a driver in only his second oval start, wasn’t afraid to ride the high line as he and Jones set forth to exchange the lead several times.
On Lap 15 the order was Stoneman, Jones, then Blackstock having risen to third ahead of Piedrahita, Serralles and Kellett. Enerson’s snake bit 2016 season continued when he pitted with what his team thought was a flat tire and that dropped him out of the running.
At the halfway point there was only one other change, Kellett having got around Serralles for fifth. Zachary Claman De Melo’s tough weekend rolled on with a pit stop shortly thereafter where he needed his Juncos Racing team to examine his front wing.
At Lap 25 Stoneman still led Jones, with the fast charging Piedrahita of Team Pelfrey then up to third ahead of Blackstock and Urrutia.
Jones’ experience and tire saving savvy for his Cooper Tires he learned from last year would pay dividends two laps later on Lap 27 when he swept to the outside of Stoneman at Turn 1 for the lead.
The lead change didn’t stick though as a lap later Urrutia spun out of eighth place at Turn 2, but miraculously, the Mazda Racing scholarship driver and Pro Mazda champion didn’t hit any walls or other cars in the process. Kellett, in particular, was lucky to make it through cleanly.
It brought out another full-course yellow and suddenly by this point Piedrahita was well positioned to score a surprise podium, if not an outright win.
Following a restart after the Urrutia spin, Piedrahita made it past Jones for second, which triggered this great reaction from Anders Krohn in the NBCSN booth – “What have you done today, Juan Piedrahita? You are on it!!”
The race was building to a natural crescendo before an interruption occurred. Heamin Choi crashed the fourth Schmidt Peterson car out of the race exiting Turn 1 to bring out another yellow, and set up a final, one-lap only restart.
At the yellow, Stoneman led Piedrahita, Jones, Kellett and Blackstock.
A couple laps earlier, Kellett had another “hang on for dear life” moment when he and Jones collided down the front straight, Jones having positioned himself low and Kellett directly next to the pit wall. Despite the tire smoke and the contact both continued.
So the final lap got nuts. Piedrahita ran into the back of Stoneman exiting Turn 4 and lost all hope and all momentum, which then forced a mad scramble to avoid him. Luckily, the remaining runners did.
Jones, who’d got the momentum from third place, then swept around the outside of Stoneman for the lead into Turn 1. But only barely would the Dubai-based Brit maintain the lead.
Stoneman got him back around the outside into Turn 3, which set the two of them up side by side for a photo finish.
As they came down side-by-side, Stoneman held the edge – only by that microscopic margin – and held on to win the race. Jones was a deflated second, while Kellett emerged from the fracas behind them to score his first career Indy Lights podium in third in the No. 28 K-LINE Insulators USA, Inc. entry.
Post-race Stoneman was more relieved than anything but called the finish “fantastic.”
Jones beat himself up and found it difficult to take away any positives.
“Yeah it’s so frustrating to lose a race like that after a back and forth,” Jones told NBCSN’s Jon Beekhuis. “All the time was waiting. Then the safety car came out. I got the lead into Turn 1. I thought I had a good run. Made decision to stay on the inside. Got the momentum on the inside. The team gave me the job to win, but I made the mistake. A minor mistake on my part cost me everything. I blame myself for this one.”
An overjoyed Kellett survived several close calls on the day, having driven from 14th to third on the day. But his practice pace was such that his result shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. He was third on the overall combined timesheets in practice, only behind the Belardi Auto Racing teammates of Veach and Felix Rosenqvist who had a rare anonymous Freedom 100.
Blackstock finished fourth, equaling his season-best result in the No. 51 Starstruck entry, with Scott Hargrove posting his best result since second at St. Petersburg round one in the second Team Pelfrey car, the No. 3 Gap Guard-supported entry.
Felix Serralles was sixth ahead of Neil Alberico in a quiet but career-best seventh, and those two Carlin cars finished ahead of Piedrahita, who ended a hard luck eighth after arguably his best ever drive in Indy Lights. Rosenqvist and Veach were ninth and 10th with RC Enerson in 11th after his tough day.
Unofficially Jones leads Stoneman by 29 points and Urrutia by 39 with Road America’s doubleheader the end of June the next rounds for the season.
Results are below:
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The racing isn’t done for the day for the Mazda Road to Indy. The Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda having qualifying and their races tonight nearby Lucas Oil Raceway at Clermont, Ind. TSO Ladder will be there for that.