In the first five races of the 2017 Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires season, Kyle Kaiser was the model of consistency. He finished between second and sixth in each race, but was yet to secure his first win of the year.
Kaiser changed the narrative today though to one of dominance, en route to an authoritative first win in 2017 in the No. 18 Juncos Racing Dallara IL-15 Mazda, to move into the series points lead. He began the day down three points to Colton Herta, in a tie for second with Nico Jamin (110 to 107).
The Californian snatched the pole position this morning for the second race of the Mazda Road to Indy Grand Prix Presented by Royal Purple Supporting the Lupus Foundation of America at the 2.439-mile, 14-turn Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, and controlled the race from the start.
Kaiser led all 35 laps and took the victory by 6.4768 seconds over Santiago Urrutia, who scored a season-best result of second place in the No. 5 Belardi Auto Racing with SPM car, the first podium for the now ARROW Electronics-liveried gold and black car. Kaiser is the first sophomore driver to win this year, after three rookies in Herta, Jamin and Aaron Telitz won the first five races.
Meanwhile Brazilian rookie Matheus Leist took his first career podium finish in third place in the No. 26 Carlin car, emerging ahead of teammate Neil Alberico in a spirited battle.
Another tough day for Herta saw him finish further down the order in 10th, which changes the championship standings.
Kaiser got a good launch away from the start ahead of Urrutia, who leapt to second from fourth on the grid, Leist, Herta, Jamin and Alberico.
On Lap 2 there was contact between rookies Nicolas Dapero and Ryan Norman at Turn 2, and as Dapero re-entered it allowed Shelby Blackstock to pass his teammate Telitz. Both Belardi Auto Racing cars though were then temporarily backed up by Zachary Claman De Melo, who ran off course on his own.
Blackstock then had his own off course excursion at Turn 1 on Lap 3, and that cost him a couple laps.
Kaiser’s primary challenge came on Lap 4 from Urrutia. The battle of sophomores – a rarity in a year dominated by rookies – saw Urrutia dive past to the inside and through. But Urrutia overshot his braking point and that allowed Kaiser back through, and as Urrutia came back to the line, it allowed Leist through to second.
Kaiser’s gap to Leist at that stage was 0.6638 of a second and grew to over a second a few laps later.
By Lap 10, Kaiser’s lead over Leist was 2.2783 seconds with Urrutia closing the gap down to just three tenths for second. Herta ran fourth ahead of Jamin, Alberico and Piedrahita.
The following lap Urrutia made it past Leist for second at Turn 12, and would be 3.6732 seconds behind Kaiser, but unfortunately for him he would get no closer than within three seconds.
Alberico got Jamin for position on Lap 12 and would look to close on Herta for fourth.
At halfway, Lap 18 of 35, Kaiser led Urrutia by 3.3754 second with Leist, Herta, Alberico, Jamin and Piedrahita in the top half of the field. After his and Dapero’s contact on Lap 2, Norman had rebounded nicely to eighth place.
The complexion of the championship battle and race changed again on Lap 20 as Herta slowed for a second straight day, this time with an apparent electrical issue per IndyCar Radio. The team confirmed Herta sustained a slow puncture from running over debris on Friday and called him in to pit, and there was no contact as Kaiser made his way past for position on Friday.
Alberico and Jamin got Herta, which dropped him to sixth after a lap of 1:20.5758. It got worse a lap later when Herta only ran a lap of 1:23.7084 and dropped five more positions, with Piedrahita and Norman through and then the trio of Dapero, Claman De Melo and Dalton Kellett. Herta’s woes backed him up to 11th, ahead of his St. Petersburg sparring partner Telitz.
With 10 laps to go Kaiser and Urrutia maintained the top two positions with more than five seconds separating them but the battle was shaping up for third between the Carlin teammates, Leist and Alberico, for the final podium position.
As of Lap 34, Kaiser led Urrutia by 6.3819 seconds with Leist third, Alberico in fourth and Jamin, Piedrahita and Norman within striking distance.
Alberico closed a bit on Leist but not enough to properly complete a pass. He damaged his front wing while running behind the Brazilian and began the tour of his final lap with debris shedding on the front straight and smoke from the damage. A piece of debris nearly struck Piedrahita, running in his own repaired Team Pelfrey chassis, as he tried to evade the stricken Alberico as he opted not to pit.
Jamin made it past for fourth, with Piedrahita making it past later in the lap for fifth. Alberico limped home to the line for sixth over Norman by just 0.063 of a second, after a final lap at 1:21.6959 – more than 3.4 seconds slower than Kaiser up front.
But indeed it was Kaiser who had none of the drama the others in this race did, with the victory margin north of six seconds over Urrutia, and Leist on the podium.
Jamin salvaged a fourth after starting seventh with Piedrahita a season-best fifth – a fitting result for his 100th career start in the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires. His best prior to today was 10th in St. Petersburg race two.
Alberico was sixth ahead of Norman, who also turned in a season-best result of seventh. The driver of the No. 48 Flip Side entry for Andretti Autosport had a best result of eighth on Friday in race one; this is his fifth top-10 finish in six starts in what is quickly becoming a quietly consistent season.
Dapero and Kellett were next with Herta only 10th, after he and Kellett got around the ailing Claman De Melo in the final few laps.
Garth Rickards ended 12th ahead of Telitz in 13th, who endured something of a second straight nightmare weekend, and Shelby Blackstock completed the runners.
Kaiser was worried about the start but once he got through that, said he was thrilled with the performance the rest of the race. Because he’s been with Juncos several years, there is a chemistry with his crew – especially as he now lives in Indianapolis – that comes from frequently attending the shop. The team has improved its setup and performance at Indianapolis over the years to where there’s a confidence now that perhaps didn’t exist in the past.
For Urrutia, the runner-up finish was not the easiest to accept, because while his car had pace, the rest of his Belardi team did not seem to this weekend. He said they need to dig deep to understand the gap to some of the other teams for the following races.
Leist drove smartly in his run to his first podium finish, and said it was nice to finally get a result after having pace but not necessarily results in the opening two weekends. A potential podium in St. Petersburg went begging with mechanical issues.
Indy Lights’ next race is the Freedom 100 from the IMS oval on Friday, May 26, Carb Day – a marquee event for the series and its drivers given its propensity for close, grandstand finishes.
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