By Tony DiZinno
Twice attempted but not finished on Friday due to weather, the Indy Pro 2000 presented by Cooper Tires series made up for the lack of running on its scheduled day with a thrilling Saturday race.
The Freedom 90 at Lucas Oil Raceway’s 0.686-mile oval saw a methodical push by eventual winner Christian Rasmussen to pressure and then pass dominant polesitter Reece Gold, who was once again close but no cigar to his elusive first series victory.
At 11:10 a.m. the engines re-fired on the 11 Indy Pro 2000 Tatuus PM-18 chassis for the restart of the Freedom 90 from Lucas Oil Raceway, with ambient temperatures only barely north of 50F. Despite a brief scare where the battery died on Jack William Miller’s No. 40 Miller Vinatieri Motorsports entry, he was able to resume.
The field ran three laps under caution to restart, after five laps were completed Friday night. The restart order was the same as the grid order Friday, since there were no green flag laps.
So after Lap 8, Reece Gold restarted first ahead of Braden Eves, Christian Rasmussen, Manuel Sulaiman, James Roe, Artem Petrov, Hunter McElrea, Jacob Abel, Jack William Miller, Kyffin Simpson and Wyatt Brichacek.
Rasmussen was the first mover early as he slotted to Eves’ inside to move into second place. The order remained stable after that with no other position changes.
Through Lap 17, Gold and Rasmussen were the only drivers lapping the 0.686-mile oval in the 20-second bracket with the other nine in the 21s. They built their lead to nearly 3 seconds over Eves.
There was a battle towards the back among Miller, Simpson and Brichacek with the three covered by less than a second. Simpson darted to the inside on Lap 23 at Turns 1 and 3 but was unable to pass Miller for position.
At a third of the way through the race, Lap 30, Gold led Rasmussen by 1.4964. The order was exactly the same as qualifying from fourth through 11th, with the closest battles the track for fourth between Sulaiman and Roe and the aforementioned Miller, Simpson and Bricachek battle at the back.
Gold was roughly 5-10 laps away from catching the tail-enders at this point, and we figure that could provide Rasmussen’s opportunity to pounce. Traditionally in Road to Indy races here, lapped traffic can singlehandedly swing the difference on a track that’s notoriously hard to pass on.
By Lap 34 Simpson is finally past Miller, briefly, for ninth, but is unable to hold it exiting Turn 2 on the next lap. Miller gets it back on Lap 35.
With this trio just ahead of the leaders, Gold’s gap to Rasmussen is just 1 second.
The Simpson/Miller battle continues and Gold is now right within Brichacek’s rear wing.
Gold passes Brichacek and Miller by the end of Lap 40 and puts two cars between himself and Rasmussen, which extends the gap slightly. Rasmussen is stuck behind Miller in traffic and loses precious tenths.
But at halfway, Lap 45, Gold’s lead is just 0.7414 over Rasmussen. It’s still the same order behind them.
Gold’s Juncos Racing teammate, Simpson, is the next driver to lap.
Sulaiman and Roe are closing on Eves, while Gold is adjusting his apex slightly through the corners and running middle of the road compared to Rasmussen running higher.
Big move with Simpson as Gold gets a little help lapping him, and Rasmussen gets balked slightly. Gap’s up to 0.8539.
Sulaiman gets to the inside of Eves for third on Lap 59 as they’re behind the Miller/Brichacek battle.
A bit further back, McElrea gets Petrov for sixth on Lap 63 to the inside of Turn 3. McElrea by Roe for P5 on Lap 66 exiting Turn 4 as the lone Pabst Racing entry here has come alive later in the race.
At Lap 68, Gold’s lead to Rasmussen is 0.6278 of a second. It’s up slightly from just over 0.4. More traffic lies ahead, in the form of Petrov in eighth, Abel in seventh and Roe in sixth. Abel tries on Roe for sixth on Lap 69 and completes a nice move for the position.
After a few laps, the moment of truth arrived between Gold and Rasmussen. As Gold scythed through some slower cars, Rasmussen kept the pressure on as the race reached Lap 75 of 90 and then hit more traffic.
Things got even crazier with a four-wide moment entering Turn 1. Gold and Rasmussen were to the inside of Roe in the middle and Brichacek up high.
Rasmussen was able to put the power down on corner exit of Turn 2, with the momentum to the inside of Turn 3 and 4. The two ran side-by-side for a couple laps before Rasmussen completed the move to the inside of Turn 3 and 4 and got the pass done by Lap 78.
Gold fought valiantly back to keep the pressure on Rasmussen and for a few laps it looked like he had the opportunity to get him back. But ultimately Rasmussen pulled away from there to win by 0.6655 of a second, for his fourth win this season – all of them coming in the last five races. Behind the Jay Howard Driver Development entry, Gold and Sulaiman ensured Juncos Racing had two more podium finishers.
The momentum was fully with the Dane, and Gold fell shy once again of his elusive first Indy Pro 2000 victory. This was his fourth straight pole producing a result just shy of the win. In the three races at Indianapolis he finished third, fourth and second.
Both took a moment to reflect on an incredible battle, which unfortunately witnessed one driver come up short.
“What a race!” exclaimed Rasmussen. “We started third, got up to second at the first part of the race. Then we ran second, kind of maintained the gap to Reece. It’s super hard to pass around here, especially when Reece was running as quick as he was.
“We had the chance with the backmarkers; I just went hard to pass on the inside into 1 and made it stick. I managed to then hold him off. It was a great run; I think we are leading the championship by now. It’s a great feeling.
“The car was definitely a little bit loose! The track was tricky conditions but we managed to pull it off.”
Gold, who embraced driver coach Ozz Negri after the race (Negri celebrates his birthday today) said of his own valiant effort, “The traffic threw me off my rhythm, but he got back by us. I couldn’t get back by. Overall it was a good race.
“It’s bittersweet trying so hard and leading so much. It hurts a little, but overall a good result.
“(The Indy Pro 2000 car) So much heavier on the arms. I was pretty tired; there’s more grip than the USF but a lot of fun.”
Freedom 90 Unofficial Results
|1||1||Christian Rasmussen||Jay Howard Driver Development||90||LAP 90|
|2||55||Reece Gold||Juncos Racing||90||0.6655|
|3||22||Manuel Sulaiman||Juncos Racing||90||16.4220|
|4||91||Braden Eves||Exclusive Autosport||90||18.2446|
|5||18||Hunter McElrea||Pabst Racing||90||18.9892|
|6||51||Jacob Abel||Abel Motorsports||90||20.1043|
|7||42||Artem Petrov||Exclusive Autosport||89||1 LAPS|
|8||21||Kyffin Simpson||Juncos Racing||89||1 LAPS|
|9||40||Jack William Miller||Miller Vinatieri Motorsports||88||2 LAPS|
|10||5||Wyatt Brichacek||Jay Howard Driver Development||88||2 LAPS|
|11||3||James Roe||Turn 3 Motorsport||85||5 LAPS|