By Diane Swintal

Two Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship races Saturday, one race on Sunday, to decide the series champion.

At stake is a scholarship packaged valued at almost $407,000 to graduate to the 2023 Indy Pro 2000 Championship Presented by Cooper Tires.

Pabst Racing’s Jace Denmark will start on pole (grabbing that valuable championship point) with teammate and points leader Myles Rowe starting fourth. Cape Motorsports’ Michael d’Orlando is second in the standings, 23 points down, and he will start P9.

Rowe has experience getting onto the podium from a bit back in the field, having earned top-three finishes after starting outside the top three on four of 10 occasions: from fifth (both races at Road America), sixth (St. Pete), and seventh (at IMS). D’Orlando has earned podiums from fifth twice (at Barber) out of seven podiums. Denmark tries to continue the trend, having earned all his eight podium finishes from top-three starting spots.

Rowe leads in podiums this year, with 10, to Denmark’s eight and d’Orlando’s seven.

The wild card in the top four on the starting grid is Nikita Johnson. The 14-year-old is starting his sixth USF2000 race in third but has a win in USF Juniors, where he lies fourth in points.

The command to start engines is set for 11:15 a.m. Pacific – skies are still sunny, 69F.

Green flag at 11:18 a.m.

As the field entered the very tight Festival Curves, contact between several cars sent four cars off course, with two cars stopped in turn one. One car was able to continue, but Nicholas d’Orlando was not, retrieved by the INDYCAR AMR Safety Team.

On the replay, it appeared that one of the Jay Howard Driver Development cars tagged d’Orlando in the rear, sending him spinning and into the path of the back third of the field.

Back to green at the start of lap five, with the cars able to make it cleanly through the first lap, albeit mostly in single file.

Denmark held the top spot as Rowe held fourth – as they run, down to an 11-point lead for Rowe in the championship, d’Orlando now 25 back.

Lap 8 – Rowe slides to the inside of Hays in turn one, taking P3. Hays fell to fifth but further back, d’Orlando went off course in turn three, falling all the way to 16th position – a huge hit to his championship aspirations. Further back, Jones tagged Christian Weir, trying pass on the inside of turn two, while Spike Kohlbecker was hit from behind and sent off as well in a chain reaction – bringing out the yellow flag once again.

Lap 14 – back to green once again as Rowe got a great jump on the restart, getting around Thomas Nepveu to go to second position behind his teammate. Johnson followed Rowe’s example, sliding through turn two and into third. At the halfway mark, Denmark secured the additional bonus point for leading the most laps.

Nervous times for team owner Augie Pabst, Jr., with his team cars running 1-2 on track, 2-1 in the championship.

Denmark maintaining his lead over Rowe, staying at about 0.7 of a second, Johnson 1.3 seconds back but gaining. Johnson made a move on lap 20, but wisely fell back, biding his time. The battle between Rowe and Johnson allowed Denmark to clear away and gain a 2-second advantage.

But on lap 22, Johnson pulled alongside Rowe in the fast turn 11, and Rowe, trying to hold the position, went off course on driver’s left, through the grass and coming back on track way back in 11th position – significantly tightening the championship battle.

At the checkered flag, Denmark had earned his fourth win of the year – and with d’Orlando seventh and Rowe 10th, Denmark now sat only four points behind Rowe.

Unofficial points:

Rowe 357

Denmark 353

d’Orlando 337

“You have to focus on not looking behind you!” said Denmark after the race. “We were able to defend, set my times and do the best we could. It’s really intense with the points, especially since we’re teammates and we’re both super fast. Glad to get the win and chip away at it. We’ll go back to the truck, look at the races, makes some notes, and try to do it again this afternoon.”

USF2000 Race #1 Report

Pos Car # Driver Laps Diff Team
1 23 Jace Denmark 25 LAP 25 Pabst Racing
2 17 Nikita Johnson 25 2.2945 VRD Racing
3 10 Thomas Nepveu 25 3.1773 DEForce Racing
4 12 Mac Clark 25 7.7876 DEForce Racing
5 90 Jacob Douglas 25 9.2649 Exclusive Autosport
6 8 Danny Dyszelski 25 9.7984 Jay Howard Driver Development
7 4 Michael d’Orlando 25 10.1622 Cape Motorsports
8 5 Nicky Hays 25 10.5551 Cape Motorsports
9 9 Jorge Garciarce 25 11.1347 Jay Howard Driver Development
10 22 Myles Rowe 25 11.9432 Pabst Racing
11 32 Christian Weir 25 12.5953 Turn 3 Motorsport
12 16 Ethan Ho 25 14.6517 VRD Racing
13 33 Spike Kohlbecker 25 15.2126 Turn 3 Motorsport w/Ignite Autosport
14 92 Billy Frazer 25 16.8209 Exclusive Autosport
15 34 Lucas Mann 25 17.3907 Turn 3 Motorsport
16 6 Evagoras Papasavvas 25 37.3333 Jay Howard Driver Development
17 3 Jagger Jones 8 Contact Cape Motorsports
18 11 Dylan Christie Contact DEForce Racing
19 93 Nicholas d’Orlando Contact Exclusive Autosport
20 91 Joey Brienza DNS Exclusive Autosport