By Steve Wittich
A last-second hot lap by Jay Howard Driver Development’s (JHDD) Lochie Hughes topped a chaotic USF2000 Championship Presented By Cooper Tires qualifying session, giving the Aussie driver his first pole in only his fourth series start.
The pole is the first on the 1.8-mile, 14-turn St. Petersburg street circuit for Jay Howard Driver Development. The pole is the 11th for the team and their first since 2020.
Velocity Racing Development’s (VRD) Nikita Johnson will start from outside the front row at his home race, matching his best career USF2000 start from Portland International Raceway in 2022. The 14-year-old has an average starting position of 4.0 in nine series starts and has never qualified worse than seventh.
Row two also includes drivers from VRD and JHDD, but this time they are reversed, with VRD’s Sam Corry starting third and JHDD’s Evagoras Papasavvas starting fourth.
Rookie team Future Star Racing racing, with veterans Trey Burke and Andre Castro, had an impressive first qualifying session in the series and will start from the third row.
The lone USF2000 Championship Presented By Cooper Tires qualifying session followed a 75-minute NTT INDYCAR SERIES practice. That means the drivers and teams that adjust to the increased grip will have the best starting spots for both races.
When the 25-minute qualifying session began, the ambient temperature was 79F, and the track temperature was 96F.
Trey Burke (Future Star Racing) was penalized for the Turn 4 incident with Sam Corry in practice, sitting for the first five minutes of qualifying.
Early in the session, Lochie Hughes (Jay Howard Driver Development), Sam Corry (Velocity Racing Development) and Simon Sikes (Pabst Racing) were the early provisional pole sitters.
The first red flag of the test came out with just over ten minutes gone when Sikes, spring training and practice #1 leader, made contact with the wall in Turn 3. His Pabst Racing No. 22 stopped on the right side of the track halfway down the back straight toward Turn 4.
The AMR INDYCAR Safety Team cleared the track, and green conditions returned with 11 minutes remaining.
Just as times started to fall as drivers got their Cooper Tire slicks into the proper operating window, the red flag came out for the No. 95 Exclusive Autosport machine of Chase Gardner in the Turn 8 tire barrier.
Corry had just turned the quickest lap, putting the Velocity Racing Development driver on the provisional pole. He was followed in the top ten by Hughes, Evagoras Papasavvas (Jay Howard Driver Development), Nikita Johnson (Velocity Racing Development), Jacob Douglas (Exclusive Autosport), Nicholas d’Orlando (Exclusive Autosport), Zack Ping (Velocity Racing Development), Danny Dyszelski (Jay Howard Driver Development), Jorge Garciarce (DEForce Racing) and Mac Clark (DEForce Racing).
Qualifying restarted with five minutes remaining, putting pressure on the drivers to quickly get their tires up to temperature to improve their lap time.
Clark was the first driver to improve, followed closely by his USF Juniors rival Johnson, who jumped to the provisional pole.
However, the timing screen was blinking green with two minutes remaining as drivers continued to improve on their best laps.
Johnson held the provisional pole until the final driver to cross the timing line, Hughes, pipped him, going a slim eight-hundredths of a second quicker.
Also jumping up on their final laps were Corry (to third), Burke (to fifth) and d’Orlando (to 7th).
USF2000 Championship Presented By Cooper Tires qualifying results
|RANK||CAR NO.||DRIVER||TEAM||BEST LAP||DIFF.|
|1||8||Lochie Hughes||Jay Howard Driver Development||1:13.0836||——-|
|2||17||Nikita Johnson||VRD Racing||1:13.1640||0.0804|
|3||14||Sam Corry||VRD Racing||1:13.3569||0.2733|
|4||6||Evagoras Papasavvas||Jay Howard Driver Development||1:13.4954||0.4118|
|5||58||Trey Burke||Future Star Racing||1:13.5984||0.5148|
|6||56||Andre Castro||Future Star Racing||1:13.5993||0.5157|
|7||92||Nicholas d’Orlando||Exclusive Autosport||1:13.7408||0.6572|
|8||97||Zack Ping||VRD Racing||1:13.7843||0.7007|
|9||91||Joey Brienza||Exclusive Autosport||1:13.8184||0.7348|
|10||18||Danny Dyszelski||VRD Racong||1:13.8212||0.7376|
|11||90||Jacob Douglas||Exclusive Autosport||1:13.8609||0.7773|
|12||9||Louka St.-Jean||Jay Howard Driver Development||1:13.8665||0.7829|
|13||1||Mac Clark||DEForce Racing||1:13.9397||0.8561|
|14||22||Simon Sikes||Pabst Racing||1:13.9728||0.8892|
|15||10||Jorge Garciarce||DEForce Racing||1:14.0153||0.9317|
|16||7||Al Morey||Jay Howard Driver Development||1:14.1798||1.0962|
|17||12||Maxwell Jamieson||DEForce Racing||1:14.3327||1.2491|
|18||95||Chase Gardner||Exclusive Autosport||1:14.3753||1.2917|
|19||19||Gordon Scully||VRD Racing||1:14.6691||1.5855|
|20||67||Elliot Cox||Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing Development||1:14.9023||1.8187|
|21||93||Avery Towns||Exclusive Autosport||1:15.8445||2.7609|
The 20-lap Cooper Tires Grand Prix of St. Petersburg gets the green flag at 3:45 pm on Saturday.