Zach Veach drove to a comfortable win while championship leader Santiago Urrutia struggled in the Mazda Grand Prix of Watkins Glen, as the Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires points race tightened up.
Veach started fifth in the #5 Belardi Auto Racing entry but stormed to the lead on the first of 25 laps and was never challenged before claiming victory 3.6268secs over Carlin's Ed Jones.
Urrutia started on pole in the #55 Schmidt Peterson Motorsports with Curb-Agajanian entry after setting the track record in qualifying, but dropped to fifth before a tyre he flat-spotted earlier in the race went down, forcing him off course and to the pits for new rubber. The reigning Pro Mazda champion finished last in the twelve-car field and saw his lead dwindle to one point over Jones, 23 over Dean Stoneman and 41 over Veach with only this weekend's Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca double-header remaining.
"Today we lost, but we are still leading the championship by one point," Urrutia said. "Everything is going to finish at Mazda Raceway next week, so we are going to go with the same mindset that we came here and that is to win. So we are going to go for pole position and try to to win both races."
The six drivers in title contention at the 'Soul Red Finale' – representing five different teams – will battle it out for a Mazda Scholarship valued at $1M to ensure participation in at least three 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series events, including the 101st Indianapolis 500.
The top two protagonists, Uruguayan Urrutia and ex-pat Englishman Jones, are separated by a solitary point after 16 races. An additional four competitors – Englishman Stoneman, Puerto Rican Felix Serralles, Californian Kyle Kaiser and Veach – lie within 40 points of the championship lead with a total of 66 points available from the final pair of races which will comprise the Mazda Indy Lights Grand Prix of Monterey Presented by Cooper Tires.
Urrutia, 20, held a relatively comfortable 16-point advantage heading into last weekend's race on the famed Watkins Glen International road course in upstate New York. He bolstered his hopes by qualifying on the pole, worth one championship point, but struggled in the race. Jones, meanwhile, bounced back from a disappointing series of races to finish second and all but erase Urrutia's lead.
“I feel like with the pace we've had this year and our qualifying record, I've kind of under-performed in the races,” admitted Jones, who has claimed seven pole positions this year, and also finished third and fourth at Mazda Raceway during his rookie campaign in 2015. “I feel like I've sorted that out over the summer break. When we have a good run in qualifying and our speed's right, no-one can really match us. So I'm really confident going into [Mazda Raceway]. We had a fast car there last year and we should be really strong again.”
Urrutia also has fond memories of the California road course after claiming a pair of second-place finishes one year ago to wrap up the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and guarantee his graduation onto the next rung of the Mazda Road to Indy.
Stoneman, driving for Andretti Autosport, is taking part in his first-ever season of racing in North America and also struggled at Watkins Glen, but showed his road course prowess with a pair of wins last month at Mid-Ohio.
Serralles (Carlin) also has won twice this year, while Kaiser (Juncos Racing), has high expectations at his home track as he looks to add to his solitary victory at Phoenix in April.
Veach, meanwhile, claimed the victory last weekend for Belardi Auto Racing – his second win of the season – but later was assessed a ten-point penalty for failing post-race technical inspection on floor height, dropping him from fourth to sixth in the title chase. He now lies 41 points adrift of Urrutia. The team was also assessed a ten-point penalty, as was Zachary Claman De Melo of Juncos Racing following an incident with Serralles on the opening lap that violated his driver probation.
Other contenders looking to finish the season on a high note include another local driver, Neil Alberico (Carlin), who charged from 12th to fifth at Watkins Glen; Brazilian Andre Negrao (Schmidt Peterson), who is riding a streak of four podium finishes; Canadian Garett Grist (Team Pelfrey), who won both Pro Mazda races at the track in 2015; and new team-mate Sean Rayhall, who will make his first Indy Lights start since claiming two wins and a pair of seconds from just nine races in 2015, including a second-place run at Mazda Raceway.
In addition, oval short track stand-out Davey Hamilton Jr will make his Indy Lights debut with McCormack Motorsports.