Kyle Kaiser shrugged off any additional pressure from competing at his home track to score a convincing victory in the first leg of Saturday's Mazda Indy Lights Grand Prix of Monterey, but was still eliminated from title contention.
The 20-year old Californian qualified on pole position for race one of the Laguna Seca double-header, then led throughout the 30 laps to claim his second victory of the season for Juncos Racing and his first since Phoenix International Raceway back in April. UAE-based Englishman Ed Jones finished second for the Carlin team to reclaim the championship points lead from Uruguayan Santiago Urrutia, who could manage only fifth for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports with Curb-Agajanian, while Zach Veach, the winner one week ago at Watkins Glen, rounded out the podium for Belardi Auto Racing.
After the first attempt at a start was waved off due to some incorrect positioning, Kaiser made full use of his pole advantage to fend off fellow front row qualifier Jones into the first heavy braking area at turn two. Urrutia, who had qualified third fastest, found himself shuffled down to fifth place on the opening lap behind Veach and Sean Rayhall, who made an impressive return to the series for the first time since the corresponding event at Mazda Raceway one year ago.
“Ed got alongside me in turn two, but I knew he had a lot to lose so I just kept my foot in,” Kaiser revealed, “He gave me room and we came out one-two. I tried to pull out as big a gap as I could as the race progressed. I saved my Cooper tyres in case there was a yellow before the end, but they were very consistent.”
Kaiser set the tone by posting new fastest laps on six of the first seven laps to extend his lead by over two seconds. He then continued to pull away from the field in convincing style before taking the chequered flag almost eight seconds clear of Jones, who remained under race-long pressure from Veach.
“This is what I was hoping for since I saw this race on the schedule last year,” Kaiser said of his victory, “I've driven the track so much and know it so well, and I had the support of all my family and friends today. This is just the perfect scenario: all the people who have been with me since my karting days were here today to see me dominate the race in Indy Lights. I'm hoping for the same thing tomorrow.”
Rayhall couldn't quite match their pace in the closing stages but still secured a strong fourth place finish ahead of Urrutia. Canadian Garett Grist looked set for sixth on the second Team Pelfrey Dallara-Mazda until suffering an electrical problem with just over a lap to go dropping all the way to eleventh.
Neil Alberico enjoyed another strong drive for Carlin, rising from twelfth on the grid to sixth ahead of Canadian Dalton Kellett, who headed the Andretti Autosport brigade, and Felix Serralles (Carlin), who started fifth but fell back to 14th following an early incident.
Second place for Jones – his first podium finish since round eleven at Iowa Speedway in July – was enough to vault him ahead of Urrutia by just seven points, 343-336, going into Sunday's 18th and final race of the season. At stake is a Mazda Scholarship valued at $1m to ensure entry into at least three Verizon IndyCar Series races in 2017, including the 101st Indianapolis 500.
Kaiser moved from fifth in the points table to third on 312 but, along with England's Dean Stoneman - who received a drive-through penalty for his involvement in a pair of incidents - Veach and Serralles, has now been mathematically eliminated from title contention.