After some aggressive passes on the opening lap by Zach Veach, there was little doubt about who would win the final Indy Lights race of the season in Monterey, but the outcome of the championship battle - and a Mazda scholarship valued at $1m to ensure entry in a minimum of three races in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series - was rather less straightforward.
Veach, indeed, sped home to a controlled victory, his third of the season and series-high sixth for Belardi Auto Racing by a comfortable margin of 2.8798secs but, behind him with one lap remaining around the 2.238-mile Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca road course, Santiago 'Santi' Urrutia (Schmidt Peterson Motorsports with Curb-Agajanian), looked in position to emulate Spencer Pigot's feat in 2014 and 2015 by claiming consecutive Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires championships by the narrowest of margins over season-long rival Ed Jones (Carlin).
A tie-breaker based on Urrutia's four wins this season to the two of Jones seemed set to give the Uruguayan the title, despite Jones having held a seven-point edge over his rival following Saturday's second-place finish and bonus point for having earned the Sunday pole.
After the first start was waved off by race control, Jones led the field away at the second time of asking, with Urrutia, who started immediately behind in third, virtually glued to the Englishman's gearbox as the leaders accelerated through the gears. Jones just about held off the Uruguayan's advances in turn two, before his mirrors were suddenly filled by Veach, who forced his way past Urrutia in turn two after starting in the fourth position.
Veach, clearly, was in no mood to stand on ceremony. His eyes were focused purely on claiming another win and, a few hundred yards later, the Ohioan dived to the inside of Jones on the approach to turn three. Wisely, the Englishman chose to lift off the throttle abruptly but, in doing so, he lost valuable momentum. As Veach sped away in the lead, Jones fell quickly to fifth place behind Urrutia, Saturday's winner Kyle Kaiser (Juncos Racing) and Carlin team-mate Felix Serralles.
After a full-course caution caused by a spin in turn four by Garett Grist (Team Pelfrey), Veach soon establishing the fastest lap of the race as he edged away from the battling Urrutia and Kaiser, while another gap began to open up between Kaiser and the two Carlin drivers, who were trailed closely by Andre Negrao (Schmidt Peterson Motorsports with Curb-Agajanian), Dean Stoneman (Andretti Autosport), Sean Rayhall (Team Pelfrey), Shelby Blackstock (Andretti Autosport) and Zachary Claman De Melo (Juncos Racing).
The top four positions remained unchanged for the remainder of the 38-lap race, with Veach controlling his pace and extending his advantage to over five seconds before cruising home to the finish. Similarly, Urrutia held off the attentions of Kaiser for second, but ultimately it wasn't enough to take the title as Jones moved past Serralles to pick up the points he needed on the final lap in what appeared to be a move orchestrated for the UAE-domiciled Briton.
“It's an incredible feeling right now and it's really a dream come true to know that I'll be driving an Indycar next year,” Jones commented, “There's been so much hard work and we really deserve this championship. It's only the second year in America for myself and for the Carlin team, so to win this means so much. I'm so happy to have this opportunity and to be able to show what I'm made of.”
Urrutia, for his part, took the last lap disappointment phlegmatically.
“It is what it is,” he shrugged, “It's always difficult in this championship. We did our best so thank you to my team, to everyone who helped me be here. It was good to get to the last race with a chance to win the championship, especially in my rookie year. I will try it again one day.”
Veach, meanwhile, celebrated another win in a campaign he thought might never happen.
“I'm just so thankful for Belardi Auto Racing because they were the ones that made it possible for me to come out here,” he said, “I didn't have the budget to do Indy Lights but they said 'let's not worry about that, we'll figure it out as we go.' I'm so thankful to be able to give them back what they gave to me and to show how fast Belardi Auto Racing is.
“We came in here a second-and-a-half off in the first practice session so to be able to work through all that to win today, it's very special to me. I'm glad I was able to make the pass in the first corner and make it stick.”
Team owner Trevor Carlin's day was made complete by clinching the coveted Teams' Championship by a 29-point margin, 413-384, over Schmidt Peterson Motorsports with Curb-Agajanian.