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MRTI Observations: Cooper Tires Indy Lights Grand Prix of Mid-Ohio

During the course of a season, there are races that you forget, and events that are remembered for how they affected the landscape of the year. The Cooper Tires Indy Lights Grand Prix of Mid-Ohio Powered by Mazda was a memorable one.

With Nico Jamin returning to victory lane, combined with championship contenders experiencing problems, the event had a little something for every single Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires fan. 

Here are some observations from the day.

Back On Top

For the first time since winning two races in the initial five events of the season, Nico Jamin is back on top as he scored the victory on Sunday at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

After a thrilling back and forth battle for the top spot with Colton Herta, he’d take the lead on Lap 2 and leave the field. While Santiago Urrutia was able to close the gap in the closing stages, it was never enough to make a pass, handing the victory to Jamin. 

When the season started, Jamin was strong in the first six races with a pair of victories and four straight top-fives. However, since the Indianapolis Grand Prix in May, he failed to post a top-five in the following six events. This weekend in Mid-Ohio was the perfect turnaround, as he matched the victory with a third on Saturday. 

Championship Struggles

While it was a dreamy weekend for some, the top-two in the standings experienced weekends they’d like to forget.

Points leader Kyle Kaiser finished 12th on Saturday after starting sixth. Then on Sunday, he qualified ninth, putting himself behind the eight-ball early. He was able to make up some ground, moving up to seventh by Lap 12, though a dive inside of Juan Piedrahita resulted in him spinning around and losing valuable track position. He was unable to make it up, finishing 12th once again.

Kaiser’s struggles should have been the perfect opportunity for Colton Herta to gain points, but he had his own problems. After finishing second on Saturday, he battled for the lead early with Nico Jamin before a spin put him behind the field on Lap 3. The incident did not take any speed out of his Mazda, as he caught the back of the field, and drove his way up to sixth by the checkered flag.

Entering the last two rounds of the season, Kaiser leads Herta by 42 points, with Santiago Urrutia just one more marker behind. Although there was some ground gained by Herta, it could have been more if he would’ve equaled the performances he’s been known for this season. If Kaiser puts together two more solid finishes, he will walk away as the champion. But another weekend like this, and the tables could turn at Watkins Glen.

Lap 1 Tangle

Before their race even really got going, it did not start out how Dalton Kellett or Garth Rickards planned, with the pair getting together on Lap 1. Rickards was done for the event, while Kellett carried on to finish 13th, one lap down after a pit stop.

The pair could have done without the incident, as this season has not gone as either would have liked, with both drivers sitting outside of the top-10 in points. Rickards has only four top-10’s in 14 races, while Kellett has eight top-10’s, including two podiums.

With silly season set to be busy through the winter and a bunch of driver changes rumored, both drivers could use a pair of good runs to close out their campaigns.

Returns to Podium

If you are going to struggle through the middle portion of the season, the goal is simply to finish out the year strong. That’s exactly what Shelby Blackstock is doing.

After making the move to Belardi Auto Racing, he began the season with solid finishes, posting five straight top-10’s. However, the summer stretch proved tough, with only two top-10’s in the next seven races. 

This past weekend at Mid-Ohio, Blackstock appears to be finding his groove as he posted a pair of top-fives, placing fourth and third in the two events.

Now moving ahead to closing out the 2017 campaign, after posting a sixth-place finish last year at Watkins Glen, another podium finish – or possibly a win, could make the summer easier to handle.

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER:@ladybug388

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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Mazda Road to Indy Open Wheel

MRTI OBSERVATIONS: Cooper Tires Indy Lights Grand Prix of Toronto

TORONTO, Ontario — In the tight confines of the streets of Toronto, Kyle Kaiser showcased why he is the current series points leader, as he won both Cooper Tires Indy Lights Grand Prix’s of Toronto. As for his competitors, some of them left with smiles while others were frustrated.

Here are some observations from the weekend.

Kool Kaiser

Entering his third season of Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires competition, Kyle Kaiser is coming into his own as a racecar driver. He has been solid on a weekly basis, scoring only one finish outside of the top-six in the first 10 races heading into Toronto.

This past weekend at Exhibition Place, he accomplished something he has not done in his career to date – sweeping a weekend.

In the first race, he led all 35 laps after starting from the pole, followed by running second throughout the second event after a daring three-wide move on Lap 1. until Colton Herta experienced a mechanical problem on Lap 25, handing the lead over to Kaiser. From there on, he drove away from the field en route to the checkered flag.

“This has been a dream weekend,” he said. “I’ve never had a double win weekend before, so I didn’t come into the (second) race – obviously I always try to win, but I was accepting the realistic facts. We were starting third, two really good guys ahead of us, so I was coming in just set to finish the race, and keep it clean.”

The success for Kaiser is no surprise, though, as he entered the weekend with three third-place finishes and a ninth in four previous races.

“We’ve always had a good set-up here,” he said. “Spencer (Pigot) won here two times in 2015 and last year, we had good pace but got caught out in the first qualifier towards the back but raced up to third. I think we’ve always had a good street course set-up, besides St. Pete. We did what we had to do. We attacked and gave everything that we had, and it paid off.”

Now with his third victory of the year, he currently leads the standings, 51 markers ahead of Matheus Leist. If he can remain solid throughout the rest of the season, he could walk away with the championship, and an opportunity to race in the Verizon IndyCar Series.

“I think there are places that I could have done better,” he told POPULAR SPEED on Saturday. “I mean, there’s always room to improve every season. But, we’re leading the championship, and this was a really good day for the points, so I’m very happy. I can’t get too critical of myself.”

Hometown Struggles for Kellett

After scoring a third at Iowa Speedway, Dalton Kellet entered the Honda Indy Toronto weekend hopeful for a successful showing in front of the hometown fans. However, the event did not go as the Stouffville, Ontario native planned.

Going into the event, he was aware of the challenge at hand, telling POPULAR SPEED on Friday that the bumpy track conditions were going to present “a challenge for us to set the car up so we can be competitive.”

On Saturday, he would go off the track on three different occasions, before parking the No. 28 Andretti Autosport entry for a 12th-place finish. Then on Sunday, he ran up in the top-five for the first half of the race, before getting into the tire barrier on Lap 30. He was able to keep going, though crossed the finish line in ninth.

The finishes go along with the way his season has played out so far, running up front but not posting the warranted results with two top-fives and eight top-10’s in 12 races.

“We’ve been really strong on the ovals, and we’ve been quick on the road and street courses, but have not been able to put the results together,” he said.

Kellett will hope to turn things around at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, where he posted a ninth-place finish in 2016.

One Happy Canadian

Although Dalton Kellett was left frustrated, another Canadian driver gave the fans a reason to smile. Montreal’s Zachary Claman DeMelo ran up front in both events, posting a runner-up and third place finish.

“It’s a really good feeling to get two podiums in a row in Toronto,” he said. “It’s almost like my second home; I’ve kart raced here since I was eight years old, so it’s a nice city. It’s a shame that we didn’t have the car to win, but I’m really happy with the amount of points we gained.”

Claman DeMelo ran solidly in the runner-up spot in both events, though faded after the Lap 12 restart in the second race to third.

“The track was a bit slick,” he said. “We made some changes to the car, and it felt good at the beginning to challenge Kyle for quite awhile. After the restart, I just didn’t have the pace that he had. I just didn’t get a good restart so Aaron got by me and I tried to pressure him, but couldn’t so I had to settle for third today.”

While his season did not start out as warranted with two finishes outside of the top-10 in the first six races, he has turned it around with a top-10 in each of those that have followed, including a victory at Road America.

“I started off rough, but made a big push through the middle of the season,” he told POPULAR SPEED. “I went to the gym a lot, went and worked with the team a lot, and it’s starting to show as the last two races have been really strong for me. Qualified on the front row at Iowa – the race didn’t go quite how I wanted, and then the win at Road America. So things are going well, and hopefully, we can carry this strong momentum.”

Currently sitting fourth in points, he is only 21 markers behind Matheus Leist for second heading to Mid-Ohio, where he placed seventh in both events last year.

“We just need to stay consistent every race and try to get as many points as we can,” he said. “I think we can challenge for a win at Mid-Ohio there, as well.”

Rough Start to Race 2

Although the first event of the weekend went cleanly, the second race did not start off smoothly with a big wreck on the opening lap, taking out several key contenders.

Going into the first corner, Kyle Kaiser dived left underneath Santiago Urrutia for the second position, while Nico Jamin went to the right. Now three-wide in one of the tightest corners of the circuit, Jamin made slight contact with the outside wall, bottling up the field behind them. As a result, Shelby Blackstock was left nowhere to go as he drove over Jamin’s rear tire, followed by Neil Alberico catching a good piece of the action.

“That was pretty wild,” eventual race runner-up Aaron Telitz said. “Three cars tried to go three-wide all the way around the corner, which obviously didn’t end up going well for them. It bottled up and my teammate Shelby (Blackstock) went up and over Nico (Jamin), and I could see the bottom of Shelby’s car, so I thought it’d be a full course yellow, and sure enough it came out.”

Kaiser would go on to win the race, but Jamin, Blackstock, and Alberico all were done for the event. Urrutia was also able to continue but eventually came to a stop on the front stretch on Lap 12 en route to finishing 11th.

The incident just added to the frustrations of the weekend for Jamin and Blackstock, who both failed to post a top-10 finish in the first race of the weekend. Jamin was running up in the top-five but got front end damage when he ran into Matheus Leist after he spun on Lap 5. Meanwhile, Blackstock began the race with a mechanical issue, going seven laps down before joining the action.

While both drivers were expected to be part of the championship conversation, they have now fallen outside of the top-five in points with Jamin seventh and Blackstock 12th. The pair could use a good run at Mid-Ohio as Jamin has only one top-10 in the last four races, while Blackstock has failed to post a top-10 in the last three.

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @ladybug388

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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Andretti Autosport Returns to Championship Form

Even though Andretti Autosport had things going their way in the Verizon IndyCar Series with Ryan Hunter-Reay contending for victories the past couple season, their Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires program was faltering. Now with six rounds in the books, it appears the program is back on track.

“We have four talented drivers,” Michael Andretti said on Friday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “We have two that are getting us wins. They’re going to be duking it out the rest of the year, so far.”

The organization came close to winning the championship in 2014, placing Zach Veach and Mathew Brabham third and fourth in the standings. Veach led the points through the first seven rounds boasting a pair of victories, though with only one win in season’s second half saw him drop two positions. Meanwhile, Brabham climbed his way back up after sitting ninth following the season-opener at St. Petersburg, with his season highlighted by a victory in the Indianapolis Road Course Race 1.

It was expected they would contend once again in 2015, but that didn’t happen, with the 2016 season also going down the pipes.

They fielded only one entry full-time in 2015 with Shelby Blackstock behind the wheel, placing 10th in the standings with a best finish of third at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. A year later, Blackstock failed to post a podium en route to finishing eighth in points. Dalton Kellett and Dean Stoneman also ran full-time, and although Stoneman won the Freedom 100 at Indianapolis, success was few and far between with Stoneman placing sixth in points and Kellett in 10th.

Now so far this season, they have two drivers currently in the top-three in points, with Nico Jamin second and Colton Herta third.

Jamin may have started off his season with a pair of finishes outside of the top-five at St. Petersburg, but he’s been doing an amazing job ever since. He scored his first career Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires competition in race one at Barber Motorsports Park, before finishing third in the second event. Indianapolis went well for him, as well, with a victory in round one followed by a fourth in race two.

“That’s what we’re aiming for,” Jamin said. “We want to do this season, win the championship. A win at Barber and a win here – we have momentum going on now.”

He enters the top series on the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires after placing third in the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires last season.

Herta came out of the gate fast right off the bat, with two wins and a runner-up in the first four races to enter Indianapolis with a 16-point lead. However, problems in both races for a pair of finishes outside the top-nine slipped him back to third. Even though success has come quickly, it’s mindful to remember Herta is a series rookie, and original intentions were to go with a two-year program by setting the ground work this year to win a title next season.

“To be honest, it was unexpected,” Herta said following Barber. “We were just going in there hoping just to get some top-five finishes, start the season off right, and get some points.”

Last year, Andretti Autosport won the Freedom 100 – but that was the only highlight of the campaign.

With success coming already, another victory on the first oval of 2017 would solidify their stance of being contenders all year-long.

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER:@ladybug388

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.