It was a display of driving unlike any seen in the Lionheart IndyCar Series this season, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. Michele de Jonge stormed through the field after starting 21st to win the Make-A-Wish Drive for the Championship 300 at Auto Club Speedway Wednesday night.
“I can assure you it’s not as easy as it may look,” de Jonge said. “It’s harder than it looks.”
The season finale went caution free. The 150 lap race lasted just under 90 minutes. Joe Branch came home second, with series champion Jake Wright in third.
“It’s been a very fun season,” said Wright, who also finished the season as the cleanest driver, while winning Rookie of the Year. “I think just being able to not be involved in any wrecks and just being able to finish where I feel I should without pushing it too hard is the reason I’m here.”
de Jonge took the lead on lap 77 and, aside from pit stops, never looked back, capturing his fourth win of the season. de Jonge also won two of the Triple Crown events, having captured the Indianapolis 500 in September.
“As usual I messed up qualifying, so I started near the back, 21st,” de Jonge said. “The first part of the race I was just slowly picking people off for the first caution, that never came. Somehow I managed to work my way up the field, and I nailed my pit stops this time. I think that was the difference.
“I’ve had a great season. I haven’t done all the races, but the ones I’ve done I’ve had a blast racing with all of the drivers.”
Three top contenders were eliminated from the race after contact. Jesse Vincent dropped out after scraping the wall on lap 47. Dan Geren spun entering the pits on lap 74 and hit the wall, ending his race.
But the races most controversial moment came on lap 68, when race leader Joe Hassert made contact with Mark Nobert, who was a lap down and well off the pace. Hassert spun low off turn two, impacting the wall and ending his race. Hassert led 28 laps before the crash, which dropped him from second to fifth in the points.
James Krahula rebounded from a black flag for speeding in the pits to finish seventh, which bumped him up to second in points. de Jonge’s win moved him up six spots to third in the standings, while Branch’s podium propelled him four spots to fourth in points.
The top ten in the race was littered with cars who made strong moves through the field. Korey Connor finished fourth after starting 16th. Jason Galvin ran from 15th up to fifth. Sixth through tenth were all drivers who started tenth or worst: Chris Stofer, Krahula, Ricky Hardin, Jason Robarge and Tony Showen, respectively.
The 18th event of the season was the second caution-free affair, following the race at Auto Club’s sister track, Michigan International Speedway.
The top fixed-setup IndyCar league on iRacing, the Lionheart IndyCar series saw 54 drivers take the green flag over its 18-race third season. After the race, series founder Jorge Anzaldo announced season four, which will expand the schedule to 22 events. Like season three, the series will open at Homestead-Miami Speedway (March 16) and end with the third Triple Crown event at Auto Club Speedway (November 9).
Anzaldo also announced a new Mazda MX-5 series. The fixed-setup Lionheart MX-5 Challenge will run on Thursday nights and features a mix of road courses and ovals, and is broken up into three seasons of six events for 2016. Anzaldo described the series as more of a breather from the grind that can be the ultra-competitive IndyCar series.
Sign-ups are now open for both the IndyCar Series and MX-5 Challenge. For more information or to sign up, visit www.LionheartRacingSeries.com.
Six weeks after losing the lead in the final corner at Phoenix, Jason Robarge found a way to hang on over the final few hundred feet in a thrilling three-wide finish in the Deadzone Racing 150 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Robarge edged Dan Geren and series champion Jake Wright, both of whom finished within .078 seconds of the winner.
“I need a towel right now to wipe off all that sweat,” Robarge said in victory lane. “My heart is racing from just trying to hold that bottom. You know how it is racing them, (Geren and Wright) are both so talented.”
The win is Robarge’s first of the season, and second in his Lionheart IndyCar Series career. He is the 12th different winner through 16 events this season.
“I didn’t even expect it, I was just hoping for a top 15,” Robarge said. “I was having connection issues and I just wanted to make it to the end.”
Robarge inherited the lead from Ed Tutwiler on lap 93. Tutwiler, who stretched his fuel, hoping to need just a splash and beat the leaders back off pit road, instead missed his pit entry and spun through the grass, picking up a penalty and ending his chances of winning.
Geren and Wright used the draft to close the gap on Robarge, but despite numerous attempts, neither could get around the eventual winner.
“I feel exhausted after that race,” Wright said. “It was a very different race, because we started on pole but dropped back during the second caution and had to work our way back up.”
Geren echoed Wright’s sentiment.
“I’m still shaking on that one,” Geren said. “I tried, tried, tried to get Jason there at the end because I knew if I got a big enough run off four, I could get him at the line. It just wasn’t enough.”
Big Joe Hassert finished fourth, while Alfred Shepperd ran a season-best fifth.
The race saw two cautions. The first, on lap 34, also was the result of a driver missing pit entrance. Dave Barber, a rookie in the series, carrier too much speed and couldn’t get turned down quick enough. When he finally turned in, Brandon Limkemann had nowhere to go and the two collided.
Tutwiler trapped the field a lap down by stretching his fuel, and the ensuing restart saw wild racing as lapped cars and lead-lap cars mixed it up, vying for track position and attempting to run down Tutwiler.
Eventually, the racing was too close. After third place Ricky Hardin hit the wall exiting turn four, Jason Galvin took evasive action. The fourth placed driver made contact with Jesse Vincent, a lap down at the time but running as quick as anyone on track.
Galvin then missed entry into turn one, clipping the apron and wiggling up the track. As Galvin saved the car, Korey Connor couldn’t lift in time, and a massive crash ensued. At the end of it, Galvin, Michael Gray, Hardin, Joe Branch and Tony Showen were all retired.
The lap 53 accident was the final caution of the day, setting up a long run to the stripe and the thrilling finish.
Patrick Taylor came home sixth, with Connor and Vincent rebounding to seventh and eighth, and Mark Nobert and Tutwiler rounding out the top 10.
With double points on the line in the season finale, second through tenth in points could be completely flipped before the season ends. The final race of the Lionheart IndyCar Series season takes place at Auto Club Speedway on Wednesday, January 13. It’s the Make A Wish Drive for the Championship 300, and will be broadcast live on Global SimRacing Channel at 10:45 p.m. est.