With J.K. Vernay taking any suspense out of the Firestone Indy Lights championship by wrapping up the title when he took the green flag for the Fuzzy's Ultra Premium Vodka 100, the 67-lap season finale took center stage. Brandon Wagner was the headliner.
Competing in his 13th race (fifth this season), Wagner held off James Hinchcliffe by 0.7006 of a second for his first victory and first for Davey Hamilton Racing.
Wade Cunningham, who won the Firestone Freedom 100 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May in his only other start this season, finished third in the No. 77 IZOD Sam Schmidt Motorsports car. Adrian Campos Jr. was fourth (moving from 11th to sixth in the final standings) and pole sitter Pippa Mann fifth.
Wagner, a former USAC National Midget competitor from Lafayette, Ind., jumped from his third starting position at the green flag and led all but one lap (when Hinchcliffe pulled ahead on a lap 33 duel by 0.0025 of a second).
“We've been really working hard all season to get that win,” said Wagner, 23. “The car was perfect. I had to make a few changes with the bars when I was battling Hinchcliffe, but he raced me clean. I think the high line in Turns 3 and 4 were the way to go and my spotter, Dane Carter, did a great job on the radio for me.
“Hinch gave me all kinds of room up there, and the car freed up and let me get the momentum to get back around him. I'm used to running wheel-to-wheel from my USAC races. Having Davey Hamilton as my coach has helped me transition from midgets to Indy Lights. He's been a huge benefit for me.”
Hinchcliffe, the series championship runner-up (by 23 points) in the No. 2 TMR-Xtreme Coil Drilling car, said “it was a lot of fun dogging him all those laps” but he couldn't garner the momentum off the corners to make the pass. It was his 10th top-five finish, which includes three victories, of the season.
“We started sixth, which was not quite as good in qualifying as I would have liked,” Hinchcliffe said. “We thought it was going to be a decent amount hotter today, so we put a bunch of downforce in the car to try to keep the tires with us and it really helped us get up to Brandon. Just did not have enough to get around him.
“He was super quick and was running really fast and really clean. I could get alongside him a bunch of times, but just didn't have quite enough to make that pass happen. I've got to thank my team for giving me an awesome car to get up there and run with him. Just huge credit to the team for all the hard work all year.”
Vernay, who started 13th and finished 15th in the race slowed by one caution period, had a special guest watching the race. The driver flew his grandfather, Jacques Vernay, to Miami from France.
“I told him I would fly him over for a race for his 70th birthday, which was three weeks ago,” said Vernay, who will receive the spoils of his title-winning season at the Championship Celebration on Oct. 3 at the W Hotel on South Beach. “This was the first chance he had to come over to watch. He was a rally racer in France.”