PORTLAND, Ore. – The air of unpredictability that has characterized this year’s Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship continued this morning in a fraught season finale at Portland International Raceway. Michael d’Orlando, from Hartsdale, N.Y., claimed his fourth victory of the season for Cape Motorsports. More importantly by far, d’Orlando vaulted from third in the points table to first after Pabst Racing teammates Jace Denmark, from Scottsdale, Ariz., and Myles Rowe, from New York, N.Y. were both involved in another first-corner incident.
The results assured d’Orlando of a scholarship valued at $406,926 to graduate onto the next step of the Road to Indy, the Indy Pro 2000 Championship Presented by Cooper Tires, in 2023.
Cape Motorsports teammate Nicky Hays, from Huntington Beach, Calif., continued his breakthrough weekend by once again finishing second. Christian Weir, from Naperville, Ill., completed the podium for Turn 3 Motorsport.
After a pair of hectic races on Friday, Rowe and Denmark still maintained the top two positions in the drivers’ championship heading into the 18th and final race of the season. They were separated by a mere six points, with d’Orlando only one more point adrift in third. Denmark narrowed the gap on Rowe by one marker by virtue of his series-equaling fifth Cooper Tires Pole Award of the season (and a clean sweep of this weekend’s three races), while Rowe once again lined up on the outside of the front row of the grid. D’Orlando was mired back in sixth.
Whereas yesterday Denmark’s title hopes were dented by a readily admitted mistake by a crestfallen Rowe at the first corner, this time it was Canadian Thomas Nepveu who began the carnage. The Canadian had started third in his DEForce Racing Tatuus USF-22 and was eagerly eyeing an opportunity to finally secure his first win of the season.
Unfortunately, he mirrored Rowe’s error yesterday by caroming into the rear of Denmark’s car under braking for the tight first corner.
As an innocent Denmark was sent spinning, Rowe jinked to his outside, only to make heavy contact with outside second row qualifier Nikita Johnson (VRD Racing), from Gulfport, Fla. Rowe also collided with another car at the exit of the chicane, puncturing his right-front tire.
In an instant, both Pabst cars had been relegated to the back of the field. Rowe was relatively fortunate, able to continue after his team changed a wheel. Denmark, by contrast, spent five laps in the pits while his crew changed some damaged suspension parts.
Johnson, yesterday’s winner Mac Clark (DEForce Racing), from Milton, Ont., Canada, and Jacob Douglas (Exclusive Autosport), from Christchurch, New Zealand, also were eliminated in the fracas.
Nepveu continued in the lead under caution while the carnage was cleared, followed by Hays and d’Orlando. But the Canadian was assessed a drive-through penalty for incident responsibility by Race Control, which he served immediately after the restart.
D’Orlando had no trouble moving ahead of teammate Hays on the following lap, then spent the remainder of the 25-lap race maintaining his advantage. Hays acted dutifully as rear gunner to repel the advances of Weir, in third, with Jagger Jones, from Scottsdale, Ariz., aboard a third Cape car, running strongly in fourth despite having started way back in 17th.
The top four positions remained unchanged as d’Orlando scored an emotional victory. Rowe, meanwhile, fought a magnificent comeback by rising from 15th to fifth, but it wasn’t enough to prevent d’Orlando from sealing the season spoils by just six points.
Brothers Dominic and Nicholas Cape took home the PFC Award as the winning car owners, while Jones ensured a clean sweep of the hardware by taking home the Tilton Hard Charger Award.
Over $1.1 million in prize money and awards will be distributed tomorrow evening at the traditional Championship Celebration to be held in Portland, Ore.
Provisional championship points after 18 of 18 races:
1. Michael d’Orlando, 387
2. Myles Rowe, 381
3. Jace Denmark, 363
4. Jagger Jones, 294
5. Billy Frazer, 268
6. Thomas Nepveu, 262
7. Nicky Hays, 235
8. Christian Weir, 229
9. Bijoy Garg, 203
10. Spike Kohlbecker, 200.
Michael d’Orlando (#4 Focused Project Management/DB Collaborative-Cape Motorsports Tatuus USF-22): “I’m so proud of everyone. The team put together a great car this year. Nicky Hays was out there, he was wide, he was holding everyone off, and I’m sure he would have liked to have that win but I just didn’t let him have it. But I just fought so hard in that one, especially throughout the whole year. It’s been a long time coming, three years, and I’ve put every ounce of my effort and soul into this, and I’m so glad it paid off.
“I can’t even explain these emotions. I’ve had this dream since I was 6 years old, maybe even younger. Its’s been in my blood since then. Becoming a champion has always been a dream of mine and although this is only a step on the way to INDYCAR, it makes things a lot easier for me. I’d like to thank everyone – Cape Motorsports, Rising Star Racing, all my sponsors for coming out here and making this possible. We are the champions!”
Nicky Hays (#5 Touchstone Helicopters/Molecule Sports/Cape Motorsports Tatuus USF-22): “I saw Thomas (Nepveu) get into the back of I think it was Jace (Denmark) and turn him straight into the wall, so I figured when everything settled and I was second, Thomas was going to have some form of penalty. And then on the restart I went for it into (Turn) One. Me and Michael (d’Orlando) both went too deep, so I was happy I made the corner, I thought I was going to have to take the escape road. After that I just went into the mode of seeing what the championship (picture) was and just kind of pacing Michael and giving myself some clear air and ended up staying in second. I just couldn’t be happier for the team to barely get the championship, and building this momentum going into the winter feels really, really good.”
Christian Weir (#32 Ecomfort.com/Ferguson/ProFlow-Turn 3 Motorsport): “It was definitely an interesting race. That first lap was kind of chaotic. I started on the outside and all I saw on the inside was smoke and cars everywhere, so I just committed to the runoff, just because I knew there was no way I could make it through there, and by the end of the first lap I’m, like, in fourth place. I had a bit of a charge and caught up to Nicky Hays but he was playing a good wingman to Michael d’Orlando there, so it was kind of hard to get by him. Jagger Jones was trying to get by me too, which made it interesting. The pressure was really hard to cope with but I’m so happy with a third-place finish.”