Homestead: Sam Schmidt Motorsports race report

VERNAY OFFICIALLY WINS SEASON CHAMPIONSHIP BY STARTING HOMESTEAD RACE HOMESTEAD, Fla. - It wasn't the prettiest finish to the season, but J.K. Vernay got the job done in clinching the Firestone Indy Lights championship title by starting...

VERNAY OFFICIALLY WINS SEASON CHAMPIONSHIP BY STARTING HOMESTEAD RACE

HOMESTEAD, Fla. - It wasn't the prettiest finish to the season, but J.K. Vernay got the job done in clinching the Firestone Indy Lights championship title by starting Saturday's race at the Homestead-Miami Speedway and finishing 15th.

Wade Cunningham led the way for the Sam Schmidt team by bringing his car home in third. Starting from fifth, he was challenging for the lead right from the drop of the green and ended up in second by the end of Lap 2. Very early on, however, he and Pippa Mann, whom finished fifth, knew that they didn't quite have the cars to lead the race. They had to fight to stay in the draft and hope that opportunities would open up either through restarts or lapped traffic.

Unfortunately, the race ran green from Lap 24 through the final lap, and as the car began to string out, Cunningham and Mann slowly lost the draft and had to settle for their respective positions.

With her hot performances towards the end of the season, Mann was able to move into the top-five in the championship standings with her final result. GIven that she raced in two races with a broken hand and eventually sat out a round, the end result in the championship was a very satisfying stat that she looks to use as a solid base heading into the off-season.

Philip Major had battles of his own going on during the race. Starting from fourth, he dropped back to ninth on Lap 1 just to get himself sorted and comfortable. In a calculated manner, he turned laps around the track to gain some experience and moved forward when the opportunity presented itself. He ended up in eighth, but Sam Schmidt congratulated the driver on his efforts and noted that it was the hardest eighth-place he's ever had to earn.

Vernay entered the finale hoping to put a strong stamp on the championship with a final victory. It wasn't in the cards, however, as Vernay started in the back and just couldn't move forward. It was a frustrating race, but in the big scheme of things, the manner in which he dominated the previous 12 rounds of the season enabled him to have one "off" day. It was a tough pill for him to swallow, but thankfully, he had a nice consolation after the race with some new hardware to take home.

Vernay and the Sam Schmidt team received their end-of-season recognition on Sunday night at the W Hotel on South Beach during the IZOD IndyCar and FIrestone Indy Lights banquet.

No. 7 LUCAS OIL/CJ Motorsport/Sam Schmidt Motorsports Driver J.K. Vernay

"Well, I'm thrilled to have won the championship, but in another sense, I'm very disappointed with how this final race went. As a competitor, I always want to challenge for race victories, and today, we just weren't there. So, it's a bit difficult for me to celebrate my championship on a track that I just had a poor result on. However, with that said, we had a great year this year. We won many races, and I have to give thanks to the people that helped me on my way. A special thanks to Lucas Oil, CJ Motorsport, Sam Schmidt, and my entire Sam Schmidt crew and team. They've done an excellent job all year, and I'm proud to have given them the results that they deserve. We'll begin to celebrate this tomorrow night at the banquet.."

No. 11 Sam Schmidt Motorsports Driver Pippa Mann

"In the heat of the day on Friday, we were really struggling to hold onto the right front tire long enough to make a race distance, and we were struggling with the handling. Today in the race we made a big improvement in the handling of the car, but it wasn't quite enough to really take the challenge to the guys up front. We also think we were dragging the rear of the car on the track a little, which made me fairly slow on the straights and slow to get up to speed on the starts and restarts. However, the balance today was fairly good. I was able to stay ahead of the tires and probably stayed a bit too far ahead of the front tires after yesterday and ended up fairly loose at the end of the race. I dropped a place late in the race when a car I was lapping moved down and took all the air off the front of my car. The resultant moment took me nearly to the wall in Turn 4 and cost me all my momentum, which allowed Campos to get past me for fourth place with a few laps to go. However, in the bigger picture, it didn't affect the outcome of the championship, and I was extremely pleased to be able to bring home fifth in the final point standings. The No. 11 car boys and I have been through a lot this year. They've stuck by me through the thick and the thin. It just feels like a great comeback story to end the year on."

No. 49 Sam Schmidt Motorsports Driver Philip Major

"This was a tough weekend definitely. I never felt completely comfortable with the car, but we had to dig down deep to compete, and we did. We just tried to get some laps today and get some experience. That's what this whole season has been about. I'm still young, and a lot of stuff I encountered this year was new. We kept our heads down, completed as many laps as we could, and I feel like I really learned a lot this year. I have to thank my team for a great job done all year, and it's a shame that the off-season is so long because I'm ready to get going again!"

No. 77 IZOD/Sam Schmidt Motorsports Driver Wade Cunningham

"We got to second right off the bat at the start, and that was nice. Having not raced for four months, you're not quite sure how it's going to go so it felt good to get right up to the lead there and battle with Brandon a bit. Right when I got there though, I knew we didn't have a car to lead. So I was just trying to maintain second-place for that first stint. We crossed paths, and on one lap, he cut my air on the entry to Turn 3, and I just lost a ton of momentum. I lost second to (James) Hinchcliffe and third to Pippa in two consecutive laps trying to get going again. I was able to get back by Pippa on a restart right away heading into Turn 1, and I just sat there behind Hinch and Wagner. We were all running different lines, so it was quite good. I had a moment there with the wind and lost a bit of time. I got down to about a second behind the top-two, and it just stayed steady there for about 20 laps. Slowly, we just started losing a bit of ground. That's all my car had. Once I lost the draft, that was it. Hinch was giving Wagner a pretty big push, and there wasn't anything I could do. I pulled the same gap on the group behind me, and from then on, I was just counting down the laps. I was either praying for a yellow or a bunch of traffic to slow the leaders, but it didn't happen that way. We brought it home third, and I believe that's the best we could do. We didn't have the car to win, but we did maximize our package. I'm just happy to have gotten the opportunity to get back on track thanks to the help from IZOD and Sam Schmidt Motorsports."

Team Owner, Sam Schmidt
"I'm sure Pippa and Wade are both disappointed with third and fifth. The reality is, we probably put a little bit too much downforce in their cars. We could get a run on Wagner, but we just couldn't get by because we had too much drag. I think both of those cars could run amongst the leaders, but it would have been difficult to stay up ahead of the others with our downforce levels. I also give Philip credit. He struggled in all the practice sessions and qualifying. Even though he qualified fourth, his car was a handful. I think he was very mature in the race. He fell back a few positions at the start and moved his way methodically back up. I know it was the hardest eighth-place he's ever earned, but I think he learned a lot from it. As far as J.K., I'm sure he's extremely disappointed with his race result today. In this racing scenario, however, we can smile and say that they only remember your last championship and not your last race."

-source: ssm

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Series INDYLIGHTS