Hunter McElrea

It isn’t always meaningful when a test is held more than six weeks in advance of a race, but Andretti Autosport’s March 14 session at Barber Motorsports Park certainly was beneficial for Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires driver Hunter McElrea.

McElrea went to the session at the 17-turn, 2.3-mile road course still seething from his mistake in the season-opening race in St. Petersburg. He had won the pole and darted away from the field, building a margin of three seconds before he admittedly lost his patience.

Already dealing with traffic, the 22-year-old series rookie said he “got flustered” and hit the outside wall in the corner leading to the long front straightaway. That miscue ended his race, and he had no one to blame for it but himself.

“I had the race fully under control,” he said.

Until he didn’t. Instead of potentially dominating the 14-car field and heading to Barber with a sizable early points lead, he was humbled to a 14th-place finish, 33 points out of first place.

“It was the silliest little error that had big consequences,” McElrea said. “It really hurt, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t lose sleep over it.”

McElrea returned to his apartment in Indianapolis and tried to channel his frustration in training. The simulator in his living room got even more work, and the test at Barber allowed him the much-needed on-track outlet to emotionally move on. It added up to a release of those irritations.

In time, he realized just how impressive his Indy Lights debut was.

“It was unfortunate,” he said of the incident, “but I think I showed what I could do. Obviously, putting (the car) on pole by three-tenths (of a second) in my debut was pretty special, and I did everything I needed to do. I had the race fully under control. I knew I had done everything, and the hard part was out of the way.

“But these things happen, and I’ll be better for it. It is what it is. It’s not like I crashed (after) being slow and was having a terrible weekend. I had a dominating weekend in my first race in Indy Lights, and now there’s a long way to go. There were a lot of guys who had a bad outing who also will be championship contenders.”

Andretti Autosport teammate Christian Rasmussen is chief among them. The 21-year-old Danish driver inherited the lead when McElrea hit the wall, and he led 32 laps before his car came to a rest out of Turn 9. Rasmussen’s misfortune came on the next-to-last lap, which allowed him more seat time during his first Indy Lights race, but he, like McElrea, finished down in the order, in 12th, and will have work to do to win a third consecutive U.S. championship after capturing USF2000 in 2020 and Indy Pro 2000 in 2021.

Fellow Andretti Autosport driver Matthew Brabham was the biggest beneficiary of the team’s issues, veering past Rasmussen to take the victory. Benjamin Pedersen of Global Racing Group with HMD Motorsports was second with Linus Lundqvist of HMD Motorsports with Dale Coyne Racing third.

For McElrea and even Rasmussen, this weekend’s Barber race couldn’t come soon enough. It will have been 63 days since their disappointing days in St. Petersburg, a painful stew, to be sure.

Said McElrea: “I’ve just tried to take the confidence I got out of that race and focus on where I can get better (because) it’s always about getting better. I’ve taken all of the positives I can from it, and it’s well past time to move on.”

Indy Lights’ first practice of the Barber event is Friday at 2:45 p.m. (ET), a 45-minute session to be followed by a second practice of 30 minutes Saturday at noon (ET). Qualifying is Saturday at 3:35 p.m. (ET) with the race, the second of 14 held this season, at 11 a.m. (ET) Sunday.

The 35-lap race can be seen live on Peacock Premium, NBC Sports’ streaming service.