Hunter McElrea drove to his first INDY NXT by Firestone victory of the season Friday on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, leading all 35 laps from pole.
But this was far from a stroll on Easy Street.
McElrea, from New Zealand, held off Andretti Autosport teammate James Roe by .4370 of a second to earn his third career victory in the INDYCAR development series and his first since July 2022 at Iowa Speedway.
Roe, who trailed by nearly seven seconds with seven laps remaining, earned his first career podium finish in the No. 29 Topcon car after starting second. His previous best was fourth last Sunday at Nashville.
SEE: Race Results
“That was the hardest race of my life,” McElrea said. “From about Lap 15, I burned my rears (tires) off. I think we probably favored the qualifying car a bit much this weekend. I think it was a bit self-inflicted, but it (car) was a handful. I was hanging on for dear life.”
McElrea jumped to second in the championship standings, 33 points behind leader Christian Rasmussen, who finished sixth in the No. 6 HMD Motorsports with DCR car. Four races remain this season.
Rookie Reece Gold finished third in the No. 10 HMD Motorsports with Dale Coyne Racing machine, his best result since earning his first career victory in June at Detroit.
Jacob Abel rallied from the eighth starting spot to finish fourth in the No. 51 Abel Motorsports entry. Kyffin Simpson rounded out the top five in the No. 21 HMD Motorsports with CGR car.
The race between McElrea and Roe on the final lap was the second tight duel for the race winner on the 14-turn, 2.439-mile road course.
Andretti Autosport teammate Louis Foster passed Roe for second early in the race and began his pursuit of McElrea. Foster closed to within .594 of a second on Lap 21 and caught McElrea on Lap 23. The two drivers went side by side on the back straightaway, with McElrea holding the lead into Turn 7.
On Lap 27, Foster tried to dive under McElrea for the lead in Turn 10, but McElrea closed the space, with the cars making contact and Foster hitting the curbing hard at the apex of the corner. That contact bent the suspension on Foster’s No. 26 Copart/USF Pro Championship car, and Roe and Gold quickly passed Foster’s slowing car.
The damage forced Foster to retire on Lap 29.
“I was watching him, and he was sliding around more than I was,” Foster said of McElrea. “We had more push-to-pass, as well. I went for a move, and he turned in on me, and I got damage. It’s unfortunate. We’re teammates. I would have expected a bit more space being given. I would have given more space myself.”
Said McElrea: “I had nothing for Louis there. I hate to see that. He should have been fighting for the win the whole way. He was very fast. It’s tough, man. I respect him a lot. It’s hard racing.”
McElrea led by 6.7817 seconds over Roe with seven laps remaining. But Roe gained huge chunks of time, around one second per lap, until the white flag.
Roe locked his front tire in Turn 1 on the final lap while chasing, giving McElrea the gap he needed to hang on for the win.
“I went conservative to start on push-to-pass,” Roe said. “Louis got by me; I knew he was quick. I saved push-to-pass. I didn’t use it for 20 laps. The deg (tire degradation) was pretty big here this weekend. I burned a lot of the tire off.
“When I went to use the push-to-pass there at the end, I didn’t have the tire to match the amount of the push-to-pass that I had. But, hey, a podium here. We’ve been on a run recently. We were super fast in Nashville, and here we go.”
The next race is the INDY NXT by Firestone OUTFRONT Showdown on Saturday, Aug. 26 at World Wide Technology Raceway. It’s the last oval race of the season.