Hunter McElrea did everything he could by leading all 35 laps to win the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey on Saturday at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, but Christian Rasmussen’s hands are all but on the INDY NXT by Firestone championship trophy after the first race of the season-ending doubleheader.
McElrea never trailed from the pole position to earn his second victory of the season in the No. 27 Smart Motors car fielded by Andretti Autosport, winning the race under caution. The win pulled McElrea from 65 points to within 51 of leader Rasmussen with one race remaining, at 12:50 p.m. ET Sunday (live, Peacock, INDYCAR Radio Network). Rasmussen finished second today in the No. 6 HMD Motorsports with DCR machine.
SEE: Race Results
“What a crazy race,” McElrea said. “I was driving like 90 percent and built like a six-second lead. The car was phenomenal. The restarts weren’t easy, weren’t making my life easy, but I knew we had the speed. That’s it: I just have to win two races and hope for the best.”
Rasmussen earned the pole for the race Sunday, and all he needs to do is start the 35-lap event to clinch the championship for the INDYCAR development series.
“I did what I needed to do,” Rasmussen said. “Hunter was super quick all race long, and I knew I really didn’t have anything for him. It was a lonely race for me. I was just sitting in second. I had a big gap in front and a big gap behind.
“I just have to start the race. Just going to be full enjoyment. Starting on the pole position, and we’ll see what happens.”
Danial Frost finished third Saturday in the No. 68 HMD Motorsports with DCR car. Kyffin Simpson placed fourth in the No. 21 HMD Motorsports with CGR machine, with Matthew Brabham rounding out the top five in the No. 76 Juncos Hollinger Racing entry.
McElrea controlled the entire race from the front. He cruised to nearly a seven-second lead over Rasmussen when the first of four caution flags in the race flew, on Lap 18. McElrea pulled away to a lead of nearly two seconds after the first lap after restarts on Laps 22 and 26.
Rasmussen kept it closer on the final restart on Lap 30. He had saved push-to-pass for the end of the race and kept within a second of leader McElrea on the closing laps around the 11-turn, 2.238-mile road course.
Danish driver Rasmussen pulled to within one-half second of McElrea when the No. 28 DHL car of Jamie Chadwick and the No. 39 HMD Motorsports with DCR machine of Nolan Siegel collided in Turn 10, triggering the race-ending caution on Lap 34.
“I was bringing it pretty good at the end,” Rasmussen said. “I could keep close to Hunter because I think I saved so much through the race. I don’t know if I would have had something for him on that last lap, but very satisfied with P2.”