SEBRING, Fla. – Neil Alberico began the season as a hot favorite for top honors in this year’s Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda after winning five of six races in the Cooper Tires Winterfest mini-series last month. His regular season began with disappointment yesterday in the first of two races at Sebring International Raceway when his Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing Van Diemen-Mazda encountered a problem at the start, but the 20-year-old Californian rebounded magnificently this morning as he took a convincing victory in Round 2.
Teammate and first round winner Scott Hargrove (#38 Analytic Systems/Race Energy/Metal Action/Sip Barber Racing/Bell Racing) started from the pole but slipped back to third during an eventful first lap which saw Garett Grist in the #7 DaVinci Foods entry take the lead for Andretti Autosport, while Alberico (#2 Racelite Protection/Bondurant School of High Performance Driving/eFormulaCarNews.com/J&M Trophies) managed to fight his way from fifth on the grid to second.
An incident farther down the 31-car field brought out the caution flags at the end of Lap 1, and after a lengthy cleanup Alberico once again leapt into action, vaulting past Grist into a lead he never looked likely to relinquish. Grist, who had charged impressively from ninth to second in yesterday’s opener, was unable to carry that form into today’s race, slipping back to fifth place by the finish.
Hargrove followed Alberico into second place, which was enough to cement his lead at the top of the championship point standings, although Alberico snared a pair of bonus points by virtue of leading most laps and posting the fastest race lap.
Former Skip Barber Racing standout Danilo Estrela, from Goiania, Brazil, drove another fine race for Belardi Auto Racing to claim his second successive podium finish. Jesse Lazare of Pabst Racing Services, a podium finisher at Sebring during the Winterfest, held off numerous challenges to cross the line fourth in the #21 Door Doctor Inc. entry.
Other noteworthy drives included RC Enerson of ZSports Midwest with Team E Racing who advanced 11 positions from 29th to 18th in the #10 Team E/Patriot Bank machine to claim the Tilton Hard Charger Award; Wyatt Gooden of Afterburner Autosport, who finished sixth after starting 13th in the #17 Ohio Center for Sport Psychology entry; and Jason Wolfe of Pabst Racing Services, who brought the #23 Pabst Racing/Wolfe Trucking, Inc. car home in seventh after starting 14th.
Once again, eight different teams were represented by the top-10 finishers.
In the championship standings, Hargrove (58 points) has a 14-point lead over Estrela (44) in second with Grist (42) two additional points in arrears in third. Alberico sits fourth with 33, with three drivers currently tied at 29 points for fifth – Lazare, Stefan Rzadzinski of JDC MotorSports, and Gooden.
In the National Class Presented by SCCA Enterprises, Alliance Autosport’s Scott Rettich notched his second win of the year in the #71 PDI Communication Systems/Springboro Car Wash entry.
Additional awards included the PFC Award to the winning car owners of Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing and Alliance Autosport; the Staubli Award to Alberico; and the National Class Masters Award Presented by Elite Engines/Comprent to Rettich.
The Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda will be back in action next weekend with a double-header on the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla., in support of the season-opening race of the IZOD IndyCar Series which will feature all levels of the Mazda Road to Indy.
Neil Alberico, #2 Racelite Protection/Bondurant School of High Performance Driving/ eFormulaCarNews.com/J&M Trophies (Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing) – First: “It was a frustrating start to the season yesterday. I didn’t put down a good lap time because I didn’t race so I started fifth today. I just really wanted to get a clean start in the first corner, put my head down and turn some good laps and I ended up leading the race. It was great way to end the weekend and I’m looking forward to St. Petersburg next weekend.”
Scott Hargrove, #38 Analytic Systems/Race Energy/Metal Action/Skip Barber Racing/ Bell Racing (Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing) – Second: “Today’s race was a little bit more exciting. I didn’t get quite as good of a start as I had yesterday and had pressure right away from Garett [Grist]. He was able to pass me right before the yellow so I didn’t have a chance to try and attack him back. When he got by me, Neil did as well. Coming to the restart, I stayed right with Neil and we split Garett and made it a Cape sandwich with me on the inside and Neil on the outside and then we settled into a rhythm after a few laps. Once we got going I tried to chase Neil down but he was in a league of his own today so congrats to him.”
Danilo Estrela, #11 Belardi Auto Racing – Third: “At the start of the race I was a little bit conservative, but it was good. My car was very good so I started pushing harder and harder. With our result today, we are sitting second in points which is great. I am really happy with the race today. On the last restart, I didn’t do a bad job but I could have been better. The front row did it perfectly but I am happy with our result.”
Scott Rettich, #71 PDI Communication Systems/Springboro Car Wash (Alliance Autosport) – First National Class: “Our race went very well. It couldn’t have gone better. I put my head down, posted consistent laps and never really looked in my mirrors too much. On the restarts I was challenged a little bit but after the first half-lap I was able to open up a good gap and I have to thank my Alliance Autosport team.”