Cunningham Cruises to First Kentucky Firestone Indy Lights Victory
Sam Schmidt Motorsports driver Wade Cunningham raced to his first career Kentucky Speedway Firestone Indy Lights victory this evening by crossing the finish line ahead of AFS/Andretti Green Racing driver Sebastian Saavedra under caution.
Cunningham and his No. 11 Lucas Oil machine charged from the fourth starting position and battled among a lead pack throughout the 67-lap sprint with his teammates James Hinchcliffe in the No. 7 car and Ana Beatriz in the No. 20 car along with Saavedra in the No. 27 car.
Cunningham, who made his last FIL Kentucky Speedway appearance in 2007 and took a third-place finish, led twice for a total of 23 laps. He took the point from Hinchcliffe in Turn 2 on Lap 43 and surrendered it to Saavedra from Laps 52 to 53 before making a decisive pass of Saavedra as the 19-car pack thundered through Turn 2 on Lap 54.
Saavedra was in position to create a signature tight FIL Kentucky finish and pressured Cunningham within 0.1036 of second from Lap 57 to 63 before Hinchcliffe brought out the second and final caution flag of the race when his car spun on backstretch on Lap 64.
Officials reset the pack for a Lap 66 one-lap restart, but it was waved off when it was determined the field was not properly aligned. The decision allowed Cunningham to glide to the finish under caution.
The driver from Auckland, New Zealand earned his third consecutive FIL podium finish in the Bluegrass State and moves from fourth to third in the championship standings with his second win, fourth top-five and seventh top-10 finish of the season.
"It was a difficult race, even when I was in the lead those last 25 to 28 laps. Sebastian had a very strong car and the car behind him dropped into a taller gear, which is how I got him. I knew he was going to be able to make a run. He was pushing his car in a way that he may have damaged the front tires because he wasn't as strong in the last 10 laps. I was able to take advantage of that," Cunningham said.
Saavedra, who started the race second in the FIL standings and 69 points behind championship leader J.R. Hildebrand, gained 20 championship points on his teammate with his seventh top-five and eighth top-10 finish of the season after Hildebrand retired from the race on Lap 13 when his car encountered mechanical issues.
"I'm very happy, we scored some very important points. The car was great. The whole AFS/Andretti Green Racing team did an incredible job. We were just doing as planned, trying to be side-by-side with Wade at the start-finish, but that (last) yellow flag just made everything impossible," Saavedra said.
Hildebrand was credited with a 17th-place finish which ended his run of three consecutive top-two FIL performances.
"It was a frustrating way to end the weekend. It was great to finally get on track, but unfortunate not to be able to finish the race. We still don't know what happened, it could be a number of things and we're in the process of figuring that out. In the grand scheme of things, we're still leading the points. Hopefully, we can come back strong next weekend and be able to gain a bigger lead," Hildebrand said.
Ana Beatriz placed third, James Davison took fourth and Andrew Prendeville rounded out the race top five in the 100-mile race.
FIL "Kentucky Indy Lights 100" Extras:
-The "Kentucky Indy Lights 100" marked the second straight FIL event to feature two female competitors when Panther Racing's Pippa Mann took the green flag with Beatriz. Beatriz earned her first top-five FIL finish at Kentucky Speedway and joins IndyCar Series driver Sarah Fisher and former ARCA RE/MAX Series competitor Erin Crocker as the only females to earn top-five finishes in Kentucky Speedway events.
-The "Kentucky Indy Lights 100" is the first of eight FIL events at the track to be decided under caution. Six of the previous seven FIL races at the track were decided by an average margin of victory of 0.072 of a second.
Story by Mike Schmaltz
~Kentucky Speedway ~