Among the six remaining competitors that remain battling for the Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires crown, perhaps no pair of drivers pose a bigger threat to win it all than Dean Stoneman and Zach Veach.
With a $1 million Mazda scholarship that gives the champion three races in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series, including the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, each appears at the ready as Indy Lights heads to its final rounds at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.
Stoneman (above) sits third in the standings, 23 points behind points leader Santiago Urrutia. He enjoyed his only two wins of the season at Indianapolis Motor Speedway (one oval, one road course), including an exhilarating at-the-line finish victory at 0.0024 of a second in the Freedom 100. The Brit and driver of the No. 27 Andretti Autosport Dallara IL-15 also has seven podiums to his credit in his inaugural Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires campaign.
The 26-year-old was keen to point out a pair of issues that hurt his championship hopes, but admitted that to still be in the hunt speaks volumes over the effort of his team this season.
“It's going to be interesting as we head into this weekend,” Stoneman said. “Our two technical setbacks at Barber and Toronto, when we didn't start, have cost us dearly. So it's an achievement we still have an outside chance on taking it to the wire.
“I have to give a big thank you to my team for the tremendous effort in helping me have a shot at winning the title with just two races to go. Winning the championship would mean a lot and provide me with the opportunity to move up to (the Verizon IndyCar Series) and the (Indianapolis) 500 next season.”
The story is all the more interesting for Veach (left).
The 21-year-old from Stockdale, Ohio, could easily be tabbed Comeback Driver of the Year after sitting last year on the sideline with injuries. The No. 5 Belardi Auto Racing driver fell out of the lead and lost a potential win to a mechanical failure at the opening round in St. Petersburg, and let a sure win slip in the waning laps at Iowa Speedway back in July.
With the most recent of his two wins coming at the historic Watkins Glen International last weekend, momentum appeared to be in favor of Veach as he catapulted to fourth in the standings. However, a post-race technical inspection revealed an issue with his car’s floor height and he was penalized 10 points, dropping him to sixth in the standings, 41 behind the championship leader.
The adventurous season has shown that the 2014 third-place points finisher can battle back from adversity, but with his biggest test yet coming at the 2.238-mile, 11-turn Laguna Seca permanent road course this weekend, the mindset remains the same.
“Honestly, the one way that got me back into the championship hunt was just going out there and risking it all and going for the win,” Veach said.
“Both races out there, I’m going to be focused on doing whatever I need to do to get up front, lead the race and take it to the checkered, but if don’t have a position that we can win, then we just need to get as much points as humanly possible.”
The Soul Red Finale weekend at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca is the climactic weekend for all three Mazda Road to Indy series (Indy Lights, Pro Mazda Championship presented by Cooper Tires and Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship powered by Mazda). All weekend sessions are set to stream live on RaceControl.IndyCar.com.
Practice sessions take place Friday, beginning with Pro Mazda at 11:45 a.m. ET and running through the conclusion of Indy Lights practice at 7:55 p.m. Qualifying for all three series runs from 11:35 a.m. to 1:35 p.m. ET Saturday, with the first race for each later that afternoon (Pro Mazda 5:05 p.m., Indy Lights 6 p.m., USF2000 7:05 p.m.). Pro Mazda’s second race will be at 11 a.m. ET Sunday, followed by USF2000 at 2:20 p.m., Indy Lights at 4:10 p.m. and the third Pro Mazda race concluding action at 5:35 p.m.