IndyLights – Vernay Wins the Firestone Firehawk Cup

As we mentioned in the podcast, all JK Vernay had to do to win the Firestone Indy Lights Championship and the Firestone Firehawk Cup was to turn a wheel in competition at Homestead.

He did so, and took the title in his rookie year in the Firestone Indy Lights. The question now is what is next for this young hot shoe? Will he run another year in Firestone Indy Lights, or will he find a ride with an IZOD IndyCar Series team, or move on to some other series entirely? Much of the uncertainty resides in the lack of an incentive for IndyCar teams to hire the Indy Lights champion. This is a problem Randy Bernard is keen on fixing, and we’ll be discussing this and other feeder series news all through the off-season. For now, lets take a look back at how Vernay won his championship.

Getting off on the right foot

Vernay started out right at the beginning of the season by signing the contract Sam Schmidt offered him to drive the #7 Lucas Oil machine for Sam Schmidt Motorsports. He got an even better start when he won the first two races in dominating fashion! Unlike the IZOD IndyCar Series which started in Brazil, the first race of the Firestone Indy Lights season was on the Streets of St. Petersburg. JK missed the pole, but he led the most laps on his way to taking the checkers giving him not only the 50 points for the win, but also two bonus points. As we saw in the IndyCar championship, those bonus points can be critical, and its good to start earning them early. At the next race at Barber Motorsports Park, Vernay improved and made a clean sweep of the points by winning from pole and leading flag-to-flag. When the series came to the Streets of Long Beach, Vernay couldn’t quite manage the win, but he would still find the podium and finish in thirds thus scoring very valuable points.

At Indianapolis, things didn’t go so well for the rookie. Although he was the fastest rookie, he still only managed to qualify in sixth. Vernay was forced to pit on the first lap, and finished the race six laps down in 13. This allowed Charlie Kimball, who scored his 2nd place finish in a row at Indianapolis, to close to within 5 points of Vernay. The strong start the three previous road circuits helped Vernay weather the bad outing at IMS, and it shows why EVERY point is important, not just the points later in the season.

Consistency through the mid-season

Another mark of a championship season is consistency. This is exactly why Dario Franchitti won the IZOD IndyCar Championship this season. He was consistently good on all types of tracks. Just like the big cars, the Firestone Indy Lights also compete on a wide range of circuits, and a successful driver will be able to find pace at all of them. The middle of the season would see the young drivers move from the 2.5-mile superspeedway of Indianapolis to the 7/8-mile bull ring in Iowa, a natural terrain road course at Watkins Glen, a street race in Toronto, and an airport race in Edmonton before returning to a natural terrain road course at Mid-Ohio. Quite a mix of circuits, to be sure! Only at Mid-Ohio would Vernay fail to reach the podium. At Watkins Glen and Toronto, he would take two victories, including all the bonus points at Toronto, thus extending his championship lead over the rest of the field.

Improvement on the ovals

In order to stay in the lead, Vernay would have to do what Power was unable to achieve. He would have to be strong on the remaining ovals at the end of the season. Of the last four races in the Firestone Indy Lights season, three of them are on 1.5-mile superspeedways: Kentucky, Chicagoland, and Homestead. Vernay would help his situation by dominating the last road circuit of the season scoring maximum points at Infineon Raceway by leading flag-to-flag from pole position. His fourth and third place finishes at Chicago and Kentucky, respectively, would seal the deal, allowing him the luxury of only needing to show up to Homestead to take the series championship.

OpenPaddock.net wishes to extend its congratulations to J.K. Vernay and to all the Firestone Indy Lights drivers this season. Unfortunately, we couldn’t watch the drivers on TV, but for those of us that were fortunate enough to see them race at the track, they put on one entertaining show! If you didn’t see a Firestone Indy Lights race this year, start looking to 2011 now and make it a priority to see young drivers do battle.

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