Fifteen-year-old Nikita Johnson put on a clinic in this afternoon’s third race of the VP Racing Fuels Grand Prix of Portland weekend, the season finale for USF Pro 2000 Presented by Cooper Tires. Johnson, from Gulfport, Fla., took the lead with a bold move at the first corner and held on to score his second victory in just five end-of-season starts as he looks to step up from USF2000 Presented by Cooper Tires on a full-time basis in 2024.
Salvador de Alba rebounded from a disappointing first couple of races at Portland International Raceway to finish a strong second for Exclusive Autosport. It was enough to secure third in the championship. Jonathan Browne also returned to prominence after a poor sequence of results to secure the final podium position for Turn 3 Motorsport.
Yesterday’s winner Michael d’Orlando started at the front of the field for Turn 3 Motorsport after snagging his sixth Cooper Tires Pole Award of the season. But d’Orlando was unable to hold off a charging Johnson, who drove around the outside at Turn 1, which gave him the preferred inside line at Turn 2 and a lead he never looked like losing.
In stark contrast to yesterday’s all-green race, today’s was strewn with incidents and caution periods, five in total. The restarts were crucial, but despite his tender years, Johnson was perfect in every single one as he led all 25 laps to take an accomplished victory.
“I took control of the race in Turn 1,” recounted Johnson. “I started in second, braked pretty late, went around the outside of Turn 1 and ended up in the middle for Turn 2 and came out in first position. After that I just put my head down and pushed very hard. We had the car, thanks to the VRD crew, who gave me a rocketship. We had a lot of yellows but I just did my best at the restarts. I think the restarts are what won the race.”
Lirim Zendeli (TJ Speed Motorsports) and Kiko Porto (DEForce Racing) ran third and fourth in the early stages before colliding on the entrance to the Turn Nine/10 chicane. Both were out on the spot.
On one of the early restarts, Pabst Racing’s Jace Denmark dived to inside of d’Orlando for second place at Turn 1. Stuck on the outside line, d’Orlando chose to take to the escape road, which immediately dropped him from second to 11th.
Denmark glimpsed an opportunity to go for the lead at Turn 1 following another restart after 14 laps, whereupon a huge sideways slide caused mayhem behind as virtually the entire field converged on Turn 2 together. Denmark’s teammate Myles Rowe was one of the casualties, forced into the pits to repair damage.
Browne, who started seventh, emerged from the melee in second place, with de Alba hot on his heels, although the Mexican finally took the place for good with a fine maneuver under braking for Turn 1 following another restart after 20 laps. De Alba kept the pressure on Johnson for the final seven laps without quite getting close enough to attempt a pass.
Denmark chased home Browne to snag his second fourth-place finish of the weekend, followed by d’Orlando, who did well to salvage fifth after his early off-course excursion. Francesco Pizzi (TJ Speed Motorsports) finished hot on his heels and just ahead of Jordan Missig (Pabst Racing), who earned his fifth Tilton Hard Charger Award after making up 11 positions during the 30-lap race.
VRD Racing’s Dan Mitchell gained another PFC Award as the winning team owner
Rowe, who yesterday clinched a Discount Tire Driver Development Scholarship valued at $664,500 to ensure graduation to INDY NXT by Firestone in 2024, and his Pabst Racing with Force Indy team will formally receive their awards at the traditional Championship Celebration tomorrow evening in Portland.
After that the focus will switch toward the 2024 season, starting with the annual two-day USF Pro Fall Combine test at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Grand Prix road course on October 21-22.
Provisional final championship points:
1. Myles Rowe, 391
2. Kiko Porto, 326
3. Salvador de Alba, 291
4. Michael d’Orlando, 288
5. Lirim Zendeli, 259
6. Francesco Pizzi, 259
7. Jace Denmark, 252
8. Jonathan Browne, 230
9. Jack William Miller, 212
10. Joel Granfors, 206