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McNeilly tightens USF Juniors title race with Mid-Ohio win

Jay Howard Driver Development’s Liam McNeilly was not to be denied Saturday afternoon in the second USF Juniors Presented by Continental Tire race which concluded the weekend’s Tatuus Grand Prix of Mid-Ohio. McNeilly, from Brentwood, England, led from start to finish in the 20-lap race, closing to within nine points of yesterday’s winner Max Taylor (VRD Racing), from Hoboken, N.J., who still holds the upper hand as they tussle for a scholarship valued at $263,700 to graduate onto the next step of the USF Pro Championships driver development ladder, USF2000, in 2025.

Bruno Ribeiro (DEForce Racing), from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and Ariel Elkin (InterMS), from Haifa, Israel, both battled past early season points leader Sebastian Wheldon (VRD Racing), from Coral Gables, Fla., on the final lap to complete the podium.

For the second successive day, McNeilly started at the front of the field, earning his fourth Continental Tire Pole Award by virtue of posting the fastest second-best lap of the field during the lone qualifying session on Friday.

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The weather conditions today were markedly different from race one, with a dry track, comfortable temperature and minimal humidity ensuring almost perfect racing conditions.

After an early caution due to an incident in Turn 5, McNeilly took off into the lead and soon built a small margin over Ribeiro, who in turn came under increasing pressure from Wheldon. The InterMS pair of Elkin and Augusto Soto-Schirripa, from Miami, Fla., also remained firmly in contention.

Wheldon successfully made a move on Ribeiro for second place on the ninth lap, then immediately closed down the leader and began to pile on the pressure heading into the final stages.

A late caution period due to an incident farther down the field set the stage for a one-lap dash to the checkers. Wheldon sought to challenge McNeilly for the lead under braking for the Keyhole, Turn 2, but the attempt cost him some momentum and allowed Ribeiro to slip past into second place and his maiden podium finish. Elkin also took advantage by moving into third at Turn Six to leave Wheldon a frustrated fourth at the finish.

The consolation for Wheldon was a new race lap record, which also brought a welcome championship point, along with the knowledge he finished one place ahead of Taylor to gain a few more potentially vital championship points. Wheldon is now tied with Elkin for third, 25 points adrift of Taylor with six races still remaining.

“I had a good race,” McNeilly said. “I led the early stages and built up a bit of a gap but then Sebastian was really fast and hunted me down the whole race. It was hard for him to pass. I defended well. We had a caution right at the end and that really helped me out. It was a one-lap dash and I had a really good restart, defended into Turn Two and got a good run out. That was half the battle really. Eyes forward and I was able to claim the win which was mega.”

DEForce Driver Development’s Patricio Gonzalez, from Mexico City, Mexico, secured his first Tilton Hard Charger Award by virtue of rising from 18th on the grid to 12th at the finish.

Jay Howard pocketed the PFC Award as the winning car owner.

A pair of tripleheader events will round out the third season of USF Juniors competition. First up is a visit to the challenging Road America circuit in Elkhart Lake, Wis., on August 10-11, followed two weeks later by the finale at Portland International Raceway in Portland, Ore., once again in support of the NTT IndyCar Series, on August 23-25.

RESULTS

Story originally appeared on Racer