Johnson’s Daily Double Tightens USF Pro 2000 Title Chase
 July 6, 2024| 
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LEXINGTON, Ohio – Nikita Johnson thrust himself back into the USF Pro 2000 Presented by Continental Tire championship chase by scoring an emphatic double victory in today’s Tatuus Grand Prix of Mid-Ohio. The 16-year-old from Gulfport, Fla., led throughout this morning’s 30-lap race but had to come from behind to complete the clean sweep later this afternoon for VRD Racing.

Jace Denmark, from Brownsburg, Ind., also enjoyed a strong day for Pabst Racing with a pair of runnerup finishes as teammate Christian Brooks, from Santa Clarita, Calif., and Turn 3 Motorsport’s Danny Dyszelski, from Belmont, NC., shared the third-place honors.

After a challenging weekend last time out at Road America, early season points leader Johnson laid down a marker by breaking his tie with points leader Lochie Hughes (Turn 3 Motorsport), from Gold Coast, Australia, and snagging his fourth Continental Tire Pole Award of the season during the lone qualifying session on Friday.

Johnson continued his bounce back to prominence by leading throughout this morning’s 30-lap race. Denmark remained hot on his heels in the early stages, with teammate Brooks also in close contention.

After starting sixth, Hughes gained a position at the start on Exclusive Autosport’s Braden Eves, from Gahanna, Ohio, but also lost one to fast-starting Canadian Mac Clark (DEForce Racing), who muscled his way through in a bold three-wide maneuver at Turn Four. Hughes, though, was quickly into his stride, overtaking both Clark and Pabst Racing’s Simon Sikes, from Augusta, Ga., on lap four to move into fourth position.

The five leaders – Johnson, Denmark, Brooks, Hughes and Sikes – remained in the same positions throughout the 30-lap race, but there was plenty of intrigue as the perfect racing conditions, with a clear blue sky and reduced humidity, allowed them to circulate faster than in qualifying and effectively set the starting grid for Race Two later in the day, which would be determined according to either each driver’s second-fastest lap in qualifying or their fastest lap in Race One.

Ultimately, it was Sikes who claimed that honor, narrowly ahead of Denmark, Hughes, Brooks and race winner Johnson. All five were bracketed by a little more than a tenth of a second, setting the stage for another intriguing contest later in the day.

For the second time in as many races, Canada’s Nico Christodoulou earned the Tilton Hard Charger Award, working his way from 18th on the grid following a major mechanical failure in qualifying to finish in 10th.

Sikes took advantage of his second Continental Tire Pole Award of the season by leading away from the start in Race Two, but was unable to shake off Denmark, who remained seemingly glued to his rear wing as the two leaders edged away from Brooks and Johnson in third and fourth.

The latter pair exchanged places on lap four, shortly before the day’s first full-course caution due to a clash between New Zealander Liam Sceats (TJ Speed Motorsports) and Frankie Mossman (Jay Howard Driver Development), from Newport Beach, Calif.

The complexion of the race totally changed soon after the restart when Sikes chose to negotiate the ultra-quick Turn One in fifth gear, rather than shifting down to fourth, and was surprised when the car bogged down on the exit. Denmark and Johnson immediately drove around him, but it was Johnson who had the better momentum which carried him from third to the lead by the time the pair braked for Turn Two.

Worse was to come for Sikes at the end of the back straightaway when he tangled with Hughes as they sped toward the apex. The collision sent Sikes spearing onto the grass and left Hughes spinning into the path of Brooks, whose day ended on the spot. The other two continued, with Hughes managing to salvage valuable points in seventh position and Sikes just one place behind after another tangle with Mexico’s Ricardo Escotto (BN Racing).

The various incidents elevated the privately run Comet/NCMP Racing entry of Logan Adams, from Greenfield, Ind., into a third place, which he maintained impressively until being passed by Dyszelski with eight laps remaining.

Adams held on for a fine, career-best fourth, well clear of Escotto, who had started 18th and staunchly resisted myriad attempts from a variety of rivals to find a way past. Fifth position was his reward, along with the Tilton Hard Charger Award.

Johnson’s banner day bumped him back to second place in the point standings, just 26 markers shy of Hughes. Only four races remain in the chase for a scholarship valued at $681,500 to progress onto the next step of the ladder, INDY NXT, in 2025 Johnson also snagged two more PFC Awards for VRD Racing team principal Dan Mitchell.

Next up for the USF Pro contingent are a pair of races on the streets of Toronto, Ont., Canada in two weeks’ time, followed by the West Coast season finale at Portland International Raceway in Portland, Ore., on August 23-25.

Provisional championship points after 14 of 18 rounds:
1. Lochie Hughes, 304
2. Nikita Johnson, 278
3. Jace Denmark, 272
4. Christian Brooks, 232
5. Liam Sceats, 211
6. Danny Dyszelski, 189
7. Simon Sikes, 180
8. Braden Eves, 170
9 Frankie Mossman, 156
10. Hunter Yeany, 148

Race One Quotes:
Nikita Johnson (#17 409A Direct/AnyDesk/Labrador Primary Care-VRD Racing Tatuus IP-22): “The race went very well. We started on pole, managed the lead, kept the gap and extended it. The car was on rails today. I can’t thank the VRD boys enough, all of my sponsors, my dad for taking me here and my mother and brother watching back home – everyone in North Carolina and Florida watching. It means a lot and it is great to be back on the top step of the podium. We haven’t had this since Indy. It is good to get back our points and just win again.”

Jace Denmark (#20 3-Dimensional-Pabst Racing Tatuus IP-22): “It was 30 laps of just consistent pace. As soon as we would get close to Nikita, the aerowash would put us back a little bit. I think him having the clean air from the get-go really saved his tires till the end. I think I was driving a bit better than him at the very end when I closed the gap. It’s Mid-Ohio and it’s a track position kind of race. All of our cars were really good. Thanks to Pabst Racing. We did a lot of work in practice and qualifying to be there. A huge thank you to 3-Dimensional Services and Doug Peterson for allowing me to be here at Mid-Ohio and contending for wins and being on the podium.”

Christian Brooks (#19 BUCKED UP/Deploy Surveillance-Pabst Racing Tatuus IP-22): “It was kind of follow the leader. We had a really good car but it is tough at this track with the aerowash to really show what the car has. Everyone at the front was very consistent and after the start, there really wasn’t much action, but I am proud of the Pabst boys for giving me a good car and another podium. I think this is our third podium in a row so we have definitely improved quite a bit from the beginning of the season and definitely proud.”

Race 2:
Nikita Johnson (#17 409A Direct/AnyDesk/Labrador Primary Care-VRD Racing Tatuus IP-22): “We started P5 but the car was amazing. It was on rails. We got past Lochie in the very beginning and Brooks, which took a few laps. I did a crossover in the braking zone and got him. After the caution, I benefitted from Simon and Jace fighting in Turn One. I backed up at the corner and just got a very good exit and passed them both. We had a few more cautions after that but I just kept it in the lead and made sure to keep Jace in the aerowash. I can’t thank VRD enough.”

Jace Denmark (#20 3-Dimensional-Pabst Racing Tatuus IP-22): “It was frustrating because we had a good first start and things settled in. Then there was a yellow. Simon’s restart was good. He defended, I went to the outside and he kind of just pushed both of us out of the way and screwed up both of our runs. Nikita could get right by us. After that, I was following Nikita as close as I could. It kind of turned into a classic Mid-Ohio. We really didn’t have enough momentum to just get by him. I think we had the car to win but that restart didn’t really help us. I am very proud of this Pabst car #20 crew for getting this car to be in that window to run fast lap times and run in traffic really well.”

Danny Dyszelski (#3 Vera Guitars/Formula Imports/Charlotte Mechanical Turn 3 Motorsport Tatuus IP-22): “It was a really good race. I pitted for tires in race one to get a better starting position, which worked out really well and put me in P6. It was pretty smooth sailing initially, just sitting in sixth up until that incident in Turn Four. I nearly got collected but luckily I wasn’t and that put me up to fifth. After that, it was just about picking off the two cars ahead of me which I was able to do. I had a really good battle with Logan. The car was great. Turn 3 brought an amazing car and I was able to podium.”
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