McNeilly and Wheldon Claim USF Juniors Wins in Louisiana
 April 8, 2024| 
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USF Juniors Sunday photo2
NEW ORLEANS, La. – Liam McNeilly and Sebastian Wheldon once again emerged as the top USF Juniors Presented by Continental Tire protagonists as the opening tripleheader round of the season was concluded today at NOLA Motorsports Park. McNeilly, from Brentwood, England, turned the tables on yesterday’s winner Wheldon, from Coral Gables, Fla., this morning after a thrilling contest, while the Continental Tire Grand Prix of Louisiana wrapped up several hours later with Wheldon securing a second victory and the championship lead.

Israeli Ariel Elkin finished a strong third this morning for the InterMS team, while VRD Racing’s Max Taylor, from Hoboken, N.J., edged McNeilly for second in the final 12-lap encounter which once again was run under entirely green-flag conditions.

A separate qualifying session, with the 26-car field split into two groups, was held this morning to establish the grid for today’s pair of races. Honors were split, with yesterday’s runaway winner Wheldon claiming his first Continental Tire Pole Award for the first of today’s two races, with Saturday polesitter McNeilly posting the best of every driver’s second-fastest lap to claim what could prove to be a vital championship bonus point for the third and final race of the weekend.

Wheldon swept into an immediate lead this morning, assisted further when third-fastest qualifier Vinicius Tessaro’s DEForce car abruptly cut out exiting Turn Four. Miraculously, the Brazilian was not collected by anyone among the huge pack of cars in his wake, and he was able to rejoin at the back of the field. Tessaro then posted an impressive fightback by climbing from 25th to 11th at the checkered flag.

Consequently, Wheldon completed the first lap with a massive advantage of over three seconds, although to his chagrin, that was whittled to nothing when the caution flags waved briefly due to some debris on the race track from an incident farther down the field.

The restart was a different story altogether. Wheldon immediately came under pressure from McNeilly, who went side-by-side with Wheldon through the first couple of corners and then moved into the lead by virtue of having the inside line for Turn Three.

McNeilly thereafter controlled the race from the front, and even though Wheldon mounted a stern challenge, there was no way through as the Englishman claimed the victory.

Taylor finished third on the road for VRD Racing, but the addition of a five-second penalty for jumping the start relegated him to sixth behind first-time podium finisher Elkin, InterMS teammate Augusto Soto-Schirripa, from Miami, Fla., who bounced back well after having been unable to start Saturday’s race due to an electrical gremlin, and Exclusive Autosport’s Jack Jeffers, from San Antonio, Texas.

Mexican Rodrigo Gonzalez (DEForce Driver Development) took home the Tilton Hard Charger Award after working his way from 25th on the grid to 17th at the checkered flag.

The PFC Award to the winning car owner went to Jay Howard.

Race Three this afternoon began once again with McNeilly leading the way from Taylor and Wheldon, although Elkin was the man to watch at the start as he charged from fifth on the grid to challenge McNeilly for the lead as they raced into Turn Four for the first time.

McNeilly pushed a little too hard under braking for Turn 10 on the opening lap and briefly ran into the escape road. He emerged still with the lead but quickly ceded the position after recognizing he had gained an illegal advantage. Elkin was the initial beneficiary, although Wheldon immediately began to apply pressure and it was only a matter of time before the Israeli was forced to capitulate.

Once into the lead on lap 4, Wheldon put his head down and soon stretched out a comfortable lead.

Taylor also found a way past Elkin and chased the leader as hard as he could. The pair ran an almost identical pace but the advantage never looked likely to shift away from Wheldon.

McNeilly fought back from his early miscue to claim third ahead of Elkin, who finished with a slender edge over Tessaro and Soto-Schirripa.

Brazilian Joao Vergara earned the Tilton Hard Charger Award for Exclusive Autosport by virtue of making up six positions from 19th on the grid, while VRD Racing’s Dan Mitchell claimed his second PFC Award of the weekend as the winning car owner.

The next event for USF Juniors Presented by Continental Tire will be held in conjunction with the NTT INDYCAR SERIES at Barber Motorsports Park in Leeds, Ala. Practice and qualifying will take place on Thursday, April 25, with a warmup and two 20-lap races slated for Friday, April 26.

Provisional championship points after 3 of 16 races:
1. Sebastian Wheldon, 90
2. Liam McNeilly, 81
3. Max Taylor, 62
4. Ariel Elkin, 58
5. Vinicius Tessaro, 46
6. Jack Jeffers, 46
7. Bruno Ribeiro, 35
8. Augusto Soto-Schirripa, 34
9. Leonardo Escorpioni, 33
10. Evan Cooley, 29

Liam McNeilly (#9 Acclaim Contracts/Wolf International-Jay Howard Driver Development Tatuus JR-23): “I had a good day here at Nola. I qualified second overall and managed to convert that to a win in Race Two. I was on pole for Race Three. I had a good start and then dropped back a few places. I managed to get my way back up into third which I managed through the rest of the race. A good start to the season and hopefully we will build on that for Barber.”

Sebastian Wheldon (#98 Gainbridge Andretti-VRD Racing Tatuus JR-23): “The day went really well. In the first race I was able to finish second, which is really good for the points. Heading into the last race, I just wanted to stay on track and keep it clean and was able to take the win. The car was phenomenal all day and I can’t thank VRD enough.”

Max Taylor (#33 PINK ETF/Susan G Komen Foundation-VRD Racing Tatuus JR-23): “Coming into the race, I knew we had a good starting position and a good chance for a really solid result overall for the team. It was my last of six races this weekend, so I was definitely tired towards the end. But I had a solid race making it up to P2 and catching the leader but it just wasn’t enough. Still an amazing result for all at VRD and I would like to thank all of them.”

Ariel Elkin (#25 Monaco Friends of Israel/Swift Garage/Mossad/IDF-InterMS Tatuus JR-23): “I would like to thank all of Israel and everyone who supports me and follows me. We had a great race and did the first podium of the season. I am thankful for all of my supporters. I am thankful for my team and for the IDF, who is keeping my family safe. I am calling for bringing all of the hostages back home now and I am waiting to be back in Israel with my friend who is already half a year in Gaza. I am waiting for her to come back home with all of the hostages.
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