Mario Romancini won the final Indy Lights race of 2009 with a last-gasp lunge for the line to snatch victory from champion-elect JR Hildebrand in the second-closest finish in the history of the series.
Sixty-seven laps of side-by-side racing on the 1.5-mile Homestead-Miami oval, punctuated by three caution periods, produced a final winning margin for the Brazilian of 0.0057 of a second.
“I’m so glad that everything went well,” said Romancini. “It was an amazing race for us.”
“I think Mario was sort of biding his time back there – I could tell that he was looking pretty good through the race,” said Hildebrand. “I was waiting for the pass, and he tried a couple of times and almost made it happen, but I was trying to hold him off.”
Romancini had qualified 10th and Hildebrand, who had secured the championship at the previous race, started seventh but neither came close to winning the award for gaining the most places during the race.
That went to Hildebrand’s team-mate at AFS/AGR, Sebastian Saavedra, who started on the back row after his car failed during qualifying. He fought through to the back of the leading pack within a few laps of the start and then patiently picked his way up the remaining places to finish third.
It wasn’t quite enough to gain him the runner-up spot in the series, which went to Vision Racing’s James Davison by a single point despite his dropping from pole to finish fifth.
Starting on the back row with Saavedra, after also failing to set a qualifying time, was Panther’s Martin Plowman. He likewise charged through the field into the top 10, where he met his team-mate Pippa Mann falling back from her third-place qualifying position.
Mann, suffering from a lack of straight-line speed, dropped out of the top 10 before mounting a comeback that put her in a side-by-side race with Plowman for seventh and eighth. She dropped briefly to ninth in the dying moments of the race after a clash with Logan Gomez but recovered the place to take her best finish of the season.
She said: “We had a pretty good car in the race but after the second lap I realised that we had too much downforce, which made me slow in the straights. When the race settled down I found my pace in seventh place.
“I got dropped back when I got forced into the wall in the last corner and even banged wheels with the car that was on the inside but kept coming up. I don’t think that is right, but there is nothing I can do about it now. I’m just glad that the banging wheels and putting me into the wall didn’t end up with both cars being wrecked.”
Plowman’s seventh was his fifth top-10 finish in a row, and more look likely next season as the day after the race saw news break that he has been signed by AFS/AGR to run in Indy Lights next year.
He said: “I’ve really enjoyed racing in the Firestone Indy Lights series this year and to get the opportunity to join AFS Racing/Andretti Green Racing next season is fantastic. The 2010 season will be crucial for me in my quest to reach the IndyCar Series, so to join the two-time defending series champions and a proven winner is awesome. Today is a tremendous step forward in my racing career.
“Obviously with AGR, my goals are the take the championship and my first win. I took a big step in my career this year. I think I showed my potential this year and that led to the test with Andretti Green Racing during the break in the season.
“I thought I had left with a good impression and things moved quickly after that. It’s a big relief to have everything signed and delivered at this point, but the real work starts Monday morning. I’m already ready for the first race.”
Talking about the race, he added: “We had to change the engine and we didn’t make it in time for qualifying, so I started dead last. I had a good start even without knowing what to expect from the car and drove my way up to seventh place.
“It’s not a great result but coming all the way from the back it’s kind of cool. We never gave up and the hard work from the guys paid off. I’d like to thank my crew for everything they’ve done this year, this was the best crew I ever had.”