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SRX at IRP takeaways: Fireworks from Scott Speed, Helio Castroneves as Ernie Francis Jr. takes center stage

Three years ago, SRX driver Ernie Francis Jr. was a NASCAR Drive For Diversity project that never panned out. In an interview with Jeff Gluck of The Athletic, Francis claimed the team he was with in 2018 thought he wasn’t ready to race on oval tracks. 

Wonder what they think now.  

Francis, a seven-time Trans-Am champion, had his breakthrough moment Saturday night, dominating the SRX main event at Lucas Oil Raceway. Fighting off Scott Speed, then Bobby Labonte on two final restarts, Francis beat multiple motorsports legends by reaching victory lane in this new series at the ripe old age of 23. 

For the second time in four races, the reward could be a NASCAR ride as we examine five takeaways from the action at this Indianapolis-area short track.   

1) Ernie comes into his own 

Francis had been knocking on the door the first few weeks, posting five top-5 finishes in six races (including heats) before a bump in the road at Eldora Speedway. Early on Saturday night, he was in position to win Heat 2 before reigning Indy 500 champion Helio Castroneves schooled him on the restart. 

But Francis learned from that, charging up to the front from sixth place and taking charge in the main event. Leading the final 54 laps, he survived a number of late caution flags and an incredible side-by-side battle with Scott Speed.  

Not bad for a guy whose main experience comes on long, winding road courses instead of local short tracks. His success is also validation for Trans Am, wheelmen who often don’t get talked about in the same vein as NASCAR, IndyCar and Formula 1. 

“Ernie had a hell of a night,” added Tony Stewart. “That kid has learned so much in such a short amount of time. He deserves to be here.” 

“Man, I’m totally speechless,” Francis said after the win. “This is incredible. Those last 10-15 laps felt like they were taking forever. It felt like an eternity out there, all the cautions. I was just trying to focus on a good restart.” 

The concentration paid off, twice and puts Francis in position for a better future. Already, Camping World CEO Marcus Lemonis is offering up a ride for NASCAR’s Truck Series.  

“I’m really happy for Ernie,” said Speed, who wound up third. “Stuff like this could help establish himself. And that’s the big picture here.” 

2) Speed stole the show…and Helio’s happiness

You’ve got to give a call to Speed, a driver who never had the NASCAR success he envisioned in years running for Team Red Bull over in Cup. A dominant win in Heat 1 was followed by 22 laps led in the main event, the 38-year-old reminding everyone why he was once a hot enough prospect to be a full-time American driver in Formula One. 

But aggressive driving came with a cost, some inadvertent contact with Castroneves causing multiple incidents between them. Helio got the worst of it, forced to pit under yellow and giving up precious points (from third to ninth) that likely puts this inaugural SRX championship out of reach. 

The two had a heated post-race discussion in which Speed tried, and failed, to calm down the reigning Indy 500 champion. “You know what happened,” Helio said before storming off without comment. 

“I didn’t do it on purpose,” explained Speed after the race. “And then, under caution, he ran into me and spun me out over there… it’s like throwing your toys out of the crib. I’m having a good time here regardless of where I finish.” 

Seems like Helio doesn’t feel the same way. 

3) A rare off night for Tony Stewart

After two straight main event wins, Stewart seemed set to win the SRX championship on cruise control. He still holds a sizable 30-point lead on Francis but opened the door after a seventh-place finish in the main event. 

In doing so, Stewart lost six spots from the pole, the first time he’s lost positions during any SRX race since Heat 1 at Stafford Motor Speedway. Messing with air pressure and taking a spring rubber out during the pit road adjustment period backfired, badly. 

“Bad call on my part,” Stewart said. “On what I thought the change needed to be and dialed myself right out [of contention]. 

“No matter how good the point lead seems right now, you can throw it away in two weeks and lose the thing still. We gotta throw this night out and go back and get ready for Slinger [Speedway] next week, a place I’ve never been to before.” 

It would still take a catastrophe in the final two races for Stewart to blow his lead. But with the momentum of Francis? And the unpredictability of Slinger? There’s a chance. 

4) Awesome Bill having a not-so-awesome comeback 

NASCAR’s 16-time Most Popular Driver brought one of the largest fan bases into SRX. It was impossible to walk five feet at Lucas Oil without bumping into an Elliott T-shirt (with many supporting his son, reigning NASCAR Cup champion Chase). 

It’s made his SRX return to racing all the more disappointing. Reporting a vibration during the main event Saturday night, he was never in contention and ran 10th, 12th and 12th. His average finish in four main event races is now a disastrous 11.8, dropping him to ninth in the season standings (out of 10 full-time drivers). 

Elliott retired in his prime back in 2003, winning during his final full-time season and was competitive in part-time rides all the way through 2012. But Father Time eventually catches up with all of us and Elliott, now age 65, may be living proof. 

5) Paul Tracy (mostly) played nice  

One of the best moments of SRX thus far was when Tracy got introduced exiting a police car at Lucas Oil.  

After wrecking Labonte last week At Eldora, causing a late four-car incident it felt like rage toward Tracy from the field would boil over. Instead, we saw the opposite at Lucas Oil, two heats that were completely devoid of incidents altogether for the first time in four SRX events. 

Late in the race, Tracy did get involved in a small wreck with Tony Kanaan but it was meaningless for the final outcome. Perhaps the silver lining in a quiet sixth-place finish is Tracy’s peers might actually speak to him again at Slinger Speedway next week.

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