2016 marked the first year Tyler Kicera has made an appearance at a NASA Championships event, but he left Watkins Glen having etched his name in the record books and scoring a big win.
Kicera started from second place behind X Factor Racing’s Chris Haldeman, who snared pole by just 10 points. Ralle Rookey started from P3 in the only 1.6-liter car in the front half of the field. Todd Buras started from fourth in a car that got pretty beat up during the qualifying races, with Trevor McCallion and Danny Steyn lined up behind him.
When the green flag flew, Haldeman used pole position to take the lead into Turn 1 and up the Esses. A few cars midpack got tangled up in Turn 1 at the start, but everyone made it through and managed to continue, including the cars that spun.
“The start went exactly as I wanted it to,” Haldeman said. “We got into a line. Everybody was clean and fair. We ran a line real early and we were pushing, just trying to keep it as a two- or three-car race.”
Three laps in, it was a four-car race. Haldeman maintained the lead in front of Kicera, Buras, Steyn and McCallion, who were nose to tail in a freight train leading the field. By lap five, Kicera had taken the lead from Haldeman and Steyn had advanced to third with McCallion right behind in fourth. These front four drafted their way to a sizeable gap over the rest of the field until they began to encounter lapped traffic.
That separated the front four and Kicera led Haldeman by about eight car lengths when on lap 16, a crash in Turn 1 brought out the double-yellow. The race resumed under a green-white-checkers condition, so it became a one-lap dash, with Kicera emerging victorious.
“That one lap to go was a little hairy. I was a little worried I was going to get freight-trained again on the back straight,” Kicera said. “I defended to the inside and it was clean. I ran wide on the heel of The Boot on that last lap. I think I might even have put two outside tires in the dirt outside of the pavement and he got beside me, going into 9, but I had the inside line. It was a great win. It’s been an incredible season and I’m so excited to be the champ this year.”
The dynamic was interesting because Haldeman and McCallion are teammates from the Texas Region, yet they couldn’t work together because they were separated by one car, Danny Steyn, who came in third.
“The next guy behind me was Trevor McCallion, who unfortunately is a teammate of Chris Haldeman. So he wasn’t going to help me go past his crew chief, so we ended up racing each other,” Steyn said. “I think that if we had stayed together and worked together, we had a real shot at running the lap times they were doing. In fact, we were only a few hundredths apart. But the problem was there was a conflict of teammates.
“All credit to Tyler and Chris for a phenomenal race and also to Trevor McCallion who raced me so clean,”Steyn added. “We were side by side so many times, and he raced me as clean as possible, so that’s a true credit to a gentleman and a good racer.”
Haldeman had a shot at taking the win, but he wasn’t in the optimal position to make a pass stick when Kicera went wide.
“Unfortunately there was the accident in Turn 1, which put us under caution,” Haldeman said. “That put us in a last-lap dash. I made a pass in 8 and were side by side into 9. I gave it all I had.”