Tempers flare in tight Firestone Indy Lights championship Raphael Matos didn't come away with a race win from what he called the most important weekend of the season, but he has what he covets the most – the championship points lead.
The AFS Racing/Andretti Green Racing driver outpaced his title rival Richard Antinucci in both ends of the doubleheader weekend at Infineon Raceway and leads Antinucci in the two-man race for the Firestone Firehawk Cup by three points heading into the season finale at Chicagoland Speedway on Sept. 7.
The weekend was not without controversy between the title protagonists. Antinucci, who entered the weekend with a four-point advantage, beat Matos into the first turn in the Aug. 23 Carneros 100, but had to give the position back to his rival as it was deemed he jumped the start of the race. The rivals ran nose to tail for the remainder of the race and rounded out the podium behind winner Franck Perera.
"It was a pretty straightforward race in the sense that this is the order that we had in qualifying, and it seems to reflect the performances in the race," said Antinucci, who finished third in the first race. "I had a great start, I just think I kept my position and followed my line, but unfortunately I was radioed immediately halfway through the first lap to relinquish that position and give it back to Matos, so I went wide in the last corner. The rest was pretty good, at the end the pace was good, I also managed to post my fastest lap with three to go."
The result was a one-point lead for Matos heading into the Aug. 24 Valley of the Moon 100. Matos started seventh and was running sixth when the front wing of his No. 27 Automatic Fire Sprinklers Inc. car bumped the rear of Antinucci's No. 7 Lucas Oil/Sam Schmidt Motorsports car in Turn 11 of Lap 27. Jockeying for position began earlier on the lap when Matos moved to the outside of Antinucci, who held his line and forced Matos' car into the dirt toward the end of the Esses.
"It was so far the toughest race of the championship," said Matos, who recorded finishes of second and sixth in the two races. "I had a clearly quicker car than Richard, but he never gave me any space I needed to make a pass," Matos said. "You’re not allowed to block, and he blocked me four or five times. He just didn’t give me enough room. He completely brake-checked me going into Turn 11 and I had nowhere to go.
“Unfortunately, we hit each other. I am 100 percent sure that it wasn’t my fault. I’m sorry that I hit him, but you’re not allowed to block.”
Of course, Antinucci had a different view of the pass and outcome. While they were running fifth and sixth, the cars were never separated by more than seven-tenths of a second at the timing line.
"In the backstraight, Matos went to the outside and cut the track so he came out right behind by cutting the track," Antinucci said. "That's how he gained the advantage. I chose the inside from the beginning, knowing that he was right on my tail and I would get passed. I can't bank on having the race review that later on, so I defended my position from the inside and he choose the outside and then back inside and just lifted me in the air and pushed me off. I lost two places. I'm OK, a little bruised but I'm OK."
The result of the weekend: A winner-take-all race between rivals on Chicagoland Speedway's 1.5-mile oval in Joliet, Ill.
"I think this whole AFS/Andretti Green team deserved to leave here with the points lead and that is where we’re at heading to Chicago," Matos said.