By Aaron Bearden, Contributing Writer
BIRMINGHAM, Alabama — He was so painfully close.
With 10 laps remaining in Sunday’s Pro Mazda Championship race at Barber Motorsports Park, it appeared Andres Gutierrez would finally be able to embrace his team as a first-time winner on the Mazda Road to Indy.
Instead he found himself fighting off tears and shaking his head in frustration as they embraced him in the paddock after a seventh-place disappointment.
“I’m just devastated,” Gutierrez told Motorsports Tribune. “I think I drove the best race of my life to date.”
Gutierrez was the star of the day in Pro Mazda Race 2 at the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, rising from sixth at the start of the race to lead the field around the wet Alabama road course.
Conditions were treacherous and ever-changing, with storms of varying intensity dropping intermittent rain over the hilly circuit. But it mattered not for Gutierrez.
With a car set up for the wet, the 17-year-old maneuvered his No. 81 Team Pelfrey Mazda to the front of the field. He took the lead on Lap 10 of 25, and held the top spot through the entirety of the race’s middle stage, pacing the event through Lap 20.
Then on Lap 21, everything fell apart.
The Mexican prospect was trying to fend off a late challenge from Harrison Scott and Parker Thompson when he hit heavier rain and slid off-course, dropping to seventh.
Moments later, the safety car came out for the final time.
The race was over a few caution laps later. Gutierrez could do nothing but try to come to terms with the ill-timed yellow and his race-ruining venture off-track.
“Going up from P6 to P1, especially in the rain, it just shows what I can do,” Gutierrez said. “Unfortunately the changing conditions throughout the are were very hard. It suddenly started raining very hard, and since I was the first one to judge the braking point I just slid off the track.
“I think the officials should have thrown the yellow lag a bit before, because the conditions were just treacherous. But it is what it is. We can only learn from it.”
While he was disappointed with the result, the 17-year-old Gutierrez found a silver lining as he reflected on his performance.
“I think we can take a lot of positives out of this race,” he said. “It was really amazing. Racing up front, learning how to race with those guys in the rain. They raced clean. I raced clean. So it was really good from them.
“I think we can take a lot of positives out of this and apply it to (the) next weekend in Indy.”