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Rookie O’Ward Honing His IndyCar Oval Skills

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, August 29 2020

Road racer Pato O’Ward has shown skill on the IndyCar Series Ovals. (Photo courtesy of INDYCAR)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

Widely recognized as an accomplished road-racer, Pato O’Ward continues to round-off his oval-track skills during his first full NTT IndyCar Series season.

O’Ward exited last Sunday’s 104th running of the Indianapolis 500 as Rookie of the Year after posting a solid sixth-place finish, 15 months after failing to qualify on the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Scaling-down what he learned at IMS, O’Ward topped Friday’s speed chart during the opening practice for the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 Doubleheader at World Wide Technology Raceway.

O’Ward recorded a top lap of 24.7890-seconds/181.532 mph around the 1.25-mile oval in Madison, Ill., outside St. Louis, to lead a field of 23 competitors. Saturday’s race will be O’Ward’s first start at WWTR, as he ran a partial schedule in 2018-19.

“We put a lot of very valuable work in that session,” said O’Ward, who turned 75 laps in the No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet. “We did everything we wanted to do to prepare for (Saturday’s) qualifying and race. There’s so many little things that go into it that make a perfect race, so we want to make the best out of it. This Arrow McLaren SP crew gave us some really strong cars to roll out with, and I think it was just fine-tuning from there. I ended the day really happy, and I think we’ll be ready for qualifying.”

O’Ward earned $250,500 for finishing sixth at Indy after starting 15th, including $50,000 for being named Rookie of the Year. O’Ward was the highest-finishing rookie among five first-time IMS starters. 

“Yeah, I think I’m just getting more and more comfortable with speedways,” said O’Ward, a 21-year-old native of Monterrey, Mexico. “I think a lot of what I learned in Iowa is going to help at Gateway’s (WWTR) short oval. For sure, in a speedway trim, feeling out what the car does with such high speeds, when you’re really on the edge of the speed, the grip, it was a great learning curve. I’m way more prepared for next year.

“Last year _ it never really brought down my confidence. This year I had a very capable car, a car that deserves to be in the show, a car that deserves to be in the front. I was just doing what I was paid to do and what I always have done. It wasn’t really much of a difference from last year in terms of speedway knowledge. I had Texas Motor Speedway (1.5-mile oval) under my belt (started 18th/finished 12th on June 6). But Indy is quite a bit faster and different.

“I think just being patient all weekend, learning every session, being slow and working my way up in traffic was a very good thing that we did. We took care of the car. We finished the race. We had a good qualifying in terms of where we were Chevy-wise. I think we maximized everything we could in the race.

“I think it was a good job. It wasn’t really much of a knowledge difference from last year. I just think on an oval it’s so important to have a strong car that makes you feel confident, that allows you to stay up into people, to tow-up, to really just ride behind someone without just completely losing the rear out of nowhere.”

Point-wise, Scott Dixon’s second-place finish Sunday to newly crowned two-time Indy 500 champ Takuma Sato allowed the five-time series champion from Chip Ganassi Racing to stretch his point lead to 84 (335-251) over two-time/reigning series champ Josef Newgarden of Team Penske. Lurking in third is O’Ward with 218 points, four ahead of Graham Rahal, Sato’s teammate at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.

“We were running in the top-five most of the race,” O’Ward reiterated. “We were fighting up there, mixing it up with Dixon, (Alexander) Rossi, Takuma. But man, you know, towards the end, I just didn’t have quite enough to try and get those Hondas in front of us. I think we juiced-out the car. We got everything out of it. We were the second Chevy right behind Josef in fifth. I think it was a good job for my first-ever Indy 500.”

O’Ward is teamed with fellow-rookie Oliver Askew at Arrow McLaren SP, the first-year partnership between McLaren in its return to the series and the former Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. O’Ward’s credentials include the 2018 Indy Lights by Cooper Tires championship, and 16 Road to Indy race victories between 2016-18. O’Ward also was the 2017 IMSA WeatherTech Sports Car Series champion in the Prototype Challenge class, as well as a class-winner at the Rolex 24 at Daytona and Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring.

“Yeah, honestly, I’ve always had faith in myself,’’ said O’Ward, who attended high school in San Antonio, Texas, and lived in the Dallas area for several years. “I’ve always had faith in this team. Ever since I drove the car for the first time, I knew it was capable of race-winning, poles _ it was most likely a podium contender in a lot of the race weekends. We’ve proven that. We’ve almost won the past three races. Everything just hasn’t really gone our way perfectly.”

O’Ward scored his first series pole on July 12 on Road America’s 4.048-mile/14-turn road-course in Elkhart Lake, Wis., en route to a second-place race finish. He led 43 of 55 laps in Race 2 of that doubleheader weekend. Pato started eighth and finished fourth on July 17th in the first race of another twinbill on Iowa Speedway’s 0.875-mile oval, where he led 30 of 250 laps.

“I think we’ve had a fantastic year so far, but we have to keep it going,” said O’Ward, who will make his 16th series start Saturday. “We have to keep adding up points. I mean, we have to start adding up more points than Dixon sometime if we want to catch him. If not, it’s pretty much game-over.

“We’re somewhat close to Josef, with Graham in there, Simon (Pagenaud). I think the fight for second place is still in there. But Dixie is definitely up there. He just stretched out his lead even more for double points (at IMS).”

Will Power, the 2014 series champion, was second on the speed chart via his best lap of 180.961 mph in the No. 12  Team Penske Chevrolet. Dixon ended up third at 180.822 mph in the No. 9  Chip Ganassi Racing Honda. Conor Daly was fourth at 180.581 mph in the No. 59 Gallagher Carlin Chevrolet.

Sato _ who won this race last year _ rounded-out the top five at 180.434 mph in the No. 30 ABeam Consulting Honda. “It’s good to be back in St. Louis, where we had a fantastic race last year,” Sato said. “The boys did a phenomenal job. Obviously, we are carrying great momentum from last week. It’s busy; it just never stops. INDYCAR racing never stops. We have zero chance of resting time, but we’re happy to go back to racing.

“It’s a very tough field, very competitive. It was only a one-hour session (Friday), and we will go straight into qualifying. So, we had to check our qualifying setup, race trim and so on within a one hour compressed time, so it was very difficult. At least I got a very positive feeling from the car. I’m still not fully confident going into the corner, but we will study the data overnight and hopefully be able to repeat a competitive run tomorrow.”

Up next is qualifying at noon (EDT) Saturday (live, INDYCAR Pass on NBC Sports Gold, Pennzoil INDYCAR Radio .Network). The unique format features two laps, with Lap 1 setting the grid for the Saturday race and Lap 2 for the Sunday race.

Separate 200-lap races are scheduled to take place Saturday and Sunday on the WWTR oval just across the Mississippi River from the famous Gateway Arch in St. Louis. Live coverage starts both days at 2 p.m. (CDT) on NBC Sports Network and the Pennzoil INDYCAR Radio Network.

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The 104th running of the Indianapolis 500 from Indianapolis Motor Speedway averaged a Total Audience Delivery (TAD) of 3.737-million viewers, making it NBC Sports’ second-most watched INDYCAR race on record. It also was NBC’s second-most watched sports event since January, according to Fast National Data from Nielsen and digital data from Adobe Analytics.

The TAD of 3.737-million viewers was NBC Sports’ second-most watched INDYCAR race, trailing last year’s Indy 500 _ the first carried on NBC _ which averaged a TAD of 5.489-million viewers and was up 11 percent vs. the 2018 race on ABC (4.913-million, TV-only). Last year’s race in May did not face any significant sports competition.

Coverage Sunday peaked at 4.641-million TV-only viewers towards the race’s conclusion (5:30-5:45 p.m., EDT).

Additionally, the 104th Indy 500 was the most-watched motorsports race in August in three years, since a NASCAR Cup Series event at Bristol Motor Speedway (2017, 3.838-million) delivered a 2.29 household rating.

As expected, Indianapolis delivered a local rating of 24.9 to lead all markets followed by Cincinnati and Columbus, Ohio, and Las Vegas _ all tied at 4.1.

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Three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dario Franchitti will return to the cockpit this weekend at World Wide Technology Raceway. The popular Scotsman will drive Honda’s “Fastest Seat in Sports” two-seat Indy car prior to the start of Sunday’s NTT IndyCar Series race.

“It will be fun to return to the track at St. Louis, since I believe this is the place where I led an INDYCAR race for the first time, back in 1997,” said Franchitti, a four-time series champion who scored all of his 31 wins with Honda power.

Since his retirement in 2013, Franchitti has remained active in the series as a driving coach and advisor at Honda-powered Chip Ganassi Racing, working with team drivers Scott Dixon, Felix Rosenqvist and Marcus Ericsson.

Honda is celebrating its 27th consecutive year as a manufacturer in the series while seeking to win the Manufacturers’ Championship for the third year in a row.

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NTT IndyCar Series point standings _ 1, Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing, 335; 2, Josef Newgarden, Team Penske, 251; 3, Pato O’Ward, Arrow McLaren SP, 218; 4, Graham Rahal, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, 214; 5, Simon Pagenaud, Team Penske, 212; 6, Takuma Sato, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, 207; 7, Colton Herta, Andretti Harding Steinbrenner Autosport, 189; 8, Santino Ferrucci, Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser Sullivan, 189; 9, Will Power, Team Penske, 175; 10, Felix Rosenqvist, Chip Ganassi Racing, 157.

UPDATED 2020 NTT INDYCAR SERIES SCHEDULE/RACE WINNER

Saturday, June 6 _ Texas Motor Speedway, Fort Worth (Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing)

Saturday, July 4 _ Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road-Course 1 (Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing)

Saturday, July 11 _ Road America Race 1, Elkhart Lake, Wis. (Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing)

Sunday, July 12 _ Road America Race 2, Elkhart Lake, Wis. (Felix Rosenqvist, Chip Ganassi Racing)

Friday, July 17 _Iowa Speedway Race 1, Newton (Simon Pagenaud, Team Penske)

Saturday, July 18 _ Iowa Speedway Race 2, Newton (Josef Newgarden, Team Penske)

Sunday, Aug. 23 _ Indianapolis 500-Mile Race (Takuma Sato, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing)

Saturday, Aug. 29 _ World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway Race 1, Madison, Ill.

Sunday, Aug. 30 _ World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway Race 2, Madison, Ill.

Friday, Oct. 2 _ Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road-Course Race 1

Saturday, Oct. 3 _ Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road-Course Race 2

Sunday, Oct. 25 _ Streets of St. Petersburg, Fla.

 

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, August 29 2020
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