O’Ward Ends Penske’s Streak With Win at Barber

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, May 3 2022

Pato O’Ward got back to his winning ways at Barber Motorsports Park over the weekend. (Photo courtesy of INDYCAR)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

Closing in on a contract extension with Arrow McLaren SP, Pato O’Ward has turned his trademark laser focus on the NTT IndyCar Series championship.

O’Ward scored his first victory of 2022 Sunday afternoon at Barber Motorsports Park, capturing the Honda Grand Prix of Alabama to end Team Penske’s season-opening, three-race winning streak. O’Ward beat reigning series champion and 2021 BMP winner Alex Palou by 0.9800-seconds after passing pole-sitter Rinus VeeKay for the lead on Lap 61 of the 90-lapper.

O’Ward admitted speculation surrounding his contract status and continued flirtation with Formula One had distracted him during the season’s opening two events. The result was a 12th-place finish on the Streets of St. Petersburg, Fla., and 15th on the Texas Motor Speedway oval in Fort Worth. O’Ward put all the chatter in his rearview heading into the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach _ INDYCAR’s signature street race _ and rebounded with a morale-boosting, fifth-place finish.

“It sucks to be at war within your own team, right?” said O’Ward, who finished third in the final 2021 driver standings. “I’m glad there have been very positive talks for the future. I wanted to do it for these guys _ for Arrow, for McLaren SP, Team Chevy. I was tired of being 10th and 11th and fifth, so I said, ‘Let’s get a win under our belts so we can claw our way back into the championship fight.’^”

On cue, O’Ward’s third career victory _ and first since Belle Isle-2 in Detroit last June _ moved the native of Mexico from ninth to fifth in the standings heading into the “Month of May” and two races at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

O’Ward, 22, confirmed Sunday he is “close” to signing a new contract with the INDYCAR arm of the British-based organization fronted by Taylor Kiel, president of Arrow McLaren SP.

“Honestly, you know, we’re into the season already, so I’m kind of…I don’t want to worry about it,” said O’Ward, driver of the No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet. “I think things will shape up. There’s been very positive conversations. I think the vibe in the team is fantastic. I think that’s what we need going into the ‘Month of May.’ The rest I think will take care of itself. I don’t have a (signing) date for you.”

Asked to comment, Kiel simply added, “Yeah, what Pato said. We’re in a good place.”

Sunday’s result produced considerable movement at the top of the standings, as Palou took the lead with his third podium finish in four starts in the No. 10 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda. The Spaniard leads Scott McLaughlin of Team Penske, 144-141, with just 10 points separating the top four drivers.

Two-time series champion Josef Newgarden, who led the point-race entering this event, dropped to third after finishing 14th in the No. 2 Team Penske Chevrolet.

The race unfolded as a strategic duel between drivers who chose a three-stop strategy and those who opted for two stops. Newgarden, Colton Herta, Romain Grosjean and Marcus Ericsson were among the contenders who elected for three stops, hoping they could lean harder on their Firestone tires during shorter stints.

That strategy unraveled, however, when rookie Callum Ilott spun his No. 77 Juncos Hollinger Racing Chevrolet into the gravel trap adjacent to Turn 9 on Lap 32. The incident triggered the day’s only full-course caution and essentially returned the entire 26-car field to the same tire strategy.

Nearly every driver pitted either just before or after Ilott’s incident, with VeeKay leading O’Ward, McLaughlin, Palou and Alexander Rossi as the top five on the restart on Lap 35.

Dutch driver VeeKay built a lead of 2.0875-seconds over O’Ward by Lap 60. VeeKay, O’Ward and McLaughlin pulled into the pits for their final stops in lockstep on Lap 62, with VeeKay and O’Ward taking new primary (black) Firestone tires, while McLaughlin opted for used primary tires on his No. 3  Team Penske Chevrolet.

VeeKay won the race off pit lane in the No. 21 Chevrolet fielded by Ed Carpenter Racing, but O’Ward pounced on the out-lap. Pato then passed VeeKay with a bold outside move through the Turn 5 hairpin and never trailed.

“(Kiel) told me we were fighting for the win,” said O’Ward, who led 27 laps. “We almost got him in the pit stops. I said, ‘Man, this is the chance.’ It was so tough to follow because it’s such a fast and flowing circuit. I knew if I had the opportunity, it would have been right then and there. I knew if we got into clean air, we could kind of control the thing. Once we did that, it was cruise to Victory Lane.”

Palou made his final pit stop on Lap 64, re-entering the track behind O’Ward but ahead of VeeKay. Palou kept O’Ward honest until the checkered flag, pulling to within 0.8951-seconds on Lap 73 around the 2.3-mile/17-turn natural-terrain layout.

“He was running second at that time,” Palou said of O’Ward on the restart. “I think we’re running fourth and just that track difference, that’s what got us. I think I did a mistake on a restart and the No. 27 (Rossi) got us there. So, I think that was all the difference.

“The No. 5 (O’Ward) was really fast. But yeah, so we’re happy with the No. 10 American Legion Honda car was super-fast this weekend and another podium, so we were fighting until the end. We couldn’t make it today, but we’ll try to win at the next one.”

Next up are two distinct races at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The GMR Grand Prix is set for Saturday, May 14, on the 2.439-mile/14-turn IMS Road-Course. The 106th edition of the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge is booked for Sunday, May 29, on the historic 2.5-mile oval. Both races will be televised live by NBC, with coverage also available on the INDYCAR Radio Network. Tickets for both races are available at IMS.com.

O’Ward said he is pumped-up for the Indy 500, terming it “the massive cookie that everybody wants to have in their room, looking at it, thinking about it. There’s nothing like it. It’s just crazy. I tell everybody that you need to go and experience it in person for you to be able to, like, grasp what an event that is. Obviously, I can’t even imagine what it would be like winning it.”

Kiel said Sunday’s victory reaffirmed the team’s championship caliber. “We had a rough start to the season,” Kiel said. “It’s nice to get back on-track, perform how we know how to, ultimately bring a win back home for everybody that works at Arrow McLaren SP and our extended family at McLaren.

“I think just as an entire group of people, certainly Pato and our whole team, I think we’ve kind of hit the reset button. Long Beach was a catalyst for us to show that we can perform at a high level again after last year to back it up.

“For me, I want to give him the tools to succeed, and the rest is up to him. He takes advantage of it. Certainly when we have a good car to compete at the front, we compete at the front. That’s the goal for us, is to continue to put in the work and put in the effort and make sure we have a car, a team and a group of people that can support Pato. The rest is up to all of us to execute.”

(Editor’s Note: John Sturbin is a Texas-based journalist specializing in motorsports. During a near 30-year career with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, he won the Bloys Britt Award for top motorsports story of the year (1991) as judged by The Associated Press; received the National Hot Rod Association’s Media Award (1997) and several in-house Star-Telegram honors. He also was inaugural recipient of the Texas Motor Speedway Excellence in Journalism Award (2009). His list of freelance clients includes Texas Motor Speedway, the Dallas Morning News, New York Newsday, Rome (N.Y) Daily Sentinel, Corpus Christi (Texas) Caller Times, NASCAR Wire Service and Ford Racing).


Results of the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama presented by AmFirst NTT IndyCar Series event on the 2.3-mile/17-turn Barber Motorsports Park road-course, with order of finish, starting position in parentheses, driver, engine, laps completed and reason out (if any):

  1. (2) Pato O’Ward, Chevrolet, 90, Running
    2. (3) Alex Palou, Honda, 90, Running
    3. (1) Rinus VeeKay, Chevrolet, 90, Running
    4. (19) Will Power, Chevrolet, 90, Running
    5. (13) Scott Dixon, Honda, 90, Running
    6. (4) Scott McLaughlin, Chevrolet, 90, Running
    7. (8) Romain Grosjean, Honda, 90, Running
    8. (9) Graham Rahal, Honda, 90, Running
    9. (5) Alexander Rossi, Honda, 90, Running
    10. (10) Colton Herta, Honda, 90, Running
    11. (24) Simon Pagenaud, Honda, 90, Running
    12. (12) Marcus Ericsson, Honda, 90, Running
    13. (17) Takuma Sato, Honda, 90, Running
    14. (7) Josef Newgarden, Chevrolet, 90, Running
    15. (14) Christian Lundgaard, Honda, 90, Running
    16. (6) Felix Rosenqvist, Chevrolet, 90, Running
    17. (20) Devlin DeFrancesco, Honda, 90, Running
    18. (15) Jack Harvey, Honda, 90, Running
    19. (22) Conor Daly, Chevrolet, 90, Running
    20. (18) David Malukas, Honda, 90, Running
    21. (16) Helio Castroneves, Honda, 90, Running
    22. (21) Kyle Kirkwood, Chevrolet, 89, Running
    23. (23) Dalton Kellett, Chevrolet, 89, Running
    24. (26) Jimmie Johnson, Honda, 89, Running
    25. (11) Callum Ilott, Chevrolet, 88, Running
    26. (25) Tatiana Calderon, Chevrolet, 88, Running

Race Statistics
Winner’s average speed: 114.304 mph
Time of Race: 1:48:39.4368
Margin of victory: 0.9800-seconds
Cautions: 1 for 3 laps
Lead changes: 5 among 4 drivers

Lap Leaders:
VeeKay 1-29
Palou 30
Newgarden 31-32
VeeKay 33-60
Palou 61-63
O’Ward 64-90

Point standings (top-10): 1, Alex Palou, Chip Ganassi Racing, 144; 2, Scott McLaughlin, Team Penske, 141; 3, Josef Newgarden, Team Penske, 135; 4, Will Power, Team Penske, 134; 5, Pato O’Ward, Arrow McLaren SP, 114; 6, Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing, 113; 7, Rinus VeeKay, Ed Carpenter Racing, 106; 8, Romain Grosjean, Andretti Autosport, 101; 9, Marcus Ericsson, Chip Ganassi Racing, (tie) Graham Rahal, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, 84.  


| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, May 3 2022
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