FORT WORTH, TX – Pato O’Ward had three runner-up finishes in his first 25 career NTT IndyCar Series races. Two of those three defeats came at the hands of Josef Newgarden. The other was to Felix Rosenqvist in Road America. This time, O’Ward wasn’t going to let that happen again.
Following the final pit sequence, O’Ward was in third but the leader at the time in Takuma Sato had yet to pit. O’Ward, made quick way of getting by Sato as he then set his sights on new leader…Josef Newgarden. O’Ward chopped Newgarden leads down and finally passed him on Lap 224. The race was in his hands.
He’d never look back. O’Ward, led the final 23 laps en route to his first career Indy Car triumph as he crossed the finish line 1.2443 seconds ahead of Newgarden in his No. 5 Chevrolet.
It was O’Ward’s sixth podium and ninth top five result in 26 career starts as he’s showing his time is now too. He’s the second first time winner in four races already this season.
Newgarden, had to settle for second in his No. 2 Chevrolet for his fourth top six result in his last four Texas starts. He had no top 10’s in his previous seven starts on the track as he’s now stormed back from being 23rd in points following Barber’s opening lap crash to fourth now, 37 points down, heading to Indy.
Graham Rahal charged hard to third in his No. 15 Honda for his for his sixth top six finish in his last seven Texas tries. The only time he wasn’t was last year when he had an electrical problem before the race even began. Rahal, had just one top five in his previous eight Texas tries and now has three top seven finishes in his four starts this season, two of those top fives and both of them occurring this weekend. He moved from 13th to fifth in points heading to Indy.
Scott Dixon dominated the race on Saturday as well as Sunday but finished fourth in his No. 9 Honda while Colton Herta rounded out the top five in his No. 26 Honda.
Lap 117 Caution Changed The Complexity Of Sunday’s Race
Prior to Jack Harvey’s mechanical failure on Lap 117, this race was shaping up to once again be Scott Dixon’s to lose. He had led all but eight laps until that point, but that yellow completely altered the complexity to this race.
Everyone pit during that yellow on Lap 119 and from then on, it went into a fuel saving race. Dixon, didn’t want to lead, neither did anyone else. Graham Rahal passed Dixon for the lead on Lap 139, but Dixon stormed back on Lap 151. Everyone was trying to save enough fuel to get to a point to where they could pit for one last time and make it to the end.
Dixon and Rahal pit from the top two spots on Lap 186. It was Lap 188 when Pato O’Ward hit pit lane and Josef Newgarden pit for his final time two laps later. Those two staying out a little bit longer proved to be the winning move.
Takuma Sato had yet to pit at that point but he last hit pit lane on Lap 166. There was no way that he could make it to the end, so the guys behind him were in the best position and they lineup behind was Newgarden, O’Ward, Rahal and Dixon.
Dixon, had the best car but the undercut worked against him. O’Ward, had a faster car than Newgarden, which left Newgarden puzzled, but O’Ward had the pace that Newgarden lacked and was able to pass him and pull away.
“Yeah, it was a decent day for us. Can’t be too disappointed with the second place,” Newgarden said. “Obviously we were in the catbird seat there at the end. Felt like it was going to be possible to get a win today.
“The only thing I was worried about, just seemed like we were lacking some speed for whatever reason. Pato’s Chevy seemed to be performing a little bit better than my Chevy. Regardless, with Chevy in Victory Lane, it’s a good day.
“We had great fuel mileage, great reliability, which are always qualities we get from Chevrolet. Pretty proud about that. Happy to have XPEL on the car, with them being the title sponsor.
“A lot of good positives, but just short at the end of the day.”
But, if that caution doesn’t fly, Dixon likely wins this race.
Newgarden’s Runner-Up Was Penske’s 4th In As Many Races In 2021
Josef Newgarden got his mulligan out of the way already. That occurred in the opening race of the season at the Barber Motorsports Park in a rare mistake made on the opening lap of the year. He’d finish 23rd, for his worst finish since 2016. But, he’s since stormed back.
Newgarden, brought his No. 2 Chevrolet home runner-up on Sunday to score his third straight top six result on the season, two of which being runner-ups. He’s now fourth in points heading to Indy, which is a big improvement to where he was at the start.
But, due to Scott Dixon having four top five finishes in as many tries this season, Newgarden still sits 37 points back.
“I think there’s plenty of positives,” Newgarden said of the start to his season so far. “St. Pete was a strong weekend. I think I would say this weekend was fairly strong. We’ve not been world beaters on either of them, but we’re thoroughly in the fight, in the mix.
“We’ve been in position to win races the last two weekends. I said this earlier, but that’s step one. You put yourself in position, you keep doing that. You do that enough times, it all starts falling into place. That’s the theory at least.
“I feel positive about where we’re at. I know there’s been a tremendous amount of work from our team to try and up our game at all places. I think we’re feeling some of those effects now.
“Indy, we obviously want to have the biggest effect from those efforts. I think we’re all pretty hopeful, excited to get stuck into the month of May and make the most of it.”
Still, Newgarden combined with teammates Will Power and Scott McLaughlin have scored a runner-up in all four races run this season. While they’re 0-for-4 in terms of race wins, they’re 4-for-4 for being the bridesmaid. Are they to a point to where it’s getting frustrating on being so close?
“Not frustrating yet,” he told me after the race. “I mean, we’re there. We’re definitely in the mix, which is the first step. So I think we stay in the mix, we’re going to get some wins knocked off. We just got to stay focused on that. Feeling good about things so far.”
Newgarden, said what he was frustrated with was that he just didn’t have the pace to compete for the win in the end with Pato O’Ward.
“Obviously we were in the catbird seat there at the end,” he said. Felt like it was going to be possible to get a win today. The only thing I was worried about, just seemed like we were lacking some speed for whatever reason. Pato’s Chevy seemed to be performing a little bit better than my Chevy. Regardless, with Chevy in Victory Lane, it’s a good day.
“We had great fuel mileage, great reliability, which are always qualities we get from Chevrolet. Pretty proud about that. Strategy was sound. We were saving more fuel than anybody today, just going that little bit longer which enabled us to do what we were doing. We were kind of working towards the back end of this race all day, kind of the boring way to hit it, but it’s effective.
“I just didn’t have pace at the end. I had positioning. I for whatever reason didn’t have the pace. I don’t know. I was pretty flat out, but just didn’t have the pace.
“Yeah, I was really positive on the approach. I always am. I feel confident in what we’re doing. I always feel big confidence in Tim and the boys on pit lane. They crush it pretty much every time. There’s no lacking of confidence there. We just didn’t have quite enough at the end.
“A lot of good positives, but just short at the end of the day.”
The Tennessee native started his Texas career 0-for-7 in terms of top 10’s. He’s since had four straight top sixes including three of which being podiums.
Rahal Pleased With Momentum Heading To Indy
Graham Rahal wanted to win Sunday’s XPEL 375. He came close but it wasn’t enough. Rahal, brought his No. 15 Honda home third though for his 32nd career podium in 229 career starts. It was also his 59th top five too including two straight this weekend at the Texas Motor Speedway.
“Solid day,” Rahal said. “I think last two stints I got just way too loose. But before that, I thought we did an excellent job. The guys, one heck of a pit stop there on the second-to-last stop, which really got us into, what, from fifth to third. From there I thought we could attack pretty hard. Great work by them.
“The car was solid in both races. Like I said, today I just got a bit loose. I think when I was trying to chase down Josef there in the end, or Pato for that matter, before he got by, I was just kind of hanging on. I think Dixie was the same behind me. Seemed he couldn’t really make too much headway.
“Tricky days. It was kind of fun. It’s a big challenge out there. It’s totally different than what it used to be. If you can get the car set up, adjust your tools right, get it in the right zone, it’s pretty rewarding.
“Good fun. Wish we could have done a little better. Third, first podium of the year, is pretty awesome.”
Rahal, moved from 13th in points leaving St. Pete to being fifth now. That’s due to him finishing 15th on the street course last weekend which is why he says that the race will sting them for a while. He felt like he had top five pace on the Florida street circuit and if he could have finished where he deserved, he feels like he would be maybe as high as second in points heading to Indy.
Still, this was a great weekend for him as the momentum is high going to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Rahal, also has been fantastic at Texas lately. This was his sixth top six in his last seven starts on the 1.44-mile track. He had just one in his previous eight tries.
“Yeah, it was awesome, man,” Rahal said of his No. 15 Honda this weekend. “It was quick. She was racy the last two days. It’s good to race with good guys like Josef yesterday, Dixie, Pato, guys that respect each other, give each other room. It’s nice. It’s refreshing.
“I thought today was a good improvement for us over yesterday. Like I said, when I got to the front, second-to-last stint, first off you had the fuel saving as Josef said, which kind of ruined it, for me just got super loose for some reason the last two stints, really lost some of my mojo to be able to push hard.
“The boys did an excellent job, kept our heads down. We’re excited for May. We had a fast car at the test. Obviously have the GP before. This is good momentum for us. Just a good, solid weekend, come out of here with two top fives.”
PJ1 Affected The Races But Left Us Wondering What Might Have Been Too
Now that we’ve gone through both NTT IndyCar Series races at the Texas Motor Speedway this weekend, the answer to the main question on how the races would look has been answered. Would the PJ1 areas affect both races again this weekend?
The answer was unfortunately, yes.
But, after 212 laps of racing on Saturday and 248 laps more on Sunday, it left me wondering, what might have been if the PJ1 traction compound stain wasn’t a factor. See, INDYCAR added more downforce this year and Firestone brought a new tire. From my vantage point, both worked in terms of closing up the action. Drivers were getting runs on one another, it’s just that they couldn’t do anything with it, because if you veered high into the stained area above the bottom lane, you were going to be a passenger at that point.
No one dared to go into that darker area of the track because once you did, you’d crash. Just ask James Hinchcliffe, Will Power and a few others.
“Yeah, it’s just slippery,” Graham Rahal said. “It’s just slippery. We can’t really touch it. Obviously didn’t reapply it for the weekend. Doesn’t really matter. It’s an artificial grip, I guess, for the Cup cars they use to make it a little racier for them. It just didn’t work with us.
“Unfortunately we’re kind of dealt the hand that we’re dealt. We have to make the most of that. I know INDYCAR tried their best to do the tire dragging and everything else, not necessarily apply rubber, but peel that PJ1 off and get it out. As you can see, it is so dark, stains the surface so terribly. When you walk on it, you can feel it. It’s like ice. Roughly from Firestone numbers, 20 to 25% less grip the minute you touch the dark stuff.
“I think it got better as guys accidentally ran half a groove too high, it did get better. But still it would take a lot of running I think to get that to really peel up.
“The positive of what we saw today was there was a lot of lifting, even some braking into turn one, downshifting, all that sort of stuff. If over time they don’t reapply that PJ1, they let it slowly wear off, I think this place can become a two-plus-lane track again. Going to take a while to get there, take people that are brave enough to try it, or try it by accident. Doesn’t matter. Try to apply some rubber.
“It’s tricky, man. It’s not ideal. Not ideal for us.”
Saturday’s second place finisher in Scott McLaughlin said he didn’t dare touch that portion of the track either.
“From my perspective, you just can’t use the second lane,” he said on Saturday night. “It’s very difficult at three and four, and at one and two. Unfortunately that’s just how it is. That’s all I’ve experienced here, so that’s all I know. I still think you can get some reasonable runs, but it just makes you probably a little bit nervous to maybe throw down on the high side into one or into two.
“I saw firsthand what happened to Hinchcliffe. He got dirty air pushed up, went up onto the PJ1 and he was gone.”
Third place finisher on Saturday and Sunday’s race winner, Pato O’Ward, agreed.
“From my side, same as Scott. Honestly I didn’t really try going up there,” said the Arrow McLaren SP driver. “I didn’t want to make a stupid mistake and hit the wall. But it’s still a no go zone in my book.”
O’Ward said that he does feel like they made the racing package a little bit better, especially from very high deg to low deg tires when guys have many laps on them or brand-new. He thinks we saw more passing around, but it’s still “really, really tough. Honestly, all around I just feel more confident, this is my second time, second race here in Texas. That makes a big difference.
“But, yeah, I think it was a step in the right direction. It’s not quite there to be able to make the race as crazy and chaotic like an Iowa. I feel like it was kind of like a Gateway in a way, in a speedway version obviously. There was some passing but not quite two lanes.”
Graham Rahal agreed.
“I mean, I thought it was decent,” said Sunday’s third place finisher. “I think there was some opportunities. At the test here we ran barge boards, like what’s available at Indianapolis. I thought the barge boards at the test really helped us run a little bit closer, helped maintain the front tire for me. Then it was determined those aren’t allowed. I understand it, but I also think something like that in the future to look at as a positive.
“I do think the series has worked hard. I don’t think we should beat everybody up on this thing. People poured a lot of time into getting this race better. I thought it was better than last year personally. Way more guys finished on the lead lap. There was more passing. I thought it was an improvement in the overall package. Is there more to come? Sure, guys. But the track is what it is. We’re trying to do our best to work around it.
“I thought the aero package, a little more improvement that could be done. The guys worked hard. I thought it was better.”
Josef Newgarden echoed their sentiments too.
“I would agree with Graham,” said Sunday’s runner-up. “You got to take the positives. Everyone has put a tremendous amount of work into this. Both the series, the track, everybody involved, the teams trying to help out with feedback.
“I think it was an improvement from last year, as well. I agree. It was racier. People followed a lot closer, less dropoff. I think it was pretty close to being good. You’re just a little hand tied here with the one-lane track, to be honest. If we could get more lanes, we could get more usage out of the track, I think you’d have a much racier race.
“A lot of what happened today was it turned into a fuel mileage situation. There’s not much you can do about that. Whenever it gets to that point, everyone is going to take it up, you saw nearly the whole field trying to fuel. You get into one of those situations with a caution at the beginning that creates it, you just can’t do much about it. Everyone is going to try to race.
“I thought at the end when it got racy again, it was definitely a good improvement.”
Saturday’s race winner Scott Dixon said that he felt like he wasn’t sure what effect the PJ1 had on the race but he does feel like it’s to a point to where “everybody tries to steer clear of it.”
He said that the only time you could even dare to use it would be earlier in the run, but once you keep going on the bottom, the marbles start to accumulate on that area of the track too and makes it even more of a problem. .
“In practice I made a couple passes round the outside in one, and got maybe half the car on there,” he said. “But I think there’s a lot of us, as we went through these long green-flag runs, I didn’t really want to get up there not because of the PJ1, I think it might have been okay, what they’ve done to the application, running tires over it, taking a bit of it off has definitely helped the difference.
“But once you do get these long green runs, there’s just a lot of marbles up there. As we saw from some of the accidents, probably most of them were just getting into the dirty part of the track.”
As to how you can change it?
“Yeah, I don’t know,” said the six-time series champion. “I think it’s something that definitely a lot of us need to look at. It’s got to make sense. Maybe we do need to come here and do a two or three or four day test to try to figure it out.
“You don’t want it to be easy. The direction we went this year, I didn’t really enjoy it just because the deg didn’t seem as much. It was easier if we had qualifying, like I already said, going to be easy flat for everybody. This is meant to be difficult. It’s not meant to be easy.
“But the good cars are meant to be fast, and the other cars that maybe haven’t got their setups sorted out will struggle. You would like to see a lot more of that.
“Last year I think probably 25 laps into a stint you were onto lap traffic and passing through, whereas this year it was almost 40 laps or maybe a little bit more. The pack was a little bit tighter. But still when everybody goes the same speed, it makes it very tough to pull a move off.
“I don’t know. I don’t think there’s always an easy answer. I think this has been true for INDYCAR and CART and a lot of different formulas, Formula 1 the same thing. You have to be careful to make sure that it doesn’t become like a DRS situation where it’s too easy. It’s got to be difficult.
“I know there’s definitely some ideas in the works. Hopefully we can get to a track and actually apply them and test them. It’s too hard to show up and try to think they’re going to work.”
Future Is Now For The Series
We’ve said it for a while now, even this offseason that this was a big season for the NTT IndyCar Series. We knew the future was coming. There were so many good young drivers in the series today, but it was only a matter of time before they staked their claim at the top.
Well, we’re four races into the 2021 season and we’ve had four different winners. Half of them are first time winners and one of the other two is just 21 years old.
The future is now.
“I think it’s definitely a good wave,” Josef Newgarden said. “We seem to get it, I don’t know, I don’t know what’s cycle is, every four, five years. But there’s definitely a good wave at the moment.
“I think everybody has been pretty high on Colton and Pato. I’ve been definitely very high on Pato. Not surprised to see him get a win. Both him and McLaren are very strong contenders.
“Yeah, you have a little of everything. Guys in the middle, like me, middle of the road. You have some veterans and some really good young blood. It’s a good time. There’s a lot of talent.”
24 year old Alex Palou earned his first career win in the season opener at the Barber Motorsports Park. 21 year old Colton Herta won last Sunday on the streets of St. Pete. Now, 21 year old Pato O’Ward wins on the Texas Motor Speedway oval.
The only other winner this season was 40 year old Scott Dixon. That came Saturday night as he’s now won at least one race in 19 straight seasons, an Indy Car record. He’s a championship favorite each year for good reason. He’s now got younger competition.
30 year old Josef Newgarden finished runner-up to O’Ward on Sunday and if you go back to count the season finale last year when he was 29, that’s four of the last five winners being in their 20’s.
Graham Rahal still has plenty of good years left in him and he’s only 32. He finished third. Herta (21) was fifth on Sunday. You also had Palou (24) finishing seventh, rookie Scott McLaughlin in eighth and 20 year old Rinus VeeKay finishing ninth on Sunday.
Chevrolet Wins, Honda Dominates Prior Again
Honda looked like the manufacturer to beat again on Sunday in Texas. Scott Dixon was the man to beat as he led all but eight laps until Lap 140. Then, Graham Rahal got by him and he and Dixon remained in control until Lap 186.
At that point, Chevy had led a total of six laps. When the checkered flag flew on Lap 248, Chevy went 1-2 at the finish with Pato O’Ward getting the victory over Josef Newgarden.
It was reminiscent of the 2019 race to where Honda led 194 of the 248 laps and took six of the top eight finishers including four in the top five. Newgarden stole the win in a great final pit call in the end.
Other than that, this track has been all Honda lately. Honda led 162 of 248 laps in a win in 2018. They took eight of the top nine finishing spots that night. Last year, they led 159 of 200 laps and went 1-2-3-4. Then, they led all 212 laps last night.
So, for Chevrolet to come out of Texas with a win on Sunday was stunning.
Under The Radar Start For Palou, VeeKay, Pagenaud So Far
We head to Indy in a couple of weeks, but a few drivers flying under the radar right now are Alex Palou, Rinus VeeKay and Simon Pagenaud. Yes, Palou won the season opener in Barber, but he’s not been talked about much since. He’s finished fourth and seventh respectively this weekend for three top seven results in four starts in 2021. That has him third in the standings.
VeeKay, is starting his sophomore season without the dreaded slump that a lot of second year drivers go through. He was sixth in Barber, ninth in St. Pete and now ninth in the second race at Texas too. That’s three top 10’s in four races this season as he’s now scored eight top 10’s in only 18 career Indy Car starts. That’s moved him to 11th in points heading to Indy.
Then you have Pagenaud. He was a disappointing 12th in Barber, but he’s since finished third, 10th and sixth respectively. He’s sixth in points now too.
1st Lap Crash Takes Out Back of Field, Bad Luck For Rossi Continues
The drivers at the back of the field couldn’t afford to get caught up in something on Sunday. See, they started in the back for a reason. That’s because Sunday’s race was set by entrant points. The guys in the top of the standings were rewarded with a good starting spot. The guys are the bottom was because of they’re towards the bottom of the points.
So, when you get eight drivers collected in a crash right at the drop of the green flag and all eight sitting in the bottom 11 of the points, well you can see why that was a problem.
It was a frightening crash at that. Pietro Fittipaldi got into the back of Sebastien Bourdais and the contact sent Bourdais into Alexander Rossi and inflicted a ton of carnage behind them.
Fittipaldi was starting the race in 16th. Bourdais was one row in front of him in 14th. When you get contact in the middle of the field at the start, there’s no where for guys behind to go. That’s why Conor Daly who was starting last had the best view of it and he felt like he had a lane to get through it but that gap closed and when he made contact with Kellett, Daly’s car got airborne and upside down as a result. Luckily, he and everyone else walked away unscathed.
But, it was just bad luck and bad timing. Bourdais was punted twice in as many days as he went from seventh in points entering the weekend to 15th leaving it. His teammate in Kellett was collected on Sunday as well meaning AJ Foyt Racing had both cars damaged before the race even started on Sunday. That’s not good for the home team.
For Rossi, his dreaded season continues. He was on the wrong pit strategy in Barber and finished ninth as a result. In St. Pete, he had contact during the race with Graham Rahal. He’d finish 21st. On Saturday, he was only eighth and now comes home 20th on Sunday. That’s dropped him to 15th in points heading to Indy in a season that he felt was championship or bust.
Luckily, there’s a road course race in two weeks on the 2.439-mile layout then double points for the Indy 500. He’s 88 points behind.
His teammate James Hinchcliffe has had bad luck too. He had a pit road problem in Barber and finished 17th. He had damage from contact with Takuma Sato and finished 18th last week on the streets of St. Pete. He then crashed in both races this weekend with result of 23rd and 18th respectively. He’s 19th in points heading to Indy.
Andretti has had a car with crash damage in every race thus far too including being collected in both races that had an opening lap crash too. Ryan Hunter-Reay and Colton Herta wrecked on the opening lap of Barber, Hinchcliffe and Rossi had damage in St. Pete while Hinchcliffe (x2) and Rossi each getting crashed in Texas.