BELLE ISLE, Mich — Chip Ganassi Racing brought four full time cars for 2021 with three full time drivers. Jimmie Johnson will drive all road/street courses in the No. 48 Chevrolet while Tony Kanaan will handle the duties in that ride for the ovals. Scott Dixon, Alex Palou and Marcus Ericsson will drive the other three cars full time and go for a championship. Well, as we sit here seven races into the season, all three have now won a race and all three currently sit in the top seven of the standings.
Palou is the current points leader as he won the season opener at the Barber Motorsports Park. Dixon, sits third in points as he won the opening race of the Texas race weekend. Ericsson, is seventh after winning Saturday’s Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix.
This was Ganassi’s 116th career INDYCAR win as they look like the clear cut favorites as the best team in the series as we near the midway mark of the season with Sunday’s race. The thing is, heading into Saturday’s race, they didn’t appear to be very solid.
Dixon, was the top qualifier for them in 11th. Ericsson, qualified 15th, Palou 21st and Johnson 22nd. That’s not very Ganassi like.
Johnson, looked pretty good early before a mechanical issue took him out of contention. Dixon, Ericsson and Palou would run the first stint long. Ericsson, hit pit lane on Lap 19 but Dixon and Palou were too late as they were caught out by the Lap 25 caution.
Ericsson, was running in second among the top group now, one spot behind Will Power. Then, Ericsson was gifted his first career victory when Romain Grosjean crashed in Turn 9 and brought out the second and final caution as the series decided to make a controversial decision to red flag the race.
Power’s No. 12 Chevrolet wouldn’t refire so Ericsson inherited the lead as a result.
“Yeah, obviously you don’t want to see someone have a problem like that, especially he was leading the race,” Ericsson said of the situation with Power in the end. “I was really fired up to try and get to him on that last restart because I’ve been saying that this year I want that first INDYCAR win. That’s highest on my list.
“I was fired up when the red flag came out because I knew I would get a chance to try to get by him. Like I said, you never want to see anyone have a problem, but I’ll take.
“We’ve had some bad luck, I’ve had some bad luck the last couple years when we’ve been looking good. Today was our day, it was my day. That’s racing sometimes. It’s obviously bad for Will, but it was our luck. Just had to finish the job.”
Ericsson said it was the red flag as his only shot of winning this race.
“I put pressure on him a couple times throughout the race, was quite close to attack him down into seven a couple times. But he was defending well,” he continued.
“I saw after the first red flag that he was struggling a bit to get up to speed. I thought I had a pretty good chance there after the last red flag to try to attack him on that first lap because I felt like we were a bit better getting up to speed than him. I knew that was going to be my chance.
“Obviously when he had his problem, it’s just about trying to stay cool and just perfect the restart on the last couple laps.”
He’d lead the final laps en route to being the fourth first time winner in seven races this season.
“Yeah, probably the best one I’ve done,” Ericsson said of the final restart. “I would say so because the pressure was on. I knew Taku was behind. Taku, he always goes for it. I knew if he would get half a chance to go for the win, he would send it up the inside of turn three. I knew on the restart I had to make it perfect or he would try to go for that gap.
“I was really focused trying to plan it behind the safety car to see where I was going to go. Just managed to hit it perfect. And then when I saw my mirrors out of two, I knew I had done enough. I just had to try to control it for the last couple laps.”
Ericsson said that they went into the race with quite high expectations, but were disappointed with qualifying.
“We thought we had a good car in practice yesterday. We didn’t understand,” he said. “We thought we were going to be a bit stronger in qualifying.
“INDYCAR is tight. You just miss a little bit, and that was enough to bump us to the middle of the field. For the race, I think we obviously started on the sticker reds, tried to stretch that stint as long as possible, was able to do that in a good way without losing the tires.
“The guys did good pit stops all day. Obviously the red flag came out, which was good for us, for our strategy it really helped. During the red flag I knew we were P2 on strategy behind Will. After the red flag, I felt stronger than Will, but he was driving very well and defending whenever I had runs on him. I was trying to be putting pressure on him and making him to do mistakes.
“Felt like we had some more pace, but just couldn’t find a way by. Then, yeah, the last red flag, first it was a bit frustrating, but then I thought that this is our opportunity to win this race. Really fired up to try to go for it, try to get by Will. I felt like we were a bit stronger in the beginning of stints. I thought we could have a chance to get by him on the restart towards the end there.
“Unfortunately he had that problem, which I feel bad for him. He did a great job today. But we’ve had some bad luck these last couple years. I felt like it was about time we had some good luck, so I’ll take it. Just had to finish it off with clean restart and clean laps. I think I did a really good restart, then just control it till the end.
“It’s an amazing feeling. It’s been a long time coming. I’ve been working very hard for this. The team has been working very hard, believing in me. It just feels great.”
This win is a huge relief for Ericsson.
“I came over here after five years of F1. One of the big goals coming over here was to win races again. Obviously in F1 I was in smaller teams where it was not any chance realistically to win a race,” said Ericsson. “That was the big thing when I came over here, to have that opportunity again.
“But obviously the first two years, I got to the podium in Detroit two years ago, but apart from that it’s been good performances but not that first win. Going into this year I feel like I’ve really gotten used to the series, to the cars, to the tracks. I felt like one of the big things for me this year was to get that first win out of the way.
“It means a lot. I think the confidence you get from it, it’s going to help me a lot going forward in this championship. Yeah, it’s a big thing. Also INDYCAR race winner, not many that can say that. I can say that now. That feels just amazing.”
Ericsson said that he never doubted the luck factor in the sense that sooner or later, the luck turns.
“But the thing this year that I felt from the whole 8 Huski Chocolate team is that we’ve been stronger everywhere, in the mix in the top 10, top eight, almost every track we’ve been to,” he said. “We had some bad luck that sort of took away some results for us, but we’ve been there every single weekend.
“If you continue to believe in what you’re doing, continue to work hard, sooner or later your day is going to come. I did believe this year that we were going to get that first win. Obviously feels great to get it already now because it’s quite a bit to go in the championship.”
The win gives Ericsson a ton of confidence to become the third driver in 16 doubleheader weekends to repeat. He’s hoping to join Dixon (Toronto 2013) and Graham Rahal (Belle Isle 2017) as the only drivers to sweep a weekend.
“It gives a ton of confidence, I would say,” he said of the win. “As a driver, you always believe you can win, but to actually do it, it means a lot. I always believed I could do it, but it’s been hard work here in INDYCAR. It’s a very tough championship. Some of the best drivers in the world are here. To get that first win is a huge achievement I think.
“It’s going to help me a lot for tomorrow and going forward in this championship. It gives me a big boost of confidence, and the whole 8 car team a big boost of confidence. We’re going to bring that in to tomorrow, try to get another one tomorrow, then have a strong season.”
As to what about this track that suits him? His previous best result was the last time out here in 2019 with a runner-up in race 2 of that weekend.
“It’s a good question. I don’t know.
“I just felt like the first time I came here in 2019, I really enjoyed the track. It has a lot of character. Bumpy and different surfaces that makes it pretty tricky to drive. But it’s a big driver’s track, I would say. All my life, Suzuka, Spa, Silverstone, where the driver can make a big difference, it’s tracks that I’ve really enjoyed.
“I feel like Detroit is also a track like that, where is really tough. You have to have a good car, but the last part is about the driver getting the most out of it, the last couple 10ths out of it in the driving.
“I felt, like I said, from the get-go here in 2019 that I really enjoyed this track. I knew coming into this weekend we were going to be strong and have a good chance.”
Ericsson said that the drought of nearly a decade between this win and his last makes him appreciate it even more.
“I think back then I was going through the junior categories, trying to get to F1. Then I was winning races pretty much every year, going up the ranks. It was something that you were sort of used to and targeting.
“Then that’s a tough thing with European racing, when you reach the top level like I did in 2014 to F1, I was in smaller teams that didn’t have the resources to compete for wins. Then you as a driver, you sort of forget that feeling to fight and go for them wins.
“It was not until I went to INDYCAR that I realized how much I missed that feeling to go into a weekend and have the mindset to try to win, try to beat everyone. That’s something I really, really enjoy here in INDYCAR. I’ve worked very, very hard. I think if you ask the team, I’ve been working very hard to try and learn as much as I can. I have great teammates to learn from. That’s helped me a lot.
But still to be able to get everything together, to win in INDYCAR, I think it’s one of the toughest things you can do. You don’t only need to be fast in INDYCAR, you need to do all the things right, you need to have the team behind you, the pit stop strategy, setup. It’s a tough series to win in.
“It does mean a lot. I missed this feeling so much, it’s crazy (smiling).”
In saying that, he said that he lost some confidence over the years since he wasn’t winning.
“I think you definitely lose some confidence. That’s the thing, you need to be mentally strong and believe in yourself, believe in your abilities. I’ve done that. I’ve been strong. I think that’s one of my strengths, that I’ve been having good mental strength.
“But for sure it’s tough. I think it would be tough for anyone to go eight years without winning a race when that’s what you do. My job is to win a race, and I haven’t done it for eight years. Of course it’s going to take a toll on you.
“Today I think I showed that I can do it. It’s going to help me a lot going forward.”
The other factor was that he’s driving for an owner that “likes winners.” Ericsson, wasn’t winning and hadn’t for a while. Was there any pressure?
“Yeah, I do. I think Chip always says he likes winners. I came here haven’t won a race in eight years. I think when he realized that, he was like, Oh, you haven’t won in that long? We need to change that.
“I think he’s pretty happy that I won this race today. He wants drivers that can win. Today we had opportunities to do it, and I did. We as a team did it and delivered. I think that was a huge effort. I think us racing drivers, we always live with that pressure to try and win races and finish up front.
“When you get opportunities like today, you need to take them. That’s why I’m super happy I did that and not make any mistakes, really do a perfect job especially there in the end.”