MADISON, Ill — Following his double podium weekend in Belle Isle which included a win in the second race of the doubleheader on the street course, Pato O’Ward held a slim one point lead in the NTT IndyCar Series points standings over Alex Palou.
Then came a shift. O’Ward finished ninth, eighth and 13th respectively while Palou was first, third and seventh himself. That allowed Palou to not only take over as the points leader, but open up a gap over the Arrow McLaren SP driver to 48 as we entered last weekend’s Big Machine Spiked Coolers Grand Prix on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.
Now, two races later, O’Ward is back in the hunt again. Palou, finished 27th following a blown engine while running fourth last Saturday afternoon then was collected in a crash on Lap 65 in Saturday night’s Bommarito Automotive Group 500 at the World Wide Technology Raceway. He’d finish 20th as a result.
That opened up the door for O’Ward as he started on the pole and finished fifth last week and was runner-up this time around to close the deficit from 48 leaving Nashville to 10 points up after this three week stretch.
“It’s a very big points day for us,” he said after reclaiming the points lead for the first time since early June. “To be honest, man, it’s so tight. There’s still three races to go, 150 points on the table. Yeah, I mean, this means we’re going on the right path. We came off a solid run in Indy road course, now we have a podium with second. It would be great to rack up a couple more, a few more podiums.
“Yeah, man, we’re just going to push until the checkered flag waves in Long Beach and see where we stand.”
This result made O’Ward happy even though as he says that it wasn’t ideal that Newgarden beat them. But, O’Ward also said that they really had nothing for Newgarden in general and that P2 was about where he should have finished anyways.
“I was happy. In a perfect world, it’s not ideal that Josef beat us. But, man, the guy had everything to win it,” O’Ward said. “He had so much pace. I honestly didn’t have anything to challenge him.
“The only way I could have maybe challenged him was if we got stuck behind lapped cars. But they were all very respectful, which is completely fine. Yeah, that’s a change (smiling).
“Yeah, I couldn’t really get close enough. I didn’t want to throw away a second.
“I tried to catch him. I could get within I think 3 or 4/10ths. That’s as close as I could. If not, I was risking too much of getting some takeoff understeering into the marbles. Like I said, I needed him to have his wings messed up with a car in front for me to be able to get more of a run.
“When one car has clean air and the one behind doesn’t, the pace is very similar, it’s pretty much impossible to get by them.”
O’Ward said there was a couple of times on Saturday that he had to check up more than normal in efforts to points race.
“I think you guys know who. I was alongside him,” he said. “But people know who they can race dirty or not. I had a lot to lose today, and they know that. Yeah, they’re just taking advantage of what position they’re in in terms of the championship because it’s almost finishing.
“Other than that, after the first — honestly, I wasn’t even keeping track when it was, but after the first hundred laps, my race calmed down a lot actually. But the start was pretty hectic.
“Yeah, I was fully alongside Rossi. I guess he doesn’t look in his left mirror here. He just turned in, so I had to slam on the brakes so I didn’t crash. Marcus had to, as well, because we were going three-wide into there.
“I’m assuming that is what caused the checkup behind for sure. For me it was even sudden and pretty aggressive, yes. I mean, I was trying to make positions when I could. I mean, it’s so important. It’s such a long race. Sometimes it’s not really so good to be risking so much in the beginning just because, I mean, so many things can fall.
“Yeah, I was trying to make positions when I could. I mean, I had a run. It wasn’t like I was going to brake and let Hunter-Reay and Sato and everyone behind by, I had to pull out. I did but I got blocked.”
That has the championship wide open as neither driver has raced on any of the three west coast tracks before. They just need to stave off Josef Newgarden and Scott Dixon now too.
“We prepare like we have been preparing the whole year, I guess. Now championship is more into the mindset of just really be aware of who we’re racing and when. But, yeah, I mean, to make your life easier, you score more points than the guys you’re fighting. It’s not really as easy as it sounds (smiling).
“I mean, you try not to think about it too much because there’s so much racing. Whenever it’s so competitive like this series in INDYCAR, just a lot can shift in one race, as we saw today.
“You just always try to maximize every session you’re in, whether it’s practice, qualifying, race. Obviously the race counts way more than others. Yeah, I mean, you kind of just have to weigh it out and understand who you’re racing against.
“Too bad this guy beat us today so he’s closer in the championship to me. He did a great job.”