LEEDS, Ala — Heading into this weekend’s fourth NTT INDYCAR Series race of the 2022 season, most felt like if the pole was going to come from the Chevrolet camp that it would be via Team Penske or Arrow McLaren SP. Combined, the duo has won 6 of the last 7 poles at the Barber Motorsports Park.
Instead, it was Ed Carpenter Racing’s Rinus VeeKay coming out on top. After leading the charge among the 26 car field in Saturday morning practice, the 21-year old Dutch driver turned in a time of 1:06.2507-seconds in his No. 21 Dallara-Chevrolet for his second career INDYCAR pole of his young career.
It marked ECR’s 6th career pole but 4 of the previous 5 have all occurred at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. 3 of those came from bossman Ed Carpenter in the Indianapolis 500 and the other one at IMS being via VeeKay for the 2020 Harvest Grand Prix (Race 1). That pole by VeeKay then was the last time an ECR driver earned the NTT P1 Award…until today.
VeeKay, was one of the final drivers to cross the timing line in the Firestone Fast Six session and topped Pato O’Ward’s lap of 1:06.4003-seconds. O’Ward, was sitting idle on pit road after turning that lap early on in the 6-minute final session. He didn’t feel like he could go any faster so they parked it.
“Yeah, I guess we were just playing the waiting game whenever I came into the pit lane,” he said. “Yeah, the car has been feeling well. We rolled off the truck really strong. We haven’t made much changes, just kind of see where the track was going.
“I’m comfortable with it. A little different with how this tire compound likes to be driven compared to last year. There’s been a bit of a shift there.
“In terms of lap times, I think they’ve been pretty close, probably half a second off last year. I can’t remember. They’re close enough to feel similar.
“Yeah, we almost got it. I made a huge mistake starting my lap. I think that one’s on me. I really think that we had everything to get it done. Just got a little too greedy coming into turn 16, huge moment. Completely missed the apex.”
O’Ward, will roll off second in his No. 5 Dallara-Chevrolet for an all bowtie front row. The Mexican driver also sat on the pole last year too with a time of 1:05.8479-seconds in 2021. He broke the track record in that session too with a time of 1:05.5019-seconds. As you can see, the lap times have came back up a bit.
However, from starting on the pole but not winning last year, did O’Ward learn anything from 2021 to improve upon in 2022?
Out of the four times O’Ward has started on the pole in INDYCAR, he’s never won so maybe this is his chance. He’s also started on the front row 5 times in general and has finished 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 3rd and 5th respectively in them.
For VeeKay, May is the place where he excels the most. He picked up his first career win on the Indy road course last May. He then qualified on the front row for the Indy 500 a week after. He enters this weekend sitting 7th in points on the heels of a pair of top 10 finishes in 3 starts this season. With a pole in hand on a track that favors starting spots ( pole winner has won this race in 3 of the last 5 years), this could be the start of a huge Month of May for him.
“It gives me a lot of good momentum, of course,” VeeKay said. “This is the first road course of the season. Coming into Indy Grand Prix, I think you’re basically kind of on the same setup. Gives me good confidence going through there.
“I think this is definitely — momentum always helps, positive vibes in the team, everyone being happy. I think this definitely helps. I think we can carry it through all the way till hopefully the end of the season.”
Last year’s winner Alex Palou starts third in his No. 10 Dallara-Honda. Palou, circled the 2.3-mile Alabama racetrack with a time of 1:06.4415-seconds. He started third in his win a year ago as well.
Scott McLaughlin (1:06.4967-seconds) will roll off fourth in his No. 3 Dallara-Chevrolet while Alexander Rossi (1:06.5549-seconds) rounded out the top five in fifth in his No. 27 Dallara-Honda.
Parity Up Front
We had 3 Andretti cars in the top 4 of the speed charts on Friday but on Saturday, we saw 5 teams in the top 6 of the practice speed chart. In qualifying, the entire top 5 is from a different organization. You get Ed Carpenter Racing-AMSP-Ganassi-Penske-Andretti making up the top 5 of the starting lineup.
Can Arrow McLaren SP Turn Qualifying Pace Into Race Winning One?
While there’s parity up front, Arrow McLaren SP is the only one with multiple cars in the Fast 6. They will start 2nd and 6th respectively. However, following a rough go of it in the season opener on the streets of St. Pete, they’ve been quick in qualifying in the other three races.
Felix Rosenqvist has now qualified 1st, 4th and 6th respectively over his last three races. Pato O’Ward has been 10th, 11th and 2nd in the same three races.
Their finishes though?
Rosenqvist was 21st and 11th in Texas and Long Beach respectively while O’Ward was 15th and 5th.
Now that they have track position, can they keep it on Sunday? O’Ward started on the pole for this very race last year but due to an early race tire puncture, he had to pit prematurely. It cost him track position and had them have to alter their strategy from a 2 stop to a 3 stopper. That was the wrong strategy to be on.
Alex Palou won on a 2 stop strategy while O’Ward could only come back to finish 4th.
Now that he gets a do over, can he make up for it?
O’Ward, has 5 front row starting spots in his career but has never turned those into a win. He does have a top 5 in all though including 3 podiums. While he wants a win, an opportunity to keep this much needed momentum is bigger.
The Indy 500 comes later in the month and he’s had a pair of top 6 results in that race. He qualified on the pole for the Indy road course race the last time out last August and picked up his second career win at Belle Isle in the race after Indy.
“It’s been the goal to kind of ramp up how we’ve had a bit of a rough start,” said O’Ward. “I think Long Beach was a significant step forward. I think this is a great qualifying for us as a group. I think Felix had a great qualifying, as well. We’re both happy that we’re both towards the front end of the grid.
“With the series being so competitive, it’s just really tough to make ground whenever you’re starting — it makes a big difference from third or fourth versus 10th or 11th just because everything is so tight.”
This next 4 race stretch is big for him to getting back in the championship race and it all starts Sunday in Barber.
“Yeah, this is the first decent qualifying we’ve had this year, which makes us all feel really good, motivated for tomorrow,” O’Ward said of momentum right now and feeling like he can win the race after qualifying. “I would say we’ve had it probably twice this year. Not in St. Pete, not in Long Beach. Definitely in Texas. I really think in Texas we had an easy podium finish there. If I didn’t overshoot the pit lane and hurt one of my guys. But I’m glad he’s all good and participating.
“Yeah, I mean, I think it’s probably the second time we’ve rolled off in the window without kind of having to scramble and finding things to make it go faster.”
The thing is, rain is in the forecast tomorrow. Does that alter his outlook at all?
“I think tomorrow the weather is going to be an interesting factor into playing what the strategy is going to be like. I think it also might play into shuffling things around.
“It’s a tough circuit. If it gets a little bit wet or I guess if it starts drying, but the grass gets a little bit wet, there’s going to be a lot of shuffling with everybody just trying to make passes, grabbing a bit of that grass, probably spinning. It will probably get a little bit more chaotic than if it just stays dry.
“I think we’re in a good starting position to do some good stuff tomorrow. We can work from there.”
Rossi Has Nice Comeback, But Andretti Squanders It Away Again…
I wrote on Friday that despite Andretti Autosport having 3 cars in the top 4 of the speed chart, we can’t get too far ahead of ourselves before crowning them race winners on Sunday. They started off like this in Long Beach but only had 1 car in the top 5 in the end.
Well, here we go again.
Alexander Rossi crashed in practice this morning but rebounded to qualify his No. 27 Dallara-Honda fifth still. It was a remarkable comeback since they had to change engines and rebuild the entire rear end.
“It was unbelievable,” Rossi said of his car going from crashed to 5th in the span of a couple of hours. “Yeah, I think it was six of the guys involved, management involved. It was a big, big situation to do an engine and a gearbox. So, yeah, I put them in a very tough situation.
“It was amazing just to be out there in the first place, have the opportunity to compete and qualify. Obviously we knew that the car had been strong all weekend. We didn’t get a chance on the red tires, so the first run was kind of guessing a little bit.
“I was just pleased to be out there. I mean, obviously when you advance all the way to the end, you hope for a little bit more. Ultimately where we were two hours ago, I think everyone is relieved and happy that we got through that. Every result that we get this weekend is down to those guys, for sure.
“If we had not made qualifying, started 27th, you’re super screwed. This gives us a really good shot to have a good day tomorrow. Yeah, it’s because of those guys. Big thanks to them.
“I mean, it doesn’t really matter where you are anymore. It’s so hard to pass. It can be an oval, it can be a street course. It’s very, very difficult.
“Yeah, I mean, it’s a huge, huge thing to be able to be in the top six. Very happy about it.”
Most felt like he’d be joined in the Fast 6 by his teammates. Colton Herta was 1st and 3rd respectively in practice and in knockout qualifying this season, was 3rd and 1st respectively in them. Romain Grosjean was 4th and 5th respectively in practice himself and had qualified in the Fast 6 in both other street course races this season which were the only other races to have knockout qualifying.
Instead, Grosjean was only 8th overall in the second round which wasn’t good enough to advance him to the Fast 6. He started 7th and finished 10th last year. Herta, went out too late and was caught out from Marcus Ericsson getting off course and ending the session a few seconds early. He’ll start 10th as a result. He came from 9th in the other 2 Barber races he’s competed in and was a DNF in both as well.
So, if Andretti is going to get a win on Sunday, they have to hope it’s from Rossi.
Weekend Favoring The Youth So Far
When you come to Barber Motorsports Park, you think of Scott Dixon, Helio Castroneves, Simon Pagenaud, Takuma Sato and Will Power. Combined, they’ve won 5 of the 11 races but also 8 of the 11 poles.
In fact, they had won the pole in 5 of the last 7 tries here. However, none of them made it out of the first round in qualifying. That may be the most eye opening stat of the weekend.
Power’s 63 career poles rank 2nd most ever. Castroneves’ 50 is 4th all-time. Dixon has 27 poles which is tied with Al Unser for 10th most in INDYCAR history.
Coming into this weekend, Dixon had never qualified outside of the Fast 6 in any of his 11 Barber starts.
Power, had 8 front row starting spots here in 11 tries including 9 Fast 6’s. 10 of his 11 starts were 7th or better.
Castroneves, had 7 Fast 6’s in 8 tries with a worst start of 7th.
They’ll start 13th (Dixon), 16th (Castroneves) and 19th (Power) respectively. Throw in Colton Herta (10th) and you get some of the best qualifiers coming from 10th on back.
In the 11 year history of this race, no one has won from worse than 9th.
Sato, qualified 17th and Pagenaud 24th.
On the flipside, it opened the door for the youngsters.
Among the Fast 6, all were under the age of 30 and all had a combined 15 poles. 4 of the 6 had 2 or fewer career poles won heading into Saturday afternoon.
3 of the top 4 starters have a combined 4 poles. 2nd place starter has 4 poles total. Factor in 3 of the 4 pole winners this season earning their 1st or 2nd career pole and you get a wild qualifying trend shaping up.
Practice 1 saw 22 year old Colton Herta lead 25 year old Alex Palou. Practice 2 saw 21 year old Rinus VeeKay lead 22 year old Pato O’Ward who led 22 year old Colton Herta who led 28 year old Scott McLaughlin. 25 year old Alex Palou was 6th.
Will we see a youngster win Sunday?
Testing Programs Paying Off? Why That Could End Penske’s Undefeated Start
Team Penske is off to a perfect 3-for-3 start for the 2022 season with 3 wins in 3 races. They’ve also won 5 times in the 11 year history of this event too. However, they’ve not looked their best this weekend. They were only 5-16-18 on Friday’s practice and 4-11-16 on Saturday. That’s not going to get it done for the win on Sunday especially with coming from starting spots of 4th, 7th and 19th respectively.
9 of the 11 INDYCAR races at Barber has been won by a top five starter. All 11 races have been won from a driver coming from a top 10 starting spot.
How much did not testing here hurt them?
Andretti Autosport, Chip Ganassi Racing, Meyer Shank Racing, Juncos Hollinger Racing and Ed Carpenter Racing did. They combined to take 8 of the top 10 speeds in Friday’s practice session and 7 of 10 on Saturday. In qualifying, they took 4 of the top 6 qualifying speeds including 8 of the top 12.
Penske elected to focus on the street course and oval package for 2022 and will use their test days on them. They chose to test at Texas in favor of Barber. It paid off in a 1-2 finish but Will Power said that while the test was nice, it didn’t help much because they used a similar setup on his car this year as last at Texas.
The lack of testing at Barber is hurting them.
The driver who was quickest in the 2nd practice session of the race weekend this year has won the race outright in 2 of the 3 tries. The one they didn’t win, they finished 2nd. Scott McLaughlin was quickest in the Saturday morning session in St. Pete and turned that into a pole and race win as well. VeeKay, was quickest on Saturday morning here in Barber, won the pole and now….race winner on Sunday?