LEEDS, Ala – Rinus VeeKay was 1 pit stop and 29 laps away from his second career NTT INDYCAR Series victory from a sun filled race at the Barber Motorsports Park. The Dutch driver was quickest in practice on Saturday morning, turned that into his second career pole a few hours later and had dominated the race up until his Lap 61 final pit stop.
However, that’s where it all changed.
Jimmie Johnson, mirror driving and past experiences led him to finishing third at the drop of the checkered flag, 12.4819-seconds arrears.
VeeKay, crossed the line 2.0875-seconds up on Pato O’Ward on Lap 60. Both would hit pit lane when they came back around. VeeKay, closed up to Johnson on track and O’Ward was driving hard to close that gap as well.
When they hit the pit limiter button, O’Ward closed that 2-second gap to being on VeeKay’s rear wing.
“Unfortunately I got held up a little bit before getting into my second pit stop, so Pato was on me, really on me,” VeeKay said.
While VeeKay still had beaten O’Ward off pit road, he was driving carefully where O’Ward was driving for the win. That was the other factor to cost him.
O’Ward, passed VeeKay in Turn 5 and set his sails.
“I did beat him out of pit lane,” VeeKay continued. “Coming into turn five, I just took it a little bit too conservative, and he got around me. Yeah, he drove away basically. Lacked a little bit of pace on the last set of tires. Pato and Alex were a little bit too fast for me to hang with.
“Yeah, I think third place is pretty good still.
“Yeah, unfortunately I didn’t push enough on that out lap. Another lesson learned. Unfortunately the hard way.”
As far as why he was so conservative?
“Well, I have screwed myself a few times in the past braking a little too deep, locking a tire, yeah, basically destroying my whole last stint,” he said.
“I did not know Pato was going that deep. Yeah, I was looking in my mirrors a lot. Maybe that distracted me a little bit. Yeah, I don’t know. If I could go back, I would go way deeper and stay ahead of him.”
Then, Alex Palou pit 2 laps later for the overcut. Palou, was .635-seconds quicker than VeeKay on his pit in lap. He was .363-seconds faster for his time on pit lane and .801-seconds faster on hit out lap. While VeeKay had a .200-second advantage in the pit box, add it all up and you get a 1.599-second difference between Palou and VeeKay which put Palou ahead of VeeKay when he exited pit lane.
“Yeah, you feel bummed at that moment,” said VeeKay when settling into 3rd. “There’s still so many laps left in the race, you never give up and you kind of reset and try to make the best out of it still.
“Definitely still surprised by how Alex got between us. Yeah, I think I could have made a run for him. I came out of turn five fully sideways, that’s kind of where I lost touch with him.
“Yeah, I did not really expect that to happen. It’s INDYCAR. Anything can happen. Level is extremely high. You weaken a little bit for one second and you’re being passed from the lead.”
That’s why VeeKay had to settle for his 4th career podium and 6th top five.
“I was also struggling a little bit more on my last set of tires,” he said.
“Yeah, he was definitely faster on that last stint. Deserved win for him. Fortunately I still got a podium out of it.”
He’s still 7th in points but only 37 back heading to Indy road course, a place he won at last year.
“I feel like we’re definitely back. I felt like that at St. Pete already, qualifying fourth, finishing sixth. That was a great way to bounce back. Leading in Texas. Definitely running out of fuel, still finishing 10th.
“I think we started out really well already. This weekend really, yeah, was the cherry on the cake with the pole position and having a car to win the race, all race.
“Yeah, it’s a big confidence booster. Of course I struggled a little bit in Long Beach with pace. That was a tough race. Then coming here, first road course of the season, yeah. Just very happy. We were very fast in qualifying. Just in the race also we had the pace to win the race.
“Yeah, I’m happy. I think coming into the month of May I know Indy road course is going to be good for us, Indy 500. I think we’re in a good position.”