O’Ward wins the pole for Sundays Honda Indy 200 (12 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network) my recap with top 3 takeaways on Saturday

LEXINGTON, Ohio — Defending Mid-Ohio race winner Josef Newgarden caught slower traffic during his qualifying laps. Current NTT INDYCAR Series points leader Marcus Ericsson was narrowly eliminated in the first round himself. As a result of an opening round shocker, the duo will share Row 7 in Sunday’s Honda Indy 200 (12 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network). When you thought things couldn’t get more bizarre, pole master and the one in the middle of Ericsson and Newgarden in the standings, Will Power, made a costly team error also in the opening round and will start a dismal 21st.

That opened the door for both Arrow McLaren SP and Chip Ganassi Racing. They took half of the 6 Firestone Fast Six spots and put 4 cars in the top 7 of the starting lineup for the 9th race of the season.

The one to capitalize the most?

Pato O’Ward.

The third year driver scored his 5th career series pole in dramatic fashion in taking his No. 5 Dallara-Chevrolet for a ride around the 2.258-mile Ohio road course with a time of 1:06.7054-seconds. He’s now made the Fast 6 in all 4 natural road course races run but this time, he’s the one everyone is chasing on Sunday. He’s not used to being that one here. His previous best Mid-Ohio start is 15th.

Where this is big is, 6 of the last 7 races at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course were won from the front row. Also, 6 of the last 7 races on natural road course races in series competition were won by a front row starter.


O’Ward has a really good shot at scoring his 2nd victory of the 2022 season and also chopping off more of his deficit in the points. The Mexican driver enters Sunday’s 80 lap race 45 points behind Ericsson but with all 3 drivers ahead of him in the standings all being eliminated in the opening round of knockout qualifying, his chances of closing up the gap in the championship race are really good.

“Yeah, I think it’s going to be all about is the race going to have a fuel number, are you going to be hitting those to be able to get the strategy, but I think from years past it’s not too bad on fuel save, so yeah, obviously — but the plan is always to stay there whenever you’re starting in first, but there’s so many variables that can happen and that can throw your race upside down or help it,” he said.

“Tomorrow I think it’s just going to be all about running our race. It’s a long race. It’s a lot of laps. But I think we can do a really good — it can be a very good solid points day for us.

“I mean, it for sure makes your life a lot easier when you think of it in terms of where you’re starting. Logically you don’t have to pass anybody when you start first place, right. But there’s so many variables. I could have been leading Road America, but then had an electrical failure, and that throws away your race. There’s so many different things that are out of your control that you can’t really dictate what’s going to happen. But you can try and make the best race for you, try and kind of get the best race car into the best window as you can in terms of for tire deg and all that stuff.

“I think we’re in a really good spot. I’m very happy with my car. Yesterday was a bit of a rough day, and I think today we’ve made strides every single session with both car and myself, and I think qualifying shows to that.

“Yeah, I think it’s a great starting position.”

Josef Newgarden was eliminated in the first round of qualifying Saturday in Mid-Ohio. Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

It also brings pressure. You have to capitalize. You don’t get many days like this. Newgarden for starters was quickest in practice on Friday and 3rd on Saturday morning. He had 2 straight front row starting spots on the season and 8 top 5 starting spots in his last 9 Mid-Ohio tries entering this weekend. Instead of being THE favorite like he was 24 hours ago, he starts 14th.

Ericsson rolled off 3rd here last year and came home runner-up to Newgarden. He had 3 straight top 8 starting spots on the season too in his No. 8 Dallara-Honda including 4th the last time out in Road America. Instead, it was 2 of his other 3 teammates to make it out of the first round and not the guy who recaptured the championship lead two weeks ago on a similar Wisconsin road course.

“I think it’s a significant difference to what my view has been here in INDYCAR at least,” O’Ward said of the pressure. “I’ve had very successful weekends here in junior formulas but haven’t really capitalized in a week in an INDYCAR, so this is the first step.

“I’m excited for tomorrow. I think we will have as strong a race car as we’ve had in the past. The problem is we just haven’t really had that chance to make our life a little bit easier during the race and not have to pass so many cars.

“I guess you look at it and it’s a great opportunity to capitalize, right. But there’s so many rules in INDYCAR. There’s certain rules that can really throw your race upside down if something happens that you really can’t control. Sometimes it is a lot better to actually start in the back as we saw in like Portland last year than being in the front.

“Yeah, I think we’ve definitely executed when qualifying came, and I think tomorrow we just need to take the race as it comes and just be sure that we can react to certain things to keep our position.”

That’s a far cry from where O’Ward was at earlier this season. With his head held down after being passed over for an F1 test, one that he felt and showed that he deserved, O’Ward was 13th in points following finishes of 12th in St. Pete and 15th in Texas. He qualified 16th and 10th in each.

That’s where he decided to change. It was time to refocus and show that McLaren F1 was making a very big mistake for not including him in their future plans. So, he used his Arrow McLaren SP ride here in INDYCAR to do so.

It all started in Long Beach.

He finished 5th in that prestigious race and went from 13th to 9th in the standings. He’d then win the next time out at Barber to move from 9th to 5th. For the Month of May, he qualified 5th and had great pace in the GMR Grand Prix but bad luck struck and he’d come home 19th. For the Indy 500 however, he turned it back around in qualifying 7th and bring his car home runner-up. That propelled him to 2nd in points.

He’d finish 5th in Belle Isle but bad luck struck again at the end in Road America which would result with a 26th place effort. He’d fall back down to 4th.

Now, he’s back with a shot at making up more ground again.

Newgarden has his teammate Scott McLaughlin for help though too. McLaughlin (1:06.8382-seconds) will start alongside of O’Ward on the front row in his No. 3 Dallara-Chevrolet. While he’s faded down to 9th in points entering the weekend, he’ll do his best to make life miserable for O’Ward in order to help his teammates out in the pinch that they’ll start off in.

McLaughlin started 2022 off with his first career pole in St. Pete and turned that into a win a day later. In the next race at Texas, he qualified second but led a race-high 186 of 248 laps in a runner-up result in what was a photo finish with Newgarden.

That’s where the tide turned.

He was 14th in Long Beach. 6th in Barber. 20th and 29th in the Indy two setp, 19th in Belle Isle. Road America was a clean weekend of qualifying 9th and finishing 7th. That turned the ship back towards the right direction.

Now, he’s on the front row in his No. 3 Dallara-Chevrolet.

“We’ve had this coming for a while,” he said. “We felt like we had reasonable pace, and we’ve been wanting to sort of build on that bit by bit, and to finally sort of nail it in qualifying and get through the Fast Six and keep going was nice. Then to compete for pole and be as close as we were to Pato was fun.

“Really pumped for tomorrow. It’s all about qualifying here in some ways, so hopefully look forward to starting off good and getting on with it.”

O’Ward also has a teammate up front in Felix Rosenqvist who’ll start fourth in his No. 7 Dallara-Chevrolet. Rosenqvist qualified with a time of 1:07.2163-seconds for his 7th top 8 starting spot in the last 8 races this season. He’s fighting for his job and doing a great job of doing so.

“I’m so happy that he’s there,” O’Ward said of his teamamte Rosenqvist. “The guy is there, and hopefully we’ll be sharing a podium. I think that would be fantastic for the team. It was never a doubt of like can he do it. We all knew that he could do it. But for some reason it just wasn’t clicking.

“But I think now we’ve worked really hard with the team to bring up and better our package into something that is just a little bit better in terms of operation window to be able to get those laps that you need, because it’s such a tight championship where if you don’t get it right and you don’t have the car to help you with that, it just makes qualifying so much harder, which has happened to us in the past here specifically.

“So I think it’s great that both cars are up there. I mean, I expect him to be the same for the rest of the year as I expect for myself. I think we’ve put it into the Fast Six since Barber, guess. I’m really happy with how I’ve been performing. Sadly just some things haven’t really gone our way. Our races have really turned upside down in a lot of cases where it should have been a solid podium or even a win.

“Yeah, I think I’ve really learned that in INDYCAR you can never take things for granted and things can get thrown away in an instant, so I think it’s great that we’re starting on pole, and we just need to make the best race that we can for tomorrow.”

Colton Herta will roll off third alongside of Rosenqvist in his No. 26 Dallara-Honda with a lap of 1:07.0262-seconds. Herta now has 3 straight top 3 starting spots here and 4 of his 5 Mid-Ohio appearances coming from 7th or better.

The Ganassi duo of Scott Dixon (1:07.4047-seconds) and Alex Palou (1:06.7965-seconds) will start 5th and 7th respectively.

This was the 3rd straight top 5 starting spot here for Dixon in his No. 9 Dallara-Honda as the 6-time Mid-Ohio race winner is seeking to end a 21 race winless drought. He was 9th quickest in both practices this weekend.

For Palou, he was 2nd and 5th respectively in each session and 7th now for the 2nd straight year here.

Pato O’Ward practicing at Mid-Ohio on Saturday. Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

Did Indy Test Help AMSP

Last summer, there was a lengthy break between the July Mid-Ohio race and the August Nashville street event. That’s partially because COVID-19 restrictions kept the series from being able to race in Toronto then and the other part because NBC Sports didn’t have much time slots available to air races due to the Summer Olympics over in Tokyo.

So, the NTT INDYCAR Series teams adapted. Some took some time off. Others went west to test. For one organization, that test in Portland propelled them to a strong push to the finish. While we don’t have that gap again this year, Arrow McLaren SP was hoping the test session a few weeks ago among 8 total drivers around the 2.439-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course is that one that helps them move forward again in 2022.

“I think this is a great opportunity,” Felix Rosenqvist told me then.

So, being able to test at Indy he says, that goes a long way.

“Testing is so valuable because you don’t get to do very much of it,” O’Ward told me. “Before St. Pete we had just 1 day in Sebring. Yeah this is huge. To have it right before the 2nd half of the season is really good for us. It just gets us into the groove of what’s coming up which is Mid-Ohio, then Toronto, then so forth. It’s going to be intense.

“Indy road course would translate to Portland, maybe things you can find here you could use at Mid-Ohio. I think this is a good place to have a test and especially because it’s beautiful.”

Having 4 natural road courses among the final 9 races of the year would at one point have been a detriment for AMSP. O’Ward told me last year that these were their worst tracks on the schedule. They had nothing for Penske or Ganassi or even the Andretti teams on them.

I mean at Indy as an example, he’s never finished better than 5th on the road course and that’s even with a pole last August. However, they know this too and spent a lot of time improving in this area of discipline.

“I think we’re getting better. Our car is better,” he told me. “We made some changes in the offseason and into making our car just better. Not much faster but definitely easier to drive in a way. We haven’t really hammered it everywhere but we’ve been quick. We’ve been qualifying in the Fast 6 ever since Barber. That’s huge for us. I told the team pole is cool but I don’t really care about the pole I care about Fast 6’s. As long as you’re in the Fast 6, you always have a chance.”

With Penske having 4 wins in 7 races run this season, this was a huge test for Andretti and Arrow McLaren SP who took 3 of the top 4 starting spots.

Penske and Ganassi have 6 of the top 9 in points including 5 of the top 6 in general. They’ve won 13 out of the last 14 series titles including 9 straight.

Plus, during the Aeroscreen era (17 races) on natural road courses, both Penske and Ganassi have each won 6 times on them accounting for a 71% win rate.

“I think they’re still going to be good right,” O’Ward said. “They’re championship level teams and always fighting for wins and poles everywhere they go. That’s what we strive to be and hope for and hope to make it harder for them this year.”

O’Ward sits 4th in points. He has 4 top 5 finishes in his last 6 starts on the season. But he knows that wins are needed to really make it hard on the “Big 3” and a test like the one they had in Indy can go a long way to making it happen.

Kyle Kirkwood is a perfect 6-for-6 in 6 starts at Mid-Ohio. Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

Rookies Shine On Saturday

Kyle Kirkwood loves this place. Like this is bar none this is his favorite race track on the schedule. The results show for it too. He’s undefeated at Mid-Ohio with 6 Road to Indy starts and 6 wins in those same races.

This weekend, he’s proving that too. In his 1st NTT INDYCAR Series start, he was 11th in practice 1, 19th in Practice 2 and qualified his No. 14 Dallara-Chevrolet in 9th for his best start of the season.

On a day that saw the top 3 in points eliminated in the first round, it was the kids who shined with Kirkwood and fellow rookies David Malukas and Callum Ilott shining.

Malukas was 8th in Friday’s practice, 4th on Saturday morning and then in qualifying, he put his No. 18 Dallara-Honda in 8th as the top rookie in the 27 car field.

Ilott continued his impressive qualifying runs on natural road courses in making it out of the first round for the 4th time in 4 tries. This time, he nearly made it to the Fast 6. He was 7th at Indy back in May and this time around in Mid-Ohio, he qualified his No. 77 Dallara-Chevrolet in 10th.

Honda vs. Chevy Somewhat Even

Out of the 12 cars to make up the second round of qualifying, we had 6 Honda’s and 6 Chevy’s. It was evenly split. For the Fast 6, it was split once again. 3 Honda’s vs. 3 Chevrolet’s for the run at the pole on a place that rewards track position.

It was Chevy though who got a leg up in the final round with not only sweeping the front row but putting all 3 of their cars in the Fast 6 in the top 4.

In what’s a race titled sponsor by Honda, Chevy has a chance to win in their backyard. Honda has just 2 wins all season with both the big ones at Indy. Chevy has won the rest and continues to look like the top team in the series this season.

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