If things just go slightly different in the opening two races in the 2023 NTT INDYCAR SERIES season, Pato O’Ward could be sitting here 2-for-2 in terms of victories to begin the new season off with. O’Ward was left frazzled after his car sputtered while leading at the end of the season opener last month in St. Pete.
Then came a bit of bad luck on Lap 97 to which O’Ward says that they gave it away off the final turn that lap. An engine fire caused the engine to sputter which slowed his No. 5 Dallara-Chevrolet and allowed Ericsson by.
“Frazzled,” said O’Ward of his emotions that day.
A plenum event is the official diagnoses of what transpired to which kept O’Ward out of victory lane in the season opener.
“Well, at that point you can’t really do much besides just kind of — I didn’t have a lot of Push-to-Pass to play with, so I was managing it accordingly, and I think we would have been just fine,” O’Ward said of the bad luck. “We were managing a one-second gap, and I don’t think Marcus was going to get us.
“Yeah, I mean, kind of speaks for itself. Right at the exit, we kind of lost drive and gained it back. We were lucky not to get passed by Scott.
“Yeah, I don’t know what else to tell you. It’s very unfortunate.”
This race on Sunday, he held a 7.1-second lead coming to his third pit stop of the race. At that time, he and Josef Newgarden were the only two drivers on the lead lap. This was his race to lose.
Unfortunately, his teammate, Felix Rosenqvist, crashing in Turn 4 on Lap 179 really cost his advantage. If that caution never flies, there’s no doubt that O’Ward could have won in blowout fashion. Instead, that’s the part to where his race was nearly lost.
He and Newgarden wisely pit under that caution on Lap 182, but with the lap cars taking the wave around, there’s now be six more cars joining them on the same lap again and they’d get an advantage by pitting later. Newgarden countered and pit with them. O’Ward didn’t.
He was now a lame duck. With having to fuel save while other had fresher tires and could essentially sprint while O’Ward had to jog, his race winning chances were practically over.
Luckily, Sting Ray Robb crashed on Lap 210 which set up O’Ward getting to pit under caution and now having enough gas and the fresher tires to make it to the end. He was back in the race for the win again and could be the aggressor.
It took him now time to get to the lead again and it was allowing him to flex his Chevrolet muscle. Unfortunately, two more cautions came out with negated his advantage and bunched the field up for a wild shootout to the finish. O’Ward led by over 7 seconds at one point, had two cars on the lead lap and led 91 laps. He didn’t win.
“I knew I could have won,” said O’Ward. “It’s just there was really no other way to do it besides timing it. You had to do it the last lap ’cause if not, they were probably going to do it to you.
“Just the timing of the last yellow is what really killed us to be honest. All the other ones, you can’t judge when they fall or didn’t fall. If they did, it would probably be a very different story.”
Still, two straight runner-ups to begin 2023 off with gives him the points lead heading to Long Beach in a couple of weeks. This feels like his season to do some damage and end the “Big 2” reign of championships for which no one outside of Penske or Ganassi has won a championship in the last decade. Count Andretti Autosport, this trio of teams have won every championship since 2003 too.
Can O’Ward and Arrow McLaren Racing be the first ones to break that trend?
So far it looks like it.
“I have to say to the guys it’s been a hell of a start to the year,” O’Ward said. “I had a rocket. Like, I don’t think there’s another way to put it. I was really comfortable in the car. It was fun, I have to say. Like, it’s got to be the best Texas race in the last four, five years. It was freaking awesome.
“Really, really nice that I got to drive and race with guys that I have so much respect for: Alex, Josef. You can push it to the limit, but you always give each other the room that you need. I think that’s what we gave the fans. That’s what they deserve.”
This was his 15th career podium and 25th top five finish in 57 career starts. Oddly enough, a chunk of those have come on ovals. O’Ward has made 16 oval starts with two wins, five runner-up finishes and 12 top four results including 11 top four’s in his last 12 tries.