5 burning questions for Sunday’s Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach (3 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network)

Can Pato O’Ward Finally Find Victory Lane in Long Beach?

Pato O’Ward has found every way to lose a race so far this season. If things would have just gone slightly different in the opening two races in the 2023 NTT INDYCAR SERIES season, 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.”

Last race in Texas, 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. 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.”

O’Ward has 15 career podiums 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.

For Long Beach, he’s finished 12th, 27th and fifth respectively. However, he’s a past winner of Belle Isle and was runner-up at St. Pete last month…

Where Does The Fountain Rank Among INDYCAR Staples?

Nashville has the bridge. Indy has the Pagoda. Barber has the statues. World Wide Technology Raceway is in the shadows of the Gateway Arch. Monterey has the corkscrew. Long Beach has the fountain. Where does this rank in significance among that grouping?

It’s an iconic part of the track that most will correlate with Long Beach. Which is why I’m curious on where this fountain ranks among INDYCAR staples.

Can Josef Newgarden Win 2 Straight?

Josef Newgarden backed up his 17th place finish in St. Pete with a win two weeks ago in Texas. Now, can he win again Sunday in Long Beach? Newgarden is the defending race winner here and was runner-up in his previous two tries prior.

Is his time now to score his second win in three races?

Since 2008 only Alexander Rossi has ever been able to back up one Long Beach win with another – he did it in 2018-19.

More Hurt Feelings?

You know how the song goes, “with so much drama in the LBC…” That’s exactly what we saw during this race weekend the last few years. It all started in 2021 with Pato O’Ward being pissed at Race Control on Saturday to Helio Castroneves vs. Alexander Rossi in Sunday’s warmup of that year to Ed Jones punting O’Ward in the final corner of the opening lap and a late race spat between Conor Daly and Oliver Askew made for a couple of days of instant drama.

In qualifying, Will Power stalled on course towards the end of the second round. O’Ward was sixth at the time. Ed Jones, Felix Rosenqvist and James Hinchcliffe all sped through a yellow corner and improved their times.

After a lengthy review by INDYCAR, they determined only Jones would get penalized meaning despite evidence that their own car in Rosenqvist went through the yellow at speed, O’Ward would only move back up one spot.

“Yeah, our car has been good. I mean, we didn’t roll off the best, but I think we made some really good changes, just kept improving,” said O’Ward. “We had enough for the Fast 6. Yeah, we should have been in the Fast 6, so…

“I mean, we’re in the same team and we have literal data that shows that at least two of the cars that didn’t get penalized kept going quickly in the yellow flag. I don’t know. Maybe rules don’t apply the last race of the season when everything’s at stake.

“It just sucks. Sucks that we’re stuck there because we should have transferred. We had the car to fight it. I don’t know if for pole, but we definitely had a car to be in the Fast 6 and start within the first two rows.

“Kind of sucks to get hosed by a very odd call. I’m still seeking for answers. But, yeah.”

A day after that, Alexander Rossi exited the pits during warmup ahead of Helio Castroneves. That move and the one that Rossi didn’t allow Castroneves who was on a flier by created an even bigger stir including one of the more iconic interviews of that season.

Then you have Askew and Daly’s run in towards the end of the race in which brought out the final caution.

“The U.S. Air Force crew did a fantastic job in the pits today. We jumped guys every time we stopped and put ourselves with a really strong group,” Daly said. “We were having the best day we could have, but sadly another competitor took that away from us. I’m still very confused about what [Oliver] Askew was trying to do there on cold tires. This is a street circuit, it’s really hard to brake off-line and he had no hope of making that corner. When you force someone off the track, you’re not supposed to crash yourself at the same time! It’s a shame, but I am thankful my guys stuck with me this weekend. It was very challenging, but we had some pace at the end and were on the right strategy.”

Last year was Simon Pagenaud vs. Takuma Sato and other internal battles. This past March, there was plenty of drama and hurt feelings down in St. Pete. So, do we see another similar weekend of drama in Long Beach?

With Long Beach being less than two miles in length, there’s not many areas to where you’re not around someone. We saw it already happen in the season opener. Do we see more this weekend?

Will Race Be Won On Saturday?

Starting position is everything in an NTT INDYCAR Series race. More importantly, on street courses. The tight confines of a downtown circuit makes passing as difficult as anywhere on the annual schedule.

3 of the 5 street course races a year ago were won from a front row starting spot. St. Pete this past year, was won from the second row (4th place). 6 of the last 7 years of this race were won via a top 4 starter including 3 of the last four from the front row.

Which leads me to wonder if Sunday’s race will be won in qualifying on Saturday. Don’t make the Fast Six, you don’t really have much of a shot at victory.

Since the UAK was introduced for the 2018 season, 10 of the 12 podium spots were taken via Fast Six starters.

Starting Positions Of Podiums Since 2018

2022: 2,6,3

2021: 14,1,2

2019: 1,4,2

2018: 1,2,13

The pole winner has been on the podium in three of the last four years. The second place starter on the podium each year. Which means if you truly want to make a difference on Sunday, you better do so on Saturday.

“Yeah, I mean, for sure. I think you’re right: every qualifying is very critical, but especially Long Beach because the way it works out, it’s a two-stop race, pretty straightforward two-stop race,” Alexander Rossi said.

“There’s not many yellows. It’s a pretty clean race, historically speaking. The leader doesn’t really get hung out by a close pit situation type of thing.

“Yeah, I mean, it’s very important to start in the top two or three I think if you’re going to want to try to win that race.”

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