Rinus VeeKay has a strong reason of optimism heading into his first trip back to the Barber Motorsports Park since his gut-wrenching defeat in last year’s NTT INDYCAR SERIES race around the 2.3-mile Alabama facility. The Ed Carpenter Racing driver not only won the pole a year ago, but he also had led 57 of the first 60 laps too. Victory was in his sights. However, VeeKay hit pit lane for the final time of the race on Lap 61 as the leader. He’d never lead another lap.
Pato O’Ward made up a ton of ground on the in lap and as a result, passed VeeKay in Turn 5 on the out lap. O’Ward would never look back and lead the final 26 laps en route to his victory.
VeeKay allowed O’Ward to chop off 2 seconds off his lead heading to pit road. At Lap 60, VeeKay led O’Ward by 2.0875-seconds. They’d pit the next time by. VeeKay, had O’Ward right on his rear wing on pit lane.
“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 last year.
Then, Alex Palou did the overcut on him by going 2 laps later before hitting pit road for his final time on Lap 63. 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 too.
“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.”
Palou said that extra two laps meant he knew that he could push more in the end to close that deficit to O’Ward too.
“I went two laps longer so I knew I could push more. I didn’t really had to save that much fuel as him. I said, Okay, we’ll have a chance, have plenty of overtake to use. I felt really comfortable with the car. Started pushing. He was making the same lap time. I said, Oh, no, that’s going to be tough.
“I pushed till the end. Caught him on some laps, lost a little bit of time on some others. He was really good. It’s maybe a track where even if you’re a little bit faster, you cannot really pass. It’s so hard. As soon as I would get, I don’t know, a second close to him, I would just lose my front and drop 3/10ths max. I was doing that all race at the end.
“But it was fun. I was trying to push him and try and make him to do a mistake or try to make him to push too much, have to save fuel. But, no, he did a good job.”
Now, VeeKay is back hoping for redemption for how last year’s race ended and how the chain of events after have transpired.
“Well, it’s fuel for nightmares, definitely,” VeeKay admitted to me on a zoom call on Tuesday afternoon. “I’ve not been as close to winning all last year and since that moment.
“We had all the ingredients to win, and I didn’t make it happen when it mattered most. Really sucked. Also it’s a mistake I’m never going to make in the rest of my career.
“Mistakes happen for a reason. They’re good mistakes if you learn from them. I’m really, really sure I’m going to really not make the mistake any time any more.”
Hopeful for a strong result, VeeKay hasn’t had the best of luck to begin the 2023 season off with. The Dutch driver currently sits 22nd in points after finishes of 21st, 11th and 26th respectively. If you go back to the second race at Iowa last year, VeeKay has five finishes of 19th or worse in the last nine races and just one Top-10.
“Well, we’re definitely not happy,” VeeKay said. “It’s been so far disastrous in results. Definitely not where we want to be. We know we have pace. Long Beach wasn’t where we wanted to be. Texas, there’s still room to improve. I think we really had the pace to race there in Texas.
“In St. Petersburg, we were third, sixth in practice, something goes wrong in qualifying. At the end of the race we were fighting for sixth place again.
“I think we have all the cards on the table to do better, to get back to last year’s results. We just have been a bit unlucky. I think Barber, Indy road course, Indy 500 are those places where I can climb back up and get back to where we belong.”
VeeKay as a superstitious guy, says he’s not changing his approach this weekend despite this lull in results.
“I take a lot of time to prepare stuff. Of course, I rewatched everything from last year. I’m not really changing my approach,” he told me.
“I have higher expectations because last year was good. I think we can rely on all the good info we had there last year, hopefully do the same thing as we did last year.
“No more lucky underwear on this race.”
Really though, this was the race to where his season fell off the rails last year and it’s never came back to fruition. At the time a year ago, VeeKay had three Top-10 finishes in the opening four races including a sixth place run in the season opener at St. Pete and that podium in Barber. He has as many Top-10’s (3) in the last 19 races as he had in the first four races of the season last year.
The thing about Barber is, this has been a very good track for him over the years. He was sixth as an INDYCAR rookie here in 2021. In the Road to Indy, VeeKay fifth and fourth respectively in the Indy Pro 2000 Series in 2018 and third and fourth respectively in USF2000 in 2017.
Momentum here could be key. That’s because he has a potential for a strong Month of May ahead too. After Barber is the Indy road course. His first career pole came on that 2.439-mile track in 2020 while his first career win came in May 2021 too. After that is the Indy 500 for which VeeKay has two consecutive front row starting spots and qualified fourth as a rookie in 2020. His teammate Conor Daly led the most laps in 2021 and was sixth a year ago.
If VeeKay can snag some momentum this weekend and capitalize on results at Indy, he could very well be back into the thick of things heading to Detroit in June. On the flipside, if he doesn’t, then he very well could slide further backwards and into an endless abyss of dismal results leaving the most important month of the year.
“Yeah, no, definitely. The sequence of races is where we have always been competitive and where we basically have an opportunity to win. That’s really good,” he said.
“I knew past races, especially Long Beach, was going to be a hard one for us. But it’s nice to get into some races and have a lot of confidence that we can do well.
“Also the morale of the team. I think it’s important we get good results. If we get there, fight for the win, we make it happen, at least we got to be at the front of the field now.
“Yeah, it’s going to be tough. Everyone is very fast. I think there’s more fast cars than last year at the track in the INDYCAR SERIES. You give it all, I think we can really change our season with these few weekends.”