Palou, O’Ward in prime position to put pressure on Ericsson/Grosjean in Sunday’s race at Barber

As a result of Marcus Ericsson starting in Row 7, Sunday’s Children’s of Alabama Indy Grand Prix (3 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network) is a great opportunity for Pato O’Ward and Alex Palou to potentially take over the NTT INDYCAR SERIES points lead heading into the Month of May. They’ll make up 2 of the top 3 starting spots for Sunday’s NTT INDYCAR SERIES race with Palou in second and O’Ward in third.

“Yeah, we started the weekend really good,” Palou admitted. “We knew we had a strong car, but as I said, after P2, it’s always tight here in INDYCAR qualifying, and especially Barber is one of the courses that you wouldn’t think while you drive it, but it’s one of the closest.

“But yeah, it was a fun qualifying. Q1 was really good, Q2 started having some issues on pace, like people got faster, and then Q3, I knew it was going to be tough.

“We started on the front row, which is really good here. It always helps on the front row, so hopefully we can have a clean run tomorrow and go for it.”

Qualifying is everything here. All 12 races have been won from a top 10 starter. Furthermore, 10 of the 12 INDYCAR races at Barber have been won by a top five starter. 5 of the last 6 have been won by the top 3 including 4 straight.

Marcus Ericsson this weekend at Barber. Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

5 of the last 6 races have been won via a top four starter including all 3 this season. Pole sitter Romain Grosjean is 0-for-33 in INDYCAR. Just 3 of the last 20 races have been won from the pole at that. Only 5 of the 12 Barber races too were won from the pole.

Palou won from third in 2021 while O’Ward won from second last year. They’re back again and can put the pressure not only on Grosjean, but Ericsson too.

Outside of his win a year ago, O’Ward was fourth in 2021. Palou was runner-up last year and won in 2021. With them being 15 points (O’Ward) and 19 (Palou) behind Ericsson, that gap could dwindle greatly on Sunday.

Out of the last 6 years (18 podiums), 17 of the 18 trophies were given to a Fast Six starter. The only time it wasn’t was when Josef Newgarden won from 7th in 2017.

Podium Starters Since 2016:

2022: 2nd, 3rd, 1st

2021: 3rd, 4th, 5th

2019: 1st, 3rd, 5th

2018: 1st, 4th, 5th

2017: 7th, 4th, 3rd

2016: 1st, 6th, 3rd

“I don’t know,” Palou said on why he’s so good here. “Yeah, I guess it’s really similar. It’s the closest we have to Europe, and at the end of the day, that’s where I grew up racing. I bet that’s because — that’s why. That’s the reason why. I love this place. I also like Road America a lot, which is quite close to this.

“But yeah, on top of that, we have good cars here, which always helps.”

For Ericsson, no one would debate that his race craft is as good as it comes in the series. Unfortunately, we have to see it a lot more than he’d like. He cited qualifying in the offseason as a major area of weakness that was keeping him from getting to where he wanted to go which is why his race craft is always shining.

His Achilles heel in 2022 was in that aspect. 9 times did he started 12th or worse including 5 times in the final 7 races. It’s why he went from 6 top 5’s in the first 10 races this season and was leading the points to 4th. He had no top 5 finishes over the final 7 race stretch. While he had 3 top 10’s, it was the lack of top 5’s that allowed everyone else to catch up.

Consistently coming from behind was the culprit. Imagine if he started closer to the front in those races. It’s not like he wasn’t a hard charger. He went from 14th to 3rd in Texas, 18th to 4th in the GMR Grand Prix, 13th to 6th in Mid-Ohio, 15th to 6th in Iowa 2, 25th to 11th in the Gallagher Grand Prix.

“I think us as a team, it’s been one of our weaknesses the last couple years in that we’re not qualifying as high as we should,” he said. “Race day I’m not scared of anyone. I think on the 8 car we’re always going forward in the races; we’re always very strong in the races.

“It’s no secret that we need to improve on qualifying day. That is us in the 8 car but also Chip Ganassi Racing as a whole. I think if we can all improve, it’s going to help us. These days as well, INDYCAR is becoming more and more competitive. So many good drivers and teams. If you start mid pack, yeah, it might be long races, but to win a race from mid pack is getting harder and harder.

“It’s been one of the big focus areas in the off-season, to try to find things in the setup, in the way to understand the tires, stuff like that, to mainly improve our qualifying performance. It’s been a big focus for us. It’s going to be interesting this week to see if we have found some things that are going to work, then apply that throughout the season.”

This year, he’s qualified fourth in St. Pete and second in Long Beach. He was on the podium both days. In Texas, he started 16th. He finished 8th. Now, he starts 13th. How far can he climb?

Scott Dixon started 13th and finished fifth in this race last year. Ericsson came from 20th to finish seventh in 2019. While he only finished 12th from that same spot a year ago, how far can he climb and minimize the damage that Palou and O’Ward are certainly going to do.

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