With a clear mind and a clear race track, Pato O’Ward was able to shine on Sunday at Barber Motorsports Park.
The season started on a sour note for the Mexican driver, with 12th and 15th place finishes to open the year. On top of that, his contract status with the Arrow McLaren SP team was also a hot topic as his racing future was uncertain. With that reportedly cleared up now, the 22-year old has been able to focus on his performance.
O’Ward scored his first top-five finish at the last race on the streets of Long Beach, and followed that up with his first victory of the season today at Barber. This is the third career win for O’Ward, his first on a permanent road course.
The winning pass came on Lap 62 as the leaders just completed their final pit stops. Going into Turn 5, Rinus VeeKay continued to lead but O’Ward made a daring move on the outside and went around the Ed Carpenter Racing driver to take over the top spot.
“It sucks to be at war within your own team. So I’m glad there’s been more positive talks for the future,” O’Ward said. “I wanted to do it for these guys, for Arrow McLaren SP, for Chevy. They’ve swept this year so far, so great for them. I was tired of being 10th and 11th and fifth and I said let’s get a win under our belts so we can climb back into this championship race. We were fighting for the win, and we got in the pits, that was my chance. I got on my push-to-pass button and got him in Turn 5. After that, it was a cruise to victory lane.”
VeeKay started on pole and dominated the first half of the race. The Ed Carpenter Racing driver led 57 of the 90 laps and still managed a podium finish, but O’Ward wasn’t the only driver to get around him. Reigning series champion Alex Palou made two incredible laps prior to his final pit stop to jump ahead of VeeKay on exit. Palou won this race last year, and had a solid runner-up finish today, finishing just 0.980 of a second behind the No. 5 car.
O’Ward and Palou kick off the month of May with positive momentum. One is back in victory lane and the other is back at the top of the championship standings heading to Indianapolis.
Palou has finished 2nd, 7th, 3rd, and 2nd in the four races this season, in his bid to repeat as champion. Will Power still maintains the best average finishing position this year, as the Team Penske driver collected another 4th place finish today at Barber. He is the only driver to have finished inside the top-four in every race this season. He earned that 4th place finish after starting the race in 19th.
Scott Dixon pulled out another top five finish on Sunday from the 13th starting position. It was another solid result for the Ganassi driver, but he is still winless despite his nine podium finishes at Barber. He is still the only driver to complete every lap of every race at Barber, and the only driver to have finished inside the top ten in each one.
Another Scott had a difficult day on the track as Scott McLaughlin had multiple run ins with other drivers. He went off course a couple of times while battling for position. Ultimately, the Penske driver brought home a 6th place finish in his No. 3 Chevrolet. Romain Grosjean finished just behind him in 7th, but had even more on-track problems today in his Honda machine.
In the closing laps, Grosjean got into a heated battle with Graham Rahal, and the two made contact on more than one occasion. The first bump appeared to be incidental, but the second was a more intentional move into the left side of Rahal’s Honda. Graham was extremely frustrated with Grosjean over the radio, and the two exchanged words after the race. Rahal had to conserve fuel just to make it to the finish line, and slipped to 8th on Sunday.
“We’re gonna need to have a little sit down, a little conversation to find out what the hell is going on here,” Rahal said. “All the drivers need to get together. I’m not the only one with a problem. It’s quite a significant number of drivers that have had run-ins with this guy. As I said on TV, when the roles are reversed, the officiating had better be consistent because it’s gonna be reversed at some stage. I’m not gonna play nice. This guy has overstayed his welcome.”
After Alexander Rossi’s massive crash in practice on Saturday morning, the Andretti team performed a miracle and got the car ready for qualifying. Rossi rewarded their efforts with a top-five starting position as he made his way into the Firestone Fast Six. The driver of the No. 27 Honda was not able to move forward during the race though, and finished 9th, just ahead of his teammate Colton Herta.
There were high hopes coming into the weekend for Herta. The young driver was poised to contend for pole and the race win, but after getting caught out by a red flag during qualifying, he was forced to start in 10th position. That is exactly where he finished the race, but it would have been much better had he not thrown it away trying to make a desperate pass in the closing laps.
Josef Newgarden had won the two previous races, and was aiming to make it three in a row today but it simply wasn’t in the cards for him. After starting in 7th position, he was unable to take his Penske machine to the front. It was a rough afternoon of mixed strategies, and he ultimately came home in the 14th spot.
The performance of Juncos Hollinger Racing and rookie driver Callum Ilott had been the feel-good story of the weekend. After qualifying the car 11th on Saturday, the No. 77 Chevrolet was running inside the top eight early in the race. A battle with Helio Castroneves in Turn 9 on Lap 32 is where it all went away. Ilott’s attempt to out-brake the four-time Indy 500 winner ended up with his car in the gravel, bringing out the only caution flag of the day.
Barber is now in the books and the focus now shifts to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The series will have Mother’s Day weekend off before the cars hit the IMS road course. Coverage for Saturday’s GMR Grand Prix begins at 3 PM ET on NBC.