IndyCar Results and Notes: Happier Pato O'Ward Wins at Barber Motorsports Park

·8 min read
Photo credit: Icon Sportswire - Getty Images
Photo credit: Icon Sportswire - Getty Images

One win does not a career make, but Pato O’Ward’s triumph in Sunday’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park could potentially lead to a new feeling for the Mexican-born driver.

Photo credit: Icon Sportswire - Getty Images
Photo credit: Icon Sportswire - Getty Images

It’s no secret that the 22-year-old O’Ward has not been completely happy with his Arrow McLaren SP situation, and was expected to potentially leave the team at the end of this season. Rumors have him looking hard at Formula 1, or perhaps shifting to a bigger team like Team Penske or Chip Ganassi Racing.

However, Sunday’s win could potentially go a long way toward making O’Ward happier with his situation—and keep him with the team—particularly given that he and the organization are currently in contract negotiations.

O’Ward had rough outings in the first two races of the season—12th at St. Petersburg and 15th at Texas—before rebounding to a fifth-place finish at Long Beach three weeks ago.

“It sucks to be at war within your own team,” O’Ward told NBC Sports. “I’m glad there’s been very positive talks for the future. I wanted to do it for these guys. I wanted to do it for Arrow McLaren SP, Team Chevy. They’ve swept this year so far, so I think it’s great for them.

“I was tired of being 10th and 11th and fifth so I said let’s get a win under our belts so we can claw our way back to the championship fight.”

Sunday’s win, O’Ward’s third of his IndyCar career, was his first on a permanent road course, following last year’s oval win at Texas and a triumph on the Belle Isle street course.

“I knew if we could get into clean air, we could kind of control the thing,” O’Ward told NBC Sports. “Once we did that, it was a cruise into victory lane.”

Rounding out the top-five were runner-up and defending series champ Alex Palou, pole-sitter Rinus Veekay, Will Power, Scott Dixon.

Keeping O'Ward Happy

Taylor Kiel, president of Arrow McLaren SP, believes the worst is behind the organization when it comes to O’Ward’s unhappiness and everyone is looking forward to greater success and a tighter relationship.

“I think just as an entire group of people, certainly Pato and our whole team, I think we've kind of hit the reset button,” Kiel said. “Long Beach was a catalyst for us to show that we can perform at a high level again after last year to back it up.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

“For me, I want to give (O’Ward) the tools to succeed, and the rest is up to him. He takes advantage of it. Certainly when we have a good car to compete at the front, we compete at the front. That's the goal for us, is to continue to put in the work and put in the effort and make sure we have a car, a team and a group of people that can support Pato. The rest is up to all of us to execute.

“I think today proves that we can do that and we'll continue to do that. That's where we're at.”

As for O’Ward’s contract extension, which is in the works, he’s arguably as optimistic as he’s ever been, and certainly has done a 180-degree turnaround since a press conference less than a month ago where you could cut the tension with a butter knife.

“I'd say it's close,” O’Ward said of re-upping with Arrow McLaren SP. “I don't want to worry about it. I think things will shape up. There's been very positive conversations. I think the vibe in the team is fantastic. I think that's what we need going into the month of May. The rest I think will take care of itself.

“I don't have a date for you. I guess whenever it's signed, you'll probably see it in the media somewhere. Probably be one of the first ones to know actually.”

Added Kiel, “Yeah, what Pato said. We're in a good place.

Points for the Young Ones

Youth was served Sunday, as the average age of the three podium finishers is 22.7 years old.

“It's great, man,” O’Ward said. “I think we've seen it not just this year but the past two years. I think it's awesome to see the young ones coming to the series and giving the veterans a hard time.

“At the end of the day these guys that we're racing against, Dixon, Power, Newgarden, we've been watching them for so many years. They're basically idols of all of us when we were coming through the ranks trying to get to IndyCar.

“It's really cool to be able to battle with them. Ultimately what you want to do when you get to race against them, you can have your fan boy moment for a couple seconds, but then you want to beat 'em.”

New Points Leader

Photo credit: Penske Entertainment/Matt Fraver
Photo credit: Penske Entertainment/Matt Fraver

With his second-place finish—and third podium in the first four races—defending series champ Alex Palou took over the points lead, but it’s a very tight battle heading to the next race in two weeks, the Indianapolis Grand Prix.

Just 10 points separate the top four drivers, with Palou holding a three-point lead over second-ranked Scott McLaughlin, a nine-point edge over former points leader Josef Newgarden and a 10-point edge over Will Power.

“I did a couple of mistakes, lost a position on the start with the No. 3 position in the restart with 27,” Palou said in the post-race press conference. “That just cost me a lot of track time, a lot of track position let's say.

“Yeah, so far so good. We made a risky strategy of staying out a lot more than others, saving fuel. We almost got Pato. Another podium, it's good.”

It’s a good way for Palou and Chip Ganassi Racing to kick off the month of May.

“Yeah, for sure, I cannot wait, it's already May today,” Palou said. “You can feel it. It was super sunny today. Yeah, cannot wait. It's such a special place. It's good that we got a good race now, I don't know, to get a bit more relaxed going into the Indy road course where we had strong results there and we were competitive. Cannot wait for the 106th Indianapolis 500.”

Veterans Show Promise

Photo credit: Penske Entertainment/Joe Skibinski
Photo credit: Penske Entertainment/Joe Skibinski

While they remain winless in the first four races of the season, series veterans Will Power and Scott Dixon continued to have strong showings.

Power has now recorded three consecutive fourth-place finishes at Texas, Long Beach and Barber, and started the season with a third-place finish at St. Petersburg.

Dixon continues his run of top-10 finishes this season, with showings of eighth at St. Petersburg, fifth at Texas and sixth at Long Beach.

Ironically, Dixon continues to be frustrated by the Barber road course. In 12 starts, he has nine podium finishes: six runner-ups and three third-place showings. His lowest finish has been 10th.

Other strong top-10 finishes included Graham Rahal (eighth), Alexander Rossi (ninth) and Colton Herta (10th).

Tough Start to May for Helio

Photo credit: Icon Sportswire - Getty Images
Photo credit: Icon Sportswire - Getty Images

Defending Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves started the month of May and its three races—Barber, the Indianapolis Grand Prix and the Indy 500—with a disappointing 21st-place finish in Sunday’s race.

Castroneves has struggled in his first full season with Meyer Shank Racing, with finishes of 14th at St. Petersburg, 23rd at Texas, ninth at Long Beach and Sunday’s race at Barber (he was the last driver on the lead lap).

Castroneves was penalized for avoidable contact after sending Jimmie Johnson spinning just before the halfway mark of the 90-lap event.

Simon Pagenaud, Castroneves’ teammate, worked his way into the top 10 before finishing 11th.

Photo credit: Icon Sportswire - Getty Images
Photo credit: Icon Sportswire - Getty Images

Season Worst Finish for Jimmie Johnson

Seven-time NASCAR Cup champion turned IndyCar racer Jimmie Johnson continues to have problems, finishing a season-worst 24th in the 26-driver field, one lap down.

Johnson has now finished 20th or worse in three of this season’s first four races, including 23rd at St. Petersburg, sixth at Texas (his most impressive finish since shifting from NASCAR to IndyCar) and 20th at Long Beach.

Odds and Ends

The official entry list for the 106th Running of the Indianapolis 500 is expected to be released this week. IndyCar CEO Mark Miles told Autoweek on April 19 that he expects a full 33-car field for the May 29th Greatest Spectacle in Racing. … Former Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow was grand marshal for the event and gave the command to start engines. … When dawn broke, things did not look good weather-wise, with thunderstorms inundating the area. However, the storms moved out of the area by the time the green flag fell on time, and were replaced with sunshine and clear blue skies.

Follow Autoweek correspondent Jerry Bonkowski on Twitter @JerryBonkowski