Pato O'ward Passes on the Outside, Wins at Barber

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

Pato O'Ward has not been subtle about his concerns this season. There's the F1 opportunity with McLaren, who brought him in for a young driver test this past offseason only to bring fellow IndyCar driver Colton Herta on with an evaluation deal a few months later. Then there's his contract, which was in flux until news came through two weeks back that he was likely to extend with the largely-McLaren-owned Arrow McLaren SP IndyCar program. O'Ward told Marshall Pruett at Long Beach that he was "trying to find his center" after a tough opening month of the season. Three weeks later, that center seems to be found.

O'Ward spent most of the day running second behind pole-sitter Rinus VeeKay while both preserved fuel in the early parts of a two-stop strategy. In the first third of the race, it seemed that strategy would lose out to the three-stopper being run by Josef Newgarden and Colton Herta; despite starting deep in the field, Newgarden was nearly ten seconds up on the two-stoppers after their first stop and seemed to be on pace to cut more than the entire stop he needed off the field to win the race. But Callum Ilott spun from the top ten right before that group's second stop, bringing out a caution in the narrow window where any yellow would greatly hurt the three-stoppers and help the two-stoppers. It promoted VeeKay back to the lead, then it pushed Newgarden and Herta back in the field.

Newgarden never really got going again. He finished 14th, unable to make any serious progress in traffic. Herta, however, flew. After re-starting 16th, he passed traffic with ease while his tires were fresh and moved all the way up to ninth within 20 laps. Once the field made their final stops, he again got to work on fresh tires and found himself fighting Scott McLaughlin to take sixth. An aggressive dive-bomb move to take the spot went wrong in the closing laps, but he recovered from the quick spin to finish tenth. Still an effective recovery drive, but a disappointment on a day that could have ended with a miraculous top five.

All of this was to the benefit of VeeKay, O'Ward, and Alex Palou. VeeKay's lead shrunk to under a second as the trio entered the pit lane for their final stop together, just before all three would finally be able to push all-out for the final laps after spending the first two stints conserving fuel. He exited the pit lane with the lead, but an aggressive O'Ward saw a window to make a pass on the outside on cold tires just a few corners later and struck while the opportunity presented itself. Palou followed shortly afterward, allowing the pair to pull away by nearly ten seconds over the final stint. Palou stayed close, but he never got another shot at O'Ward.

It's the first win for Pato O'Ward, the first win for Arrow McLaren SP, and the first win for anyone but Team Penske's Josef Newgarden and Scott McLaughlin all season. After a tough opening to the season, the win immediately vaults O'Ward back to his pre-season status as a title contender.

With Josef Newgarden in 14th, the championship fight tightened up just about everywhere. Veterans Will Power and Scott Dixon made up serious ground in fourth and fifth respectively, while Scott McLaughlin still had a great day even after falling from third to sixth over the final stint. Romain Grosjean took seventh after an aggressive battle with eight-placed Graham Rahal, just ahead of his Andretti teammates Alexander Rossi and Colton Herta.

Next up, IndyCar's focus turns to Indianapolis. The now-traditional Indianapolis GP on the infield road course is in two weeks, followed immediately afterward by the two-week run-up to the Indianapolis 500 itself. This time next month, we will have a much clearer picture of who is fighting for a championship.

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