The fierce final battle for second place in Saturday’s Race 1 of the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit might prove to be a preview of a fight for the NTT INDYCAR SERIES championship.
Chip Ganassi Racing entered the first race of this doubleheader weekend with the top two drivers in the standings – Alex Palou leading Scott Dixon by 36 points – but podium finishes for Pato O’Ward and Rinus VeeKay at Belle Isle Park put them squarely in title contention as the season approaches its halfway point.
Driving the No. 21 Sonax/Autogeek Chevrolet of Ed Carpenter Racing, VeeKay held off O’Ward’s No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet for second place. Their separation at the finish line was less than two-tenths of second, and it gave them both a big points boost.
O’Ward is now second in the standings, VeeKay fourth.
“I was waiting for him to make a mistake, but he didn’t make any,” O’Ward said of VeeKay.
Said VeeKay: “I knew Pato would attack; he’s always aggressive, but so am I. So, that was good.”
VeeKay attributed his advantage to having more push-to-pass options available to him on the final lap. O’Ward said his left front tire had a flat spot, which reduced some of his grip.
With the third-place finish and a point for winning the NTT P1 Award, O’Ward overtook Dixon (No. 9 PNC Bank Grow Up Great Honda) for second place in the standings and is just 15 points behind Palou, the driver of the No. 10 The American Legion Honda, heading to Sunday’s second race (noon ET, NBC and INDYCAR Radio Network). VeeKay is 32 points out of the lead.
Dixon finished eighth, Palou 15th.
Clearly, the youngsters of this season – Palou is 24, O’Ward 22, VeeKay 20 -- are taking this title fight into their hands. And they are stoked about getting another chance to pile up points Sunday.
Said VeeKay: “I’m very excited for tomorrow because we were very fast (in the 70-lap race), and we can do better on qualifying as we took a risky strategy and (started 12th).”
O’Ward was one of the drivers who got shuffled back in the pack when the caution and then red flag came for Felix Rosenqvist’s crash in Turn 6 on Lap 25. He also said he had “a lot more to lose” than other drivers, including VeeKay.
The action starts with green flag waving about 12:50 p.m. ET. If the race is anything like Saturday’s, hang on.
Early Troubles for Several Drivers
Saturday’s race got off to a wonky start as early pit stops came for drivers wanting to get off their Firestone alternate “red” tires that were losing traction on the track’s bumpy surface.
Ryan Hunter-Reay, who started eighth in Andretti Autosport’s No. 28 DHL Honda, was the first to pit, on Lap 3, and he tagged the wall on his out lap. Josef Newgarden (No. 2 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet) was the next to incur trouble, sliding due to a left rear wheel that apparently wasn’t applied properly during his Lap 6 pit stop. Fortunately, Newgarden, who had started fifth, was on an access road when the wheel came off.
Series rookie Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Carvana Chip Ganassi Racing Honda) had an extended stay on pit road due to a mechanical issue, and Max Chilton (No. 59 Carlin Chevrolet) had a fueling issue on his first pit stop, then appeared to slap the wall on his first hot lap thereafter.
All of that was before the race had completed its 20th lap.
Hunter-Reay’s crew got his car repaired after losing five laps to the leader, and that’s where he stayed the rest of the way, finishing 21st. Newgarden lost a lap during his issue, but he later got back in sync with the leaders and finished 10th.
Odds and Ends
- There were 222 on-track passes in today's race, just shy of the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix record for INDYCAR of 237 in Race 2 in 2013.
- Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s three drivers had an average starting position of 19.0, but they finished fourth (Takuma Sato in the No. 30 Panasonic/Mi-Jack Honda), fifth (Graham Rahal in the No. 15 Fifth Third Bank Honda) and sixth (Santino Ferrucci in the No. 45 Hy-Vee Honda).
- Romain Grosjean (No. 51 NURTEC ODT Honda of Dale Coyne Racing with RWR) qualified third, but a flat right front tire forced him to pit on Lap 35. That wasn’t the worst of his troubles. He had a hard hit the wall with six laps to go, drawing the race’s second red flag, but hopped out of the car without injury.
- Scott McLaughlin’s first Detroit weekend continued to be a struggle. After driving his car into the tire barrier five laps into the only practice of the weekend, the driver of the No. 3 PPG Team Penske Chevrolet slapped the wall on Lap 52. His car soldiered on, but McLaughlin’s day ended with a 19th-place finish.
- There is no denying that O’Ward and Colton Herta, who in Indy Lights in 2018 finished first and second, respectively, with 13 wins in 17 races, have been worthy of their INDYCAR opportunities. In 68 combined starts, they have five wins and eight NTT P1 Awards between them. O’Ward added his third career pole – his second of the season – in this event.
- Herta’s car took slight damage in a race off pit road at the end of the long caution period. He got squeezed between Ferrucci and Palou. Herta finished 14th in the No. 26 Gainbridge Honda.
- Drivers did a variety of things during the first red flag that spanned 78 minutes. O’Ward said he went to his motorhome for some cold water and avocado toast.
- Ericsson delivered Chip Ganassi Racing’s first victory for the No. 8 car since Michael Andretti won in Toronto in 1994.
- Sunday’s NTT P1 Award qualifying session format will mirror Saturday’s. The 25-car field will be divided in two groups, with 10 minutes of running each. The top six drivers from each group will advance to the Firestone Fast 12 to determine the starting order of the first six rows for Sunday’s second race. Qualifying begins at 9 a.m. ET on the NBC Sports Network and Peacock, NBC’s streaming service.
- A pair of first-year Indy Lights drivers finished first and second in the 25-lap opening race at Belle Isle Park. Andretti Autosport’s Kyle Kirkwood won his second race of the season from the pole, distancing Linus Lundqvist of Global Racing Group with HMD Motorsports by five-tenths of a second.
- Hig Roberts, a two-time U.S. national champion alpine skier, rode in the Ruoff Mortgage Fastest Seat in Sports to begin the race as part of the celebration of Pride Month. Last year, Roberts became the first elite alpine skier to publicly come out as gay.
- Arguably the best quote Saturday on NBC came from Michael Shank, who co-owned Meyer Shank Racing’s winning car of the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge with Jim Meyer, said the celebration of Helio Castroneves’ record-tying fourth win hasn’t ended. “We’ve probably had over three hangovers since then,” Shank said. “We’re just getting over the last one.”
- Castroneves is not participating in this weekend’s Detroit doubleheader as it wasn’t part of his schedule with the Meyer Shank team. The Brazilian with 31 career INDYCAR victories is set to make five more starts this season beginning with the Big Machine Music City Grand Prix in Nashville on Aug. 8.