Pato O’Ward won his second IndyCar race of 2021 in the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix and ended a streak of unique winners that started the season at seven. O’Ward led only three laps en route to the second victory of his career (having won his first May 2 at Texas Motor Speedway).
“I had such a great car all weekend,” O’Ward, who started 16th of 25 drivers, told NBC Sports’ Marty Snider. “Today was my fault (in qualifying) that we made it a little extra hard on ourselves starting from the back. But I knew I had a great car under me.”
Along with a third-place finish in Saturday’s race, the victory allowed O’Ward to assume the championship points lead by one marker over Alex Palou. The win came a day after his Arrow McLaren SP grappled with the aftermath of a wicked crash for Felix Rosenqvist, who missed Sunday’s race after being hospitalized as a precaution.
“I texted Felix this morning” O’Ward said. “The important thing is that he’s okay, but I told him I’m going to win it for you. So this is for him.”
The box score shows Josef Newgarden finished 6.8 seconds behind in second, but the race was much closer than that. Newgarden led 67 of the 70 laps before the decision to end the race on softer red Firestones, as well as two ill-timed caution flags, proved his undoing.
O’Ward opted to end the race on the more durable black compound.
Newgarden saved most of his push-to-pass boost for the final laps, hoping that would allow him to maintain his advantage over the competition, but when he got loose exiting a turn with three laps remaining, it opened the door for O’Ward to pounce.
“Sad; just pretty sad,” Newgarden told NBC’s Kevin Lee when asked about the closing laps. “It’s hard not to be disappointed. We had the car to beat. Cautions when we didn’t need them. Wrong tires when we didn’t need them. It was a fun strategy. I think we were doing well. It’s just the caution that killed us. My rear wheels are shot, and we didn’t need that.”
This is Newgarden’s third runner-up finish of the season. He was second at St. Petersburg in Round 2 and also in the second Texas Motor Speedway race in the other doubleheader earlier this year.
Newgarden came close to delivering the first victory for Team Penske this season. With 20 laps remaining, soon after what would have been the final green-flag stop for both drivers, Colton Herta closed to within a half-second and bided his time on better tires. They had a lead of more than 10 seconds over Alex Palou, so there was no sense of urgency.
Until Jimmie Johnson, running 20th at the time as the final driver on the lead lap, spun in Turn 1 and stalled his car. That caution erased the leaders’ advantage on the field and put another cycle on Newgarden’s red tires.
Another caution for a spin for Romain Grosjean set up a sprint to the finish. Even then, it appeared Newgarden might salvage the win. Under the caution, he was informed by race strategist Tim Cindric that he had enough push-to-pass to use it every lap until the checkers. But Newgarden continued to be stingy with the button.
He was able to hold up Herta for several laps and allowed O’Ward and Palou to join the fray. The three young guns battled hard to be the driver in the best position to pounce on Newgarden before O’Ward gained the advantage. It didn’t take long for him to make the pass on Newgarden, and he immediately scooted out to an impressive lead.
The last time Penske went this long without a win to start the season was in 2013 when Helio Castroneves scored the team’s first win in the eighth race.
After O’Ward passed Newgarden, the battle shifted to second. Newgarden kept Herta and Palou behind him as they battled for the final podium position.
Palou grabbed third, and with that pass, managed to stay within one point of the new championship leader O’Ward.
“It’s only one point,” Palou said. “I lost 37 points in two races, so I can recover 37 more points in two races.”
After making a couple of bold pass attempts that marbled his tires, Herta finished fourth.
“It’s pretty disappointing,” Herta told NBC’s Kevin Lee. “We had a fast car, I just didn’t get it done there are the end unfortunately.”
The last time the series had seven winners in the first seven races was in 2017. Graham Rahal snapped the streak by winning both races of the Belle Isle doubleheader. This weekend, he swept the fifth-place position.
Marcus Ericsson scored his first IndyCar win on Saturday in a three-lap dash to the finish. He was ninth in Race 2.
Finishing 10th, Santino Ferrucci had one of the more adventurous races of the day. He crashed heavily in qualification, aggravating a leg fracture sustained in the Indy 500, and had to climb into Takuma Sato’s backup car. With a few quick adjustments for the car that was originally setup as a speedway car, he climbed steadily the through the field to sweep the top 10.
Grosjean’s Detroit Grand Prix ended eerily similar to his Formula 1 career. His spin set up the dash to the finish when he was forced out of his car with the brakes on fire. It was far less dramatic than the fiery crash in his last F1 race at Bahrain last year.