LEEDS, Ala. — Raw performance in each on-track session is important, but four races into the 2022 IndyCar season, we’re getting to a point where what that speed, execution and luck (or lack of it all) says about a team or driver’s place in the series is starting to mean much more.
It’s why Callum Ilott can finish 25th Sunday and come away relatively pleased and why four drivers in the top-14 are likely frustrated. Here are my Winners and Losers:
I went much longer and deeper on O’Ward’s rebound-of-a-weekend in a separate piece, but it can’t be said enough how much an impact his mental shift seems to have had on his mood, confidence and ability to execute. It’s a reminder that, on his and its best days, O’Ward and Arrow McLaren SP can deliver.
Perhaps more important was the fact Sunday’s win came on a road course, a type of track where the No. 5 Chevy driver had recorded only two of his 10 IndyCar podiums. As team president Taylor Kiel said Sunday, what had once been the team’s biggest Achilles heel may be trending towards its strength. We’ll see soon enough in the next race of the year on the road course at IMS.
More on Pato’s momentum:
Ever so quietly, relative to the early domination of Team Penske and Arrow McLaren SP’s rebound Sunday, last year’s defending series champ now holds the points lead. More important than his 3-point edge on Scott McLaughlin, though, is that Palou stood on the podium at each of the next five tracks on the schedule during his title run in 2021. His string of 11 podiums over his first 20 races with Ganassi is impressive already, but there’s no reason to expect this incredibly hot start of Palou’s to cool off as we dive deeper into May and transition into June.
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It’s been said many times, but his consistency is remnant of his six-time champion teammate Scott Dixon, who’s had several stints ending up on the podium more than 50% of the time during his own career. Like Power and Dixon among the top-6 in points, it’s merely a matter of ‘when’ that first win of 2022 will come. For Palou though, it wouldn’t propel him up near the lead but increase what he’s already built.
Up until he gave up a pass for the lead with under 30 laps to go, Sunday’s IndyCar race appeared to be VeeKay’s to lose. Forget O’Ward’s go-ahead pass or the fact the Ed Carpenter Racing driver fell away quickly during the final stint – a race like Sunday only further confirms that his poor performance in the back half of 2021 appears to have been the fluke, rather than the strong start of that season.
More:How VeeKay off-track priority changes led to second career pole at Barber
The 21-year-old now has a pair of top-6 finishes this year, has led laps in three of the four races and is headed to the IMS road course as the defending GMR Grand Prix winner and a former IndyCar polesitter on the track. Afterwards is the Indy 500, where he led laps a year ago, has started in the first two rows each of his two starts and took 8th his second time around. Perhaps this is the year VeeKay can be a dark horse title contender beyond early June.
After practice and qualifying, Race No. 4 looked as if it was setting up to be the ‘early-season forgetful one’ of Will Power’s campaign. In the eight seasons since his 2014 title, he’s logged 13 finishes outside the top-10 in those seasons’ early segments. After he slid off-course in Practice No. 2 and qualified
a lowly 19th, he looked prime to add another.
But whereas the Power of old might have faded, this year’s version wasn’t rattled, selected the right strategy and put together incredible fuel-saving and tire management to jump 15 spots in the field for his third consecutive 4th-place finish. Because the three drivers ahead of him in points have combined for seven of the 12 podiums this year, he remains 4th in the standings, but one win would change that.
More than a decent race result, Juncos Hollinger Racing and its rookie Ilott needed to prove they could string together a solid weekend with pace throughout. The 25th-place finish, due to Ilott’s spin in Turn 9 on Lap 32, doesn’t come close to painting the picture of the great weekend they had. Before the race, Ilott was one of four drivers to finish in the top-11 in all four on-track sessions, and he was one of just seven to do so outside the Saturday afternoon warmup.
Through three races together this year, the No. 77 Chevy team would too often start off with mid-pack performance and then drift back – either not making progress while others did or experimenting in the wrong directions and making it tough to find their way back. As the only one-car team in one of the deepest, closest IndyCar fields in decades, no one would fault them if their pace had them mired to the back. If Ilott can stay away from spins and contact moving forward, a much bigger result will come.
I asked several drivers in the lead-up to Sunday whether they preferred to have races like Sunday’s, where there was a legitimate strategy decision to make on stops, or those like St. Pete and Long Beach, where hardly anyone strays from the obvious. The resounding answer? Not only did decisions make for more exciting racing, but it gave those who struggled in qualifying a better shot at redemption.
We saw an example of that in Will Power (qualifying 19th, finished 4th) and Scott Dixon (13th and 5th), who opted for two stops Sunday, but the contenders who opted for three – including Romain Grosjean, Colton Herta, Marcus Ericsson and Josef Newgarden – were all but out of the victory picture as soon as Ilott spun and caused a caution. The first three, at least, finished within one position of where they started, so it wasn’t a total loss. Had they chosen two, they likely would’ve been in similar spots with how the race played out. But they were one small spin away from perhaps making up the podium themselves.
If Graham Rahal is to be believed, the veteran IndyCar driver’s public frustrations with Grosjean after the pair made contact twice may signal a deeper issue for the Andretti driver. Not that anyone competes in high-level open-wheel racing to be liked, but Rahal insinuated he was far from alone in his discontent with the longtime F1 driver’s antics on-track.
More:Graham Rahal says Romain Grosjean has ‘overstayed his welcome’
It’s unclear, too, whether Grosjean made contact with Rahal intentionally the second time or not – Rahal believes so, while Grosjean stated it was merely racing. You could watch NBC’s overhead video and understand Rahal’s point, but there’s only one person who truly knows. With a ramp up in media coverage and attention in the coming weeks, this storyline is unlikely to die down, and it will be interesting to see how opinions inside the paddock around IndyCar fans’ favorite driver transform.
How his race unfolded doesn’t have as much to do with the driver himself, but Kirkwood, no doubt, was unhappy with 22nd after his first IndyCar top-10 in Long Beach. After qualifying 21st, the A.J. Foyt Racing rookie suffered an extra-lengthy stop on his first trip to pitlane Sunday due to a mechanical failure with equipment changing the right-front tire. On a three-stop strategy like most of the back half of the field, Kirkwood likely wouldn’t have been more than a couple spots higher up in the results had that failure not happened.
He said Friday he didn’t have nearly the confidence in his new team’s permanent road course program as its street course one where he’d made two appearances in the Fast 12 in qualifying. The season’s first road course weekend proved that, while Foyt has made some considerable jumps this offseason, its star rookie will only be able to do so much.
Drivers on two-car teams
The drawback of driving on a two-car team is there’s only one other person to compare yourself to directly. And when that teammate has an incredible weekend, and you struggle,
it shows all the more in the results. Felix Rosenqvist (started 6th, finished 16th), Conor Daly (started 22nd, finished 19th) and Helio Castroneves (started 16th, finished 21st) all fell in that boat. Rosenqvist made the Fast Six alongside O’Ward, but dropped like a rock in the race, despite also running the same two-stop strategy. Daly and Castroneves both opted for three stops while their teammates (VeeKay and Simon Pagenaud, who moved from 24th to 11th). When there’s that much of a discrepancy in the strategy call, I imagine it’s hard not to wonder ‘what if?’ the next day, when you see your teammate thrive far ahead of you.
Email IndyStar motor sports reporter Nathan Brown at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @By_NathanBrown.