“This is for you, buddy!” was Pato O’Ward’s message to injured teammate Felix Rosenqvist after putting in one of his patented storming drives to earn a second victory of the NTT IndyCar Series season for Arrow McLaren SP.
O’Ward’s No. 5 Chevy gave the race’s title sponsor at the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix something to celebrate after completing a wild march through the field from P16 to P1 by Lap 68 of the 70-lap contest. The win vaulted O’Ward to the lead in the championship standings as AMSP’s race strategy trumped a gamble taken by Team Penske with polesitter Josef Newgarden, who dominated the first 67 laps.
Starting on Firestone’s more durable primary tires, Newgarden had copious amounts of speed as most of his challengers suffered with decreased pace on the peakier red-banded tires during their opening stints. With Newgarden’s rivals switching to primaries at the first stop, his team elected to keep the two-time series champion on primaries for the second stint, meaning he would be exposed during the third and final stint when, by rule, he’d have to run on Firestone reds.
It’s here where the race — coupled with a late caution on Lap 54 for Jimmie Johnson’s solo spin and stall — turned AMSP’s decision to start O’Ward on new reds, install used primaries in the middle of the race, and close on new primaries, was weaponized. Struggling on used reds, Newgarden initially built a cushion to Colton Herta and Alex Palou on the Lap 58 restart, but O’Ward was charging.
The 22-year-old Mexican would take P5 from Scott Dixon on the restart, but another caution would pause the race on Lap 59 as Romain Grosjean ground to a halt and had his front brakes catch on fire. With his car extinguished and removed, the action resumed on Lap 63, and it was the same routine as Newgarden pulled away and O’Ward ripped P4 from Graham Rahal into Turn 1 and P3 from Palou at Turn 3.
Herta would fall to O’Ward on Lap 65 and a gripless Newgarden was powerless to stop O’Ward’s mercurial charge to P1 on Lap 68 on the way to 6.7s victory.
— NTT INDYCAR SERIES (@IndyCar) June 13, 2021
“I had such a great car all weekend,” O’Ward said. “This is a Team Chevy territory. I texted Felix this morning and told him that I’m going to win it for him.”
Asked if he could believe he was leading the championship, O’Ward said, “Yes, I can. The guys have been doing a great job. There’s still so much to go. We need to stay on it and keep pushing.”
A crestfallen Newgarden took little solace in leaving Detroit Round 2 with a P2 as Team Penske’s winless streak for the season extends to eight races.
“Sad. Just pretty sad,” he said of the No. 2 Chevy’s outcome. “It’s hard not to be disappointed. I think we had the car to beat. Cautions when we didn’t need ’em. Wrong tires when we didn’t need ’em. It was a fun strategy. We were doing well; the caution killed us. We tried.”
Chip Ganassi Racing’s Alex Palou surrendered the championship lead to O’Ward after coming into the event with a 36-point advantage over teammate Scott Dixon and the AMSP driver. A bad race on Saturday was resolved on Sunday, however, as he took the No. 10 Honda home for his fourth podium of the year.
“Felt really good, had a really good battle with Colton and Josef there,” he said. “Really happy with another podium.”
Herta looked like he might be able to overtake Newgarden on the two late restarts. On the last attempt, a loss of speed in Turn 3 allowed Palou to get a run and take P3, which added to an unsatisfying finish of P3.
“It’s pretty disappointing,” he admitted. “I just didn’t get it done.”
It’s a quick turnaround for teams with practice for the next round at Road America just days away. IndyCar has its first repeat winner of the season in O’Ward, who owns victories on an oval and on a street course. With the beloved natural terrain road course on the horizon, can O’Ward add a third win to his collection on a third and different style of track?