There wasn’t much to get excited about during the first two-thirds of the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama but that changed as the leaders made their final pit stops. The chokehold polesitter Rinus VeeKay held disappeared as Pato O’Ward pulled off a daring pass on cold tires to take the lead and drive away to his third career NTT IndyCar Series victory.
The Arrow McLaren SP driver motored to a 0.980s win with the No. 5 Chevy, giving the Bowtie a perfect start to the season with four consecutive poles and victories.
“I knew if I had the opportunity it would be right then and there,” O’Ward said. “I got on my [push to pass] button and got around him into Turn 5. Once we did that, it was a cruise into victory lane.
“I wanted to do it for these guys, for Arrow, for Team Chevy; they’ve swept this year so far, so it’s great for them. I was tired of being 10th and 11th and fifth, so I said, ‘Let’s get a win for ourselves so we can claw our way into the championship fight.’”
WHAT A MOVE by @PatricioOWard!
— IndyCar on NBC (@IndyCaronNBC) May 1, 2022
Thanks to some crafty race strategy and excellent in- and out laps produced by Chip Ganassi Racing’s Alex Palou, the defending series champion snatched second from VeeKay, who led the most laps in his No. 21 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevy. Despite lacking a small bit of pace in the closing stint, VeeKay would hold on for the final step of the podium and crossed the finish line 12.4s behind O’Ward.
Team Penske’s Will Power was Barber Motorsport Park’s king of entertainment on Sunday as he turned a rough qualifying session — the No. 12 Chevy with a 19th-place starting spot — into an epic comeback drive that resulted in fourth place; his fourth consecutive top four to open the season.
Unfortunate timing of a caution period dashed the hopes of the drivers who were placed on a three-stop strategy and the negative ramifications were felt by championship leader Josef Newgarden more than any other as he went from briefly leading to a 14th-place finish. He also lost the lead of the Drivers’ standings to Palou, who earned his third podium from four races.
Elsewhere, Romain Grosjean improved to seventh with the checkered flag in sight. Hes gave Andretti Autosport its best finish on the day, but after moving over to block his teammate Colton Herta on the front straight early in the race and hitting Graham Rahal twice in the hairpin, the Swiss-born Frenchman wasn’t trying to make friends during the 90-lap contest. Rahal, more so than Herta, expressed his frustration at how the exchange at the hairpin went down; he would finish eighth, best among the Rahal Letterman Lanigan team.
The saddest moment of the day went to Juncos Hollinger Racing’s Callum Ilott. While running seventh, he spun the team’s best chance of a top 10 finish away while fighting to hold onto the position against Alexander Rossi. Beached in a gravel trap, the caution period Ilott created caused the No. 77 Chevy to lose two laps and gave a major advantage to the two-stoppers who’d just pitted.
Like Newgarden, Colton Herta was hurt by Ilott’s error as his three-stop plans went awry; he’d fall to 18th, go on an epic charge and pass his way to seventh, but a late spin while trying to get in front of Scott McLaughlin would relegate the Andretti driver to 10th, the same position he started.
— NTT INDYCAR SERIES (@IndyCar) May 1, 2022
O’Ward and Palou ensured some drama was inserted into the event during the final stint. For the Mexican, the win fixes what he gave up last year as his rear tires surrendered long before the finish. For Palou — last year’s winner — the consistency is reaping rewards as the Spaniard heads into Indianapolis with great momentum.
The same can be said for VeeKay, who’s won on the Indy road course. Penske’s grip on the early season has been broken, but that could change in two weeks’ time when the GMR Grand Prix gets under way. Does Honda have a competitive response to Chevy, or will the Manufacturers’ championship tilt further in favor of the General Motors brand?
The month of May is here and things are starting to get interesting.
AS IT HAPPENED
The 90-lap Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama got under way with Rinus VeeKay on pole and Pato O’Ward alongside him on the outside of the front row. The start was waved off but was green the second time around and the front row held station. Scott McLaughlin got past Alex Palou for third place, Callum Ilott made a power move from P11 to P8 and Josef Newgarden lost three spots to P10 while opening his race with the harder Firestone primary tires. Colton Herta, on the same primary strategy, also lost a position and was P11 after two laps.
By lap 5, Scott Dixon was shuffled back to P15 from a P13 start as VeeKay built a 1.1s lead over O’Ward. McLaughlin was 2.0s back from VeeKay. With many drivers looking to save fuel, most drivers held station.
By lap 10, VeeKay had a comfortable 1.3s lead over O’Ward and McLaughlin was 2.1s in arrears. Palou was locked into P4, Alexander Rossi was P5 and Felix Rosenqvist was P6, 4.0s behind VeeKay. Marcus Ericsson was the first to pit, stopping on lap 11 and changing to a three-stop strategy. Newgarden was next to pit on Lap 12 and Jack Harvey also went to a three-stop. Herta was in at the end of Lap 12 and Kyle Kirkwood joined him on Lap 13.
A right-front wheel nut issue kept Kirkwood on pit lane for 30-plus seconds, killing his race on the spot as he lost a lap while sitting idle.
Herta tried to get past Romain Grosjean on Lap 15 with the Swiss driver moving all the way over to the left on the front straight; Herta made the pass but ran wide in Turn 1 and gave the position back. Herta got Grosjean at the end of the lap in a daring pass and started motoring away.
By lap 20, VeeKay was 2.0s clear of O’Ward and McLaughlin was 4.1s back.
Rosenqvist was the first of the front runners to pit on lap 29. Ilott moved up to P6 as a result.
Lap 30 saw VeeKay holding 4.8s over McLaughlin as O’Ward, Ilott, Rossi, Pagenaud and others pitted. Palou, VeeKay and McLaughlin were in next on lap 31 with Will Power, Graham Rahal and Scott Dixon stopping as well. The two-stoppers coming in promoted Newgarden to the lead with Herta chasing hard in second.
The yellow flew on lap 33 as Ilott went into the gravel and got stuck after fighting for position with Rossi. Ilott lost two laps and saw his team’s fairytale weekend come to an end.
The timing of the yellow ruined the chances for the three-stoppers; Newgarden and Herta pitted under caution on lap 34 and handed the lead back to VeeKay. Once the pit stops were complete, Newgarden and Herta returned in P17 and P18, respectively.
The restart on lap 36 saw VeeKay fire off in front of O’Ward, McLaughlin, Palou and Rossi. Rossi passed Palou for P4 at the hairpin as Kirkwood went wide and fell farther behind. Herta got by Newgarden and was up to P15 by lap 37. By lap 38, Pagenaud—the race’s biggest mover at the time—was up to P10. Power took P7 from Rosenqvist on lap 40 as VeeKay held a comfortable 1.9s over O’Ward.
Herta managed to claw up to P11 on lap 42.
VeeKay extended his lead to 2.4s over O’Ward by lap 45. Herta took P10 off Pagenaud at the hairpin. Dixon moved up to P6 after starting P13. Lap 48 saw Herta take P9 from Rosenqvist who kept dropping back.
Pagenaud passed next, demoting Rosenqvist to P11 on lap 48.
By lap 50, O’Ward had VeeKay’s lead down to 1.5s. On lap 54, VeeKay’s lead sank down to 1.3s with McLaughlin 3.3s back. Grosjean hip checked Newgarden at the hairpin and took P14.
Grosjean pulled the same move on the next lap to liberate P13 from Christian Lundgaard.
VeeKay’s lead came back up to 1.8s on lap 58. The leaders all posted their fastest laps on light fuel as the pit window loomed. Grosjean was on a charge, picking off Takuma Sato and Rosenqvist, moving up to P11.
VeeKay extended his lead once again — 2.2s by lap 60. Rossi was first to stop on lap 61 with Rahal and Pagenaud joining in. VeeKay, O’Ward and McLaughlin all pitted on lap 62 and left in a tightly together. O’Ward took the lead by going around the outside on VeeKay at the hairpin.
Herta, Newgarden and Grosjean pit on lap 63. A long stop ensued for Herta. Newgarden passed Dixon for P5 but gave it back on the same lap. Palou pitted on lap 64. He made the overcut work and rejoined in P2 ahead of VeeKay.
By lap 74, O’Ward’s lead over Palou had shrunk to 0.8s in traffic but, once clear, it grew to 1.3s the next lap.
Herta tried to take P6 off of McLaughlin at the hairpin but spun and fell from P7 to P9. Power took P4 from Dixon.
Lap 80 saw O’Ward sitting on a 2.0s lead over Palou with VeeKay 7.8s back, a surging Power in P4, 12.9s behind, and teammate McLaughlin in P5 at a 15.0s deficit.