For at least half of the 106th Running of the Indianapolis 500, it looked like there was going to be a post-race party at Chip Ganassi Racing. Then disaster stuck one of the team’s strongest hopes. Later, the other torchbearer was wiped from contention. And just as it seemed that a day of Ganassi domination was going to end in nothing, Marcus Ericsson emerged from a chaotic final few laps as the second Swede to earn a spot on the Borg-Warner Trophy.
The finish began to take shape during the final pit cycle, at a time when the momentum of the race appeared to be swinging away from Ganassi and towards Arrow McLaren SP, which was positioning itself to stage an in-house battle for the win between Pato O’Ward and Felix Rosenqvist. Ericsson had been running in the top five and was last of the lead group to pit, and rejoined in between the two AMSP cars. A lap later he passed compatriot Felix Rosenqvist for seventh on the road, but with six cars ahead that still needed to stop.
Ericsson made quicker work of the traffic than the pursuing AMSP cars, and by the time he’d cycled into the lead with 10 laps to go he had a gap of almost 3.5s over O’Ward, who’d gotten around Rosenqvist, who in turn had his hands full dealing with a surging Tony Kanaan.
With a huge buffer over O’Ward and the AMSP drivers trying to shake Kanaan off, Ericsson looked to be in good shape with just six laps to go. Then Jimmie Johnson pounded the wall hard at Turn 2, and race control threw the red flag, which was pretty much the last thing Ericsson’s No. 8 team wanted to see.
After a seven-minute stoppage, the signal was given to restart the engines and send the cars out for a two-lap sprint to the finish. Ericsson did all he could to break the tow to the charging O’Ward behind him, and still had to fend off a huge run from the Mexican at the exit of Turn 4 as they prepared to begin the final lap. But Ericsson survived the challenge, and was then granted the chance to exhale when Sage Karam crashed and triggered another yellow when the leaders were two corners from the finish. Game over.
“I can’t believe it,” said an ecstatic Ericsson afterwards. “You can never take anything for granted — there were still three laps to go and I was praying there was not going to be another yellow. It was hard to refocus (after the red flag) — I knew the car was fast enough, but it was still hard. I had to do everything to keep them behind. I can’t believe it. I’m so happy.”
O’Ward, who was forced to settle for second, had no doubts about what would have happened if he’d tried to force the issue even harder than he did.
“He was going to put me in the wall if I would have gone for it,” he said. “We were alongside each other. I am so proud of the team and myself. We did everything to get it done. We had no wicker, less downforce and still not enough speed to get by him. It’s frustrating, it’s bittersweet… I’m so proud but it definitely stings, because I think the team and I did everything to get it done. It’s just a bummer we didn’t have more. We have work to do, and next year we’ll come back with a better car and go for it again.”
Kanaan had made his intentions clear when interviewed on the TV broadcast during the late stoppage. “I’m going to go for it,” he said. “I’m not in the championship. Second is no good to me.” He didn’t have enough in the final reckoning, but third underlined not only how sharp he’s kept his Indy instincts, but also the fundamental speed within the Ganassi cars.
That speed had been apparent all race, but for most of the afternoon that performance was showcased by Alex Palou and Scott Dixon. The pair traded the lead through the first and second stints, but then Palou was bitten by a yellow flag that forced the pits to be closed just as he was about to cross the pit commitment line. He was forced to drive through without taking service, then had to limp around trying to save enough fuel to get back to the pit entry. He succeeded on that front, but the pits were still closed, meaning that he had to make an emergency stop for fuel, then make his “proper” stop for tires and adjustments when the pits re-opened, then take a penalty — which in this case meant being sent to the rear of the field for the restart.
That eliminated Palou from contention — although he did a stellar job to fight back to ninth at the finish — and left Dixon in command up front. He made the most of it, leading a race-high 98 laps (and breaking the all-time record for laps led), and appeared on target for a perfectly executed afternoon… until the New Zealander locked up in pit entry as he prepared for his final stop and was dinged for a pitlane speed violation. It was far from Dixon’s first disappointment at the Speedway, but it was one of the most painful.
“It’s just heartbeaking,” he said. “It must have been very close. I came into the pit, locked the rears, locked all fours and I knew it was going to be close — I think it was a mile an hour.”
The day was peppered with incidents, although only Karam’s last-lap crash had any ramifications beyond the race result. The Dreyer & Reinbold driver passed concussion protocols, but complained of what IndyCar described as “muscular-skeletal soreness” and was transported to Methodist Hospital for further evaluation.
Beyond that, it was a day of weirdly similar-looking accidents – end of a stint; car in the wall at Turn 2. Rinus VeeKay, who’d spend the first stint mixing it up at the front with Palou and Dixon, started the trend on lap 39 when he lost the rear and slapped the outside Turn 2 wall. Thirty laps later Callum Ilott did pretty much the same thing in the No. 77 Juncos Hollinger Chevy, the only difference being that he lost the car earlier in the corner. Another 30-ish laps and it the turn of Romain Grosjean, who added some variety by losing the car near the exit of the turn.
“I wasn’t expecting anything bad in that corner. It spun without warning,” related the mystified F1 veteran.
The pattern was finally broken later by Penske’s Scott McLaughlin, who made it through Turn 2 OK but then had a massive shunt at Turn 3; the car finally coming to rest in Turn 4.
“Certainly a bruised ego,” said a shaken McLaughlin, who’d climbed from 26th to 10th at the time of the accident. “We had a fast race car, coming up through the pack and it was running really strong, and I hadn’t been in clear air for a while and it caught me and snapped around into the fence. Really gutted for everyone.”
Adding to the frustration within the Penske camp was the fact McLaughlin’s car was the only one making any real progress. A mix of handling problems and pitlane mishaps left teammates Will Power and Josef Newgarden mired in the midfield.
Elsewhere, Andretti’s Alexander Rossi finished fifth behind Rosenqvist and just a couple of spots ahead of Andretti-aligned Meyer Shank’s Helio Castroneves, who salvaged decent finishes after an anonymous first half to the race. It was also a hint of how differently Colton Herta’s day might have worked out under different circumstances. Forced into a backup car after crashing on Carb Day, Herta struggled around miserably for the first couple of stints before the car was retired.
“We were so loose,” he said. “Loosest I’ve ever been on an oval. It’s disappointing. Sucks that we couldn’t finish. Now all you can think about is what if Friday didn’t happen.”
David Malukas, who was also in a backup car after a Friday crash, was best of the rookies in 16th. Also worthy of mention was Conor Daly, who flirted with the lead a couple of times during the race and stayed in touch with the leaders until the final restart. He crossed the line in sixth.