O’Ward breaks through for maiden victory

We all knew it was coming sooner more likely than later, and on Sunday afternoon, Mexican Pato O’Ward finally found his way into Victory Lane for the first time in his NTT IndyCar Series career when he held off Josef Newgarden, Graham Rahal, and Scott Dixon on the 1.44-mile Texas Motor Speedway north of Fort Worth. O’Ward’s victory was the first for the country of Mexico in IndyCar racing since Adrian Fernandez won at Fontana in 2004. The win was also the first for the former Schmidt Petersen Racing outfit since 2018 and the first for McLaren in IndyCar since 1979.

The race got off to an auspicious start when a seven-car melee, triggered by rookie Pietro Fittipaldi rear-ending Sebastien Bourdais, led to an 18-lap caution period. That accident saw Conor Daly actually cross the starting line on his head and led Daly to deliver the best quote of the weekend, humorously noting it was the most cars he passed all weekend. It was further evidence that, as Brian Barnhart once said, INDYCAR seems to have its biggest problems and greatest messes when the cars are supposed to be going straight.

Once the carnage was cleared, point-leader Scott Dixon led the bulk of the next 180 laps, relinquishing the lead only during pit stop shuffles and when he decided to fall in line behind Rahal to start conserving fuel from laps 140 to 152. Ultimately, however, Dixon wasn’t able to get back to the front at the end of the race once O’Ward, Newgarden, and Rahal slipped past. This race had to give Dixon terrible flashbacks to last year’s Indianapolis 500 where he had the dominate car throughout most of the race only to see his victory slip away after his final pit stop.

A final caution on Lap 190, resulting from the right rear tire of Felix Rosenqvist’s car coming loose on track, set up what would be an exciting 50-lap run to the checkered flag. Graham Rahal appeared to have a rocket and the best car on track late in the race. However, he got bottled up and was unable to keep O’Ward and Newgarden behind him. Once O’Ward also cleared Newgarden, he set sail and wasn’t to be touched again. Newgarden admitted to his team late in the race he just didn’t have the straight-line speed to keep up with O’Ward and could do nothing but watch him drive away.

The race was a significant turnaround from Saturday night’s opening round of the Texas doubleheader weekend. In that race, Scott Dixon won and was never challenged. Sebastien Bourdais got chrome-horned by Josef Newgarden. That’s really about all that happened.

When it goes well, it goes really well, but…

Several drivers are leaving Texas feeling well pleased by very strong performances in both races. In fact, of the Top 8 finishers in Sunday afternoon’s race, six of them also finished in Top 8 Saturday night. And those same Top 8 drivers from Sunday afternoon make up the current Top 8 in the season points championship. In other words, if you raced well Saturday night, you likely had another good result Sunday. If Saturday night was miserable, well… Sunday probably wasn’t much better.

There were, of course, a couple exceptions. Those with a poor result Saturday night but much better finishes on Sunday afternoon included Colton Herta, who retired from Saturday’s race with a fluky wheel bearing failure, and Rinus Veekay. They improved their positions from 22nd to 5th and from 20th to 9th, respectively.

On the opposite end of the spectrum was Alexander Rossi, who just can’t seem to shake his bad luck to start the season. A very respectable showing on Saturday night yielded an eighth-place finish. Unfortunately, with qualifying rained out and the starting line-up set by entrant points (more on that later), Rossi found himself starting well back in the field in 15th position, alongside Pietro Fittipaldi. As luck would have it, Rossi gotten taken out in the opening lap kerfuffle and was credited with a disappointing 20th place finish.

One driver that is absolutely leaving Texas with his head held high and with a boatload of confidence heading into the Month of May is rookie Scott McLaughlin. A second-place finish on Saturday night – McLaughlin’s first ever oval race – has invigorated the three-time Australian Supercars champion and shown the paddock that he is not to be taken lightly heading into this month’s Indianapolis 500. To be honest, I really don’t know how McLaughlin got to second place as TV didn’t show him passing anyone (TV didn’t show anyone passing anyone, actually), but the fact remains that however he got there, he never put a wheel wrong the entire time he was there and certainly didn’t drive like someone racing in his very first oval event.

SHOW ME SOME RESPECT

Another tip of the cap goes to Jack Harvey and the #60 Meyer-Shank Racing team for another strong performance. After a fine seventh-place finish in round 1, the Briton was running strongly in the top four in round two until he, too, suffered a right rear wheel bearing failure just before the half way point. The MSR team has made significant advancements in the past two years and will soon be knocking on the door for podiums and perhaps a win. Harvey did draw the ire of both Graham Rahal and Alexander Rossi Saturday night, but he didn’t back down to either long-time veteran and served notice he is on track to win.

It is especially rewarding to see the MSR team running strong considering the battle it took for them to get here. It is no secret that Michael Shank wanted to go IndyCar racing many seasons ago but was unable to do so because he could not get an engine lease from Honda or Chevrolet as far back as 2012. After several more years, Shank was finally able to team up with Andretti Autosport to run a satellite entry for Harvey in the 2017 Indianapolis 500. A year later, Shank took his team into a technical alliance with Sam Schmidt that saw MSR and Harvey on track for six events in 2018 and ten events in 2019.

Unfortunately the Shank/Schmidt alliance fell victim to the Schmidt/McLaren/Honda shenanigans, so Shank took his effort back into cahoots with Andretti Autosport again. However, for 2020, MSR was finally able to make the leap to full-time status. Though the results weren’t always reflective of the on-track performance, the team did accumulate a half-dozen Top 10 finishes in 20 events, bolstered by an eighth- and sixth-place finish in the IndyCar Harvest GP doubleheader at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

To his credit, I have never heard Michael Shank bash his tough situation and difficulty getting into the IndyCar Series. He has been a consummate professional and racer throughout it all, and seeing the results starting to come his way must be particularly rewarding. I, for one, wish his team all the success in the world and hope he stays firmly entrenched in the IndyCar Series for many, many years to come!

Where is the common sense??

It wasn’t that long ago that IndyCar fans the world over complained to no end about race control and their rule book allegedly written in pencil. Fans wanted rules written in stone with no flexibility and no gray area that might leave any aspect of the rules open to interpretation or inconsistent application. I hope those same people enjoyed the hours and hours of wasted time on Sunday morning and the starting lineup set by entrant points after Saturday night’s race. It was a ridiculous application of a rule that was totally unnecessary.

As has been done with previous oval doubleheader weekends, the starting grid for both races was to be set during a single qualifying session. Rankings of speed on each driver’s first lap would set the order for Race #1; Race #2 would be set by speeds on the second lap. Because of heavy mist that pushed Saturday’s schedule back, the lone qualifying session was cancelled and INDYCAR announced the starting line ups before both races would be set by entrant points. (Sunday’s grid would be set by entrant points following the conclusion of Saturday night’s race.)

As stated in the INDYCAR rule book, anytime qualifying is cancelled, the starting lineup is to be set by entrant points. That was all well and good for Race #1 as the primary focus was rightly to get the drivers and teams some practice time rather than jumping right into the race.

However, with Sunday’s race not starting until 4:15 pm and no other series taking to the track for support races, there seems to be little reason why INDYCAR could not have scheduled a qualifying session early on Sunday to set the field rather than relying solely on entrant points. In fact, given the schedule that was known mostly months in advance, there’s really not a good reason why INDYCAR couldn’t have scheduled such a qualifying session in the original plans. Without having personally polled the teams and drivers, my suspicion is that most entrants would have welcomed the opportunity to qualify and line up according to speed.

Larry Foyt, who says his team likely suffered $500-600k in crash damage over the weekend, did tell Motorsport.com that such an impromptu session might have led to other questions had any cars encountered an issue necessitating significant repairs. But teams most concerned about such an issue could easily have run conservative qualifying sessions to simply get a spot in the field. Other teams with more to gain – such as Alexander Rossi and even Foyt’s #14 car of Sebastian Bourdais – likely would have started much higher in the field and avoided the mayhem at the beginning of Sunday’s affair.

It was a strict implementation of a black-and-white rule, but hopefully INDYCAR will evaluate this situation and give the competition department a bit more freedom to adapt at future events. I personally do not like the double header qualifying format anyway, so anything that breaks up the Lap 1/Lap 2 for Race 1/Race 2 procedure is a plus in my book. As I have posted previously, I would much rather see INDYCAR force the teams into a strategy decision by making qualifying four laps, settling the field for Race #1 with the fastest lap from each qualifying attempt, and setting the field for Race #2 by the average speed for all four laps. But as no one from INDYCAR has contacted me for my opinion, I presume my proposal will continue to go unnoted.

All in all…

…it was a pretty lackluster weekend, quite honestly, and one that most people (besides Pato O’Ward and his Arrow McLaren SP team) likely won’t remember for long. For those us who remember and loved the racing at Texas Motor Speedway through the early part of the 2000s, it is sad what has become of IndyCar racing at the Series’ longest tenured track outside of Indianapolis. Where 100,000 fans used to stand with excitement from the green flag to the checkered, it is truly disheartening to see 5,000 spectators watch a parade of cars on a single-groove track with almost no passing. It doesn’t need to be 2×2 pack racing for 248 laps to make it exciting, and honestly, I’m not sure many people are clamoring for that. But when a 248-lap race at Texas has only slightly more on-track passes (overall and for position) as a 100-lap race on the street course at St. Petersburg, something is definitely wrong.

INDYCAR’s oval racing program is broken. Badly. And it goes way beyond just the atrocious on-track product we have seen since the introduction of the UAK-18 in 2018. I will have more thoughts on this in a coming post, but INDYCAR desperately needs a reboot of its entire oval racing program, not just on-track but off-track as well.

Scott Dixon and Pato O’Ward were both very worthy and deserving winners this weekend, and the lackluster overall show should not take away anything from either of their performances. With his win, Dixon moves within a single victory of Mario Andretti for second on the all-time IndyCar wins list. O’Ward becomes the 19th active driver to score a win in major North American open wheel racing.

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