BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Fresh off verbally committing to a new contact with Arrow McLaren Racing SP a week ago, Pato O’Ward made a gutsy pass after the last round of pitstops to get his first win of the season at Barber Motorsports Park on Sunday.
The win is perfect timing for O’Ward, who has been in a contentious last couple of weeks with his bosses at Arrow McLaren Racing SP. It was not clear if he would have a contract locked down for next year.
But the news came earlier this week that he had verbally agreed to sign a new deal to keep him with AMSP for the foreseeable future.
“It sucks to be at war within your own team,” O’Ward said after the race. “I’m glad there have been positive talks about the future. I was tired of being tenth and eleventh and I said ‘let’s get a win.’
O’Ward, who has yet to sign his new deal as he waits for his lawyers to review it, rolled off second at the start of the race next to pole sitter Rinus Veekay, who led a majority of the laps for the day.
The tension mounted early with some teams choosing to go with a three-stop strategy instead of two-stops. Among them were Josef Newgarden, Colton Herta, and Romain Grosjean.
The three-stop choice allowed those drivers to push harder and not worry about fuel saving.
The strategy seemed to be working after the second round of pitstops for the two-stop drivers at around Lap 30. But, as Veekay, O’Ward, and other leaders had pitted, Callum Ilott, who was having his best day by far running as high as seventh, spun out bringing out a caution.
“That caution just blew it up,” said Newgarden’s crew chief Tim Cindric referring to their three-stop strategy.
Newgarden, Grosjean, and Herta were forced to pit and drop back to the back of the field. But, Colton Herta paid that no mind as he gained four spots in the subsequent five laps after the restart.
Hertha was in a position to possibly overcut the two-stop strategy drivers, but late in his final stint he got into the side of Scott McLaughlin and spun out, losing four spots and effectively ending his chances at a win.
After a final round of pit stops on Lap 60-62, Veekay was once again in the leadbut O’Ward had pitted two laps earlier than Veekay, and on warmer tires made a gutsy pass around the outside of Veekay to secure the lead.
“The only opportunity I had was then and there,” O’Ward said. “We stayed patient, but when the opportunities came we took advantage.”
Alex Palou, who was running in the top five all day, successfully pulled off an overcut of Veekay as well and stole the second position.
“I went two laps longer, so I didn’t have to save as much fuel,” Palou said. “I pushed to the end, lost a little bit of time. (O’Ward) was really good. Every time I got close, I lost my front and dropped back. ”
This set up a duel between O’Ward and Palou over the last 25 laps, with O’Ward never allowing Palou within a second of him. O’Ward hung on for the win in the end.
Palou followed in second with Veekay holding on for third. At an average age of 22-years-old, it’s one of the youngest podiums that IndyCar has seen in a while.
“It really shows that some of the young guys are coming through, and the younger generation is taking over,” Veekay said.
Will Power, despite starting 19th on the grid pushed forward to finish fourth.
The win for O’Ward is the third of his career, over ten months since his last win last season at Belle Isle in Detroit last June.
As for the championship outlook, Alex Palou’s second-place finish was enough to vault him into the lead of the point standings. Scott McLaughlin, who finished sixth moved up to second in the standings. Newgarden’s lackluster 14th place finish cost him the championship lead and is now sitting third overall.
Teams will now head north and set up temporary living quarters inside the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the rest of the month as they gear up for the GMR Grand Prix on the IMS Road Course on May 15th. That will be followed by the 106th running of the Indianapolis 500 on May 29th.