INDIANAPOLIS – Matheus Leist hoped it would rain as soon as possible and provide wet conditions that he considered favorable in Saturday's INDYCAR Grand Prix.
That said, the 20-year-old Brazilian driver of the No. 4 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet still approached expectations with a minimalist perspective, that the unpredictability of the wet might at best enable him to finish in the top 15, a modest improvement from his 21st starting position.
Then it didn’t rain as hard as anticipated in the early going of the 85-lap race on Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s 2.439-mile road course. A change in plans in holding off on using rain tires – as well as ideal timing for his final pit stop – not only worked to Leist’s advantage, it enabled him to finish fourth, the best result in his 22 career NTT IndyCar Series starts.
“Everybody needed this,” said Leist, whose previous best was 11th as a rookie last year at Pocono Raceway.
It's the best a Foyt car has finished since Takuma Sato was second in 2015 at Belle Isle in Detroit. The team's previous best result this season was Tony Kanaan placing 12th in the INDYCAR Classic at the Circuit of The Americas.
Leist couldn’t have chosen a more ideal venue to deliver this pick-me-up performance, considering his boss is a legendary four-time Indianapolis 500 winner who considers “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” above all other races and reminds each year that Indianapolis Motor Speedway made him what he is today.
“You did a great job,” an emotional Foyt told Leist in the Gasoline Alley garage. “We’ll get there.”
“It was good,” Leist said, patting the appreciative Foyt on the shoulder.
Then Foyt stated the obvious, reiterating to his young driver the goal moving forward as teams now prepare anew for the 103rd Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge on Sunday, May 26.
“First is first,” Foyt said. “You’ve got to improve three more spots.”
Leist didn’t need the reminder.
“You’re never satisfied enough,” he said. “Of course, this was good. The whole team deserves it. The whole team has worked so hard.”
Team director/race strategist George Klotz made the all-important call on that final stop, which brought in Leist on Lap 59 just before a full-course caution came out when Helio Castroneves’ car slid off track. Leist came in at the same time as eventual runner-up Scott Dixon of Chip Ganassi Racing and third-place finisher Jack Harvey of Meyer Shank Racing.
Leist got his rain tires. He had excellent track position, especially after many drivers were forced to pit after the field bunched behind the pace car under the caution. And then it started raining harder.
“It happened at the right time at the end,” Leist said. “I was probably the only one on the team that wanted it to rain. When it started raining and we were P4, I knew we had a shot. I knew we could stay there and finish up there. That was exactly what happened.”
Leist passed Spencer Pigot for third place shortly after the final restart, but no one could hold off eventual race winner Simon Pagenaud, who passed five others (including Leist) in the final 18 laps to win.
Still, Leist was satisfied with fourth place. Too many times in the last year, he couldn’t seem to catch a break in what he admitted has been a series of "average" performances. When the team had the pace, the strategy would backfire or he would make a mistake. Then the strategy would click but the pace was off, and he couldn’t make up the difference or something unexpected would knock him back.
As he exited the pits after his final stop this time, he was determined to make the most of this opportunity.
“I was fourth on the restart when I had a chance to pass (Pigot),” Leist said. “I was like: ‘I have to go for it. I want to finish as high up as I can.’ I went for it and passed him.”
Once Pagenaud got past him, Leist focused on not making any mistakes over the final 10 laps and finishing fourth.
“The good thing about this team is we never gave up,” Leist said. “We always kept going. We always kept working hard and trying to improve as much as we could.
“They all deserve it, especially A.J. We’ve been together for a year and a half now, and I’m always looking forward to these kind of results. That’s where we belong, and that’s where we want to be.”
Leist reminded that when he came to the U.S. in 2017 to race in Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires, his strongest initial results were at IMS — third on the road course and a first victory on the oval in the Freedom 100.
“It’s an awesome place to have my best finish in INDYCAR,” Leist said. “I think this place likes me. At the same time, I like it. I’ll try to keep the momentum going for the 500.”
Practice for the 103rd Indianapolis 500 begins Tuesday and continues through Friday. All practices stream live on INDYCAR Pass on NBC Sports Gold from 11 a.m.-6 p.m. ET.
Qualifying to set the 33-car field takes place Saturday (11 a.m.-5 p.m. on INDYCAR Pass, 5-6 p.m. on NBCSN) and Sunday (noon-3 p.m. on NBC).
Live race coverage begins at 11 a.m. Sunday, May 26 on NBC. Tickets to all Indy 500 activities are available at IMS.com.