LEXINGTON, Ohio — When Santino Ferrucci finished seventh in May’s Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge to earn Rookie of the Year honors, the NTT IndyCar Series rookie came away convinced he had proven himself competitive worthy in this sport.
A 12th-place finish doesn’t usually raise eyebrows, but the 21-year-old driver from Woodbury, Connecticut, continued to make others pay attention with his bold passing on the oval high line in last week’s Iowa 300. His bravado was enough to prompt admiring series technical director Kevin “Rocket” Blanch to dub the rookie the “high side hustler.”
Team Penske’s Simon Pagenaud, the 2016 series champion, said here at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course: “I think Iowa, the passing, you saw Ferrucci make those moves. Made for a great race.”
RESULTS: Honda Indy 200 Qualifying Results
As Ferrucci prepared for today’s Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio (4 p.m., ET), he smiled when asked about how he’s created buzz in the paddock. Truth be told, he has surprised himself with how quickly he has adapted to ovals after driving on road/street courses in Formula 2. He aggressively forced the issue to go three wide on an early restart at Iowa and learned that his No. 19 Cly-Del Manufacturing Dale Coyne Racing Honda could hold. So, he kept going high.
“The high line was definitely useable,” Ferrucci said. “It had just rained, so the whole track was green. So in my opinion, the whole track had grip and an equal amount of grip. No one is up there, you’ve got clean air, the car is going to stick.
“I ran the high line all the time, on every restart, and it worked every time. It’s my new favorite groove.”
Ferruci was especially appreciative of complimentary texts he received after the race from Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi and Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsport’s James Hinchcliffe. The latter got wide at one juncture and Ferrucci could have encountered trouble had he held his line, but he wisely read the situation and backed off. Hinchcliffe recognized his competitor’s quick thinking.
“As a driver, not only do you have a responsibility to yourself but to other drivers to take care of each other,” Ferrucci said. “It is dangerous at the end of the day. If you don’t show respect to another driver, bad things happen.”
That’s what has stood out the most about Ferrucci to Coyne, who first took a chance on the youngster last season by giving him a chance at Detroit. An ambitious, young driver might be so excited to prove himself that he makes a mistake, but Ferrucci has finished every race this season and has continually respected competitors. He is 12th in the points, only one spot behind the series’ leading rookie, Felix Rosenqvist of Chip Ganassi Racing, who leads the Rookie of the Year standings.
“Everybody said he looked good at Iowa,” Coyne said of Ferrucci. “He’s turned out to be an oval meister. Look what he did at Indy. He mowed the grass (going low in Turn 3), split the field (in traffic) and kept on going and finished seventh. At Iowa, he was passing cars left and right on every start.
“He’s doing great. He hasn’t touched anybody and he hasn’t hit a wall. He hasn’t disappointed at all.”
A career-best fourth in June’s DXC Technology 600 on the Texas Motor Speedway oval also resonated.
“He got out of the car at Texas and went back to shake the hands of Ryan Hunter-Reay and Graham Rahal,” Coyne said of Ferrucci. “I’ve never seen a driver do that. Got out of the car and shook the hands of guys who finished on each side of him.”
Ferrucci reiterated why those handshakes were important.
“It was a good race. Texas is a tricky place to pass. It’s a really fast track,” he said. “I had Hunter-Reay right behind me in the end on fresh tires. We were at the end of our stint, the end of the race, really loose, really hard to hang onto, and I couldn’t get by Graham. He was defending. They made it a really challenging, clean race.
“I raced with both of them in the ‘500.’ Hunter-Reay and I started next to each other in the ‘500’ and finished next to each other. We raced each other pretty well and I think very respectfully. For me, it felt right to tell him he did a good job.”
Knowing what he does now, Ferrucci admits he probably could have forced the issue more in the Indy 500.
“After having the 500, then Texas and Iowa, going back to the 500 as a racer, I feel like I could have done better,” he said. “I could have been a lot more aggressive. But on the other hand, I don’t think being too respectful was a bad thing as a rookie.
“It was one of those things where you need to mature to another level, you need to trust all the people around you and you just really need to pay attention and listen. (Indianapolis Motor Speedway is) one of those tracks where you can’t take a break or have a moment when you’re driving. We handled ourselves well.”
Ferrucci rationalizes that fellow competitors know they can trust him when racing close, and that means something. He entered this season sensing that he had to prove himself to others. He has done that.
“I feel like we’re having a solid year,” he said. “Obviously a couple of results could be improved. I’d also say we’re doing well finishing in the top 10 and passing cars and learning.”
Ferrucci will start today’s race from the 14th position in a 23-car field. Afterward, he looks forward to returning to his home race on the high-speed Pocono Raceway oval for the ABC Supply 500 on Aug. 18.
“I do want to win Rookie of the Year, but I feel like I won the important Rookie of the Year already,” he said of the award he received at the Indianapolis 500. “That was the one to win. That was the one you want to earn.
“I feel like we’ve been a 10th-place competitor all year long. I feel like that’s being realistic with ourselves. You don’t want to set the bar too high because then you don’t meet expectations and it’s not healthy. It’s realistic to sit here and say I think we can finish in the top 10 in points this year.”
In addition to today's Honda Indy 200 being seen on NBC, it can be heard on the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network and SiriusXM on Sirius 98, XM 209 and SXM 970. Green flag will wave at 4:05 p.m.