Back-to-back podium finishes have boosted 21-year-old Pato O’Ward of Arrow McLaren SP into the 2020 NTT INDYCAR SERIES championship race.
In nine starts this season, O’Ward’s worst finish is 12th at Texas Motor Speedway in June and the second race of the Iowa INDYCAR 250s in July. Seven of his finishes have been in the top-eight, including a second place at Road America in the second race of the REV Group Grand Prix. He matched that career-high finish with another second place in last Sunday’s second race of the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 doubleheader at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway.
That came just one day after he finished third in the Saturday race at the 1.25-mile short oval.
O’Ward led 94 laps in Saturday’s contest and 36 laps Sunday.
“Man, we had a great weekend,” O’Ward said before he went on vacation for the week. “Our objective was to come in and try and score two podiums, and we did that. It would have been great to score a win. We’re so close.
“This Arrow McLaren SP No. 5 Chevrolet was very strong right out of the gates. We were super, super competitive. We’re knocking on the door, man. We’re very close, and we’re going to keep pushing. I know our time will come. We have to stay there.”
O’Ward, from Monterrey, Mexico, is third in points in his first full season of INDYCAR competition, 119 behind leader Scott Dixon. O’Ward is just 23 points behind Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden in second place.
With five races remaining, O’Ward’s presence in the championship race is quite impressive.
Before he can make a run at Dixon for the championship lead, O’Ward needs to focus on getting past two-time NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion Newgarden for second place.
“I have so much respect for Josef,” O’Ward said. “He is one of the fairest, if not the fairest, and cleanest drivers in the paddock. So competitive, but yet he's not dirty. I know that I can really race him hard without putting both of our races in jeopardy.”
O’Ward is part of an even more impressive effort at Arrow McLaren SP that includes 23-year-old Oliver Askew of Jupiter, Florida. Although O’Ward has scored the strong finishes, Askew has shown flashes of brilliance and speed in his NTT INDYCAR SERIES rookie season, including a third-place finish at Iowa.
This is a team that features the two most recent Indy Lights series champions. O’Ward won the championship in 2018 and Askew last year.
But these kids have proven they know how to race and are capable of battling with the big names from INDYCAR.
Much of that has to do with the respect level and nurturing from Arrow McLaren SP.
“This team is like a family to me,” O’Ward said. “They have welcomed me like I'm their kid, their baby. It's been a thrill to be able to work on these relationships, grow, just meet new people.
“There's a lot of people here, very smart and intelligent engineers, mechanics. Honestly, I have had so much fun. It's so competitive, but I've had so much fun doing it. That's what matters. You have to be enjoying it. I enjoy driving out there, trying to win races, trying to be on the podium.”
O’Ward was in the middle of Team Penske’s Newgarden, the winner, and Will Power in third place in the most recent race at Gateway.
“I always knew he was really fast,” Power said of O’Ward. “We saw that in Indy Lights and the few races he did in INDYCAR last year. He's right where we all expected him.
“He's definitely going to be a force to be reckoned with in the future.”
But did O’Ward expect to be this competitive, this soon when the season didn’t start until June 6 at Texas because of the COVID-19 pandemic?
“I think the realistic answer is no because I knew was going to be a learning path,” he said. “Even though I had some races under my belt, it's a new team, new engineers, new car, different car.”
At Texas, O’Ward’s goal was to simply finish the race. It was the first contest of the season after a lengthy delay and with a new team, O’Ward wanted to bank on bringing the car back without any damage on a track where he had never previously raced.
O’Ward started to find his zone at the doubleheader in July at Road America.
“Hats off to this team,” O’Ward said. “They've really made the correct changes. Every time I need something, I tell them, they make a change, it usually works. That's so important with these super-compressed schedules with such little practice. It makes a humongous difference to your race result in the end if a yellow doesn't fall in someone else's favor, et cetera.
“Qualifying has been so important. From there we probably just proved to ourselves that we can actually do it and we can win races, be on the podium, really be challengers.”
If all goes according to plan with INDYCAR, there are five races left on the schedule. O’Ward has to focus on what is next.
“We will approach them the same way, trying to score as many points as we can and we'll see where we end up at the end of the year,” O’Ward said. “We're in the fight, at least for second. I think it's been a long time coming. The guys have been working very hard. I truly feel like they deserve the strong results we've had these past couple weekends. We've left a lot of points on the table, as well. But I think as a team we're just getting better and better.”