Yet again, Pato O’Ward came oh-so-close to Victory Circle in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES, losing out to another first-time series winner.
Though he had arguably the fastest car of the day and possibly of the entire weekend, O’Ward and his No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet team engaged in a three-stop strategy in the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama presented by AmFirst at Barber Motorsports Park. The strategy call landed him a fourth-place finish behind three drivers who used a two-stop strategy, including first-time winner Alex Palou in the No. 10 SEGI.TV Chip Ganassi Racing Honda.
“Track position was everything today,” pole sitter O’Ward said. “I feel like we executed on what we went for strategy-wise, unfortunately it was the wrong one. I gotta give it to these (Arrow McLaren SP) guys. We were the fastest car on track today. We’ve been the fastest car all weekend in terms of qualifying pace.”
To O’Ward’s credit, his team executed its strategy flawlessly, and he was the top finishing driver of those on the three-stop pit strategy. And as the race came to a close and fuel strategy was out the window, the speed in O’Ward’s car came through as he cut down Palou’s lead from more than seven seconds to 3.9741 at the finish line.
Earlier in the race, on Lap 65, the Mexican ran the fastest lap of the race and fastest leader lap when he clocked in at 1 minute, 6.8182 seconds.
O’Ward’s speed wasn’t just evident Sunday. He appeared to be the fastest man in Birmingham, Alabama, this weekend. He won the NTT P1 Award for pole position Saturday with a lap of 1:05.8479 in the Firestone Fast Six. He also set the track record in the second round of qualifying with a lap of 1:05.5019.
After starting from the pole, he set a blistering pace on the alternate “red” Firestone tires from the get-go and led the first 17 laps of the race until his first pit stop on Lap 18, in which he handed the race over to Palou. Until after the final pit stops, it was a pit strategy battle between the two young stars determined to win their first career NTT INDYCAR SERIES race. O’Ward led two more times for a total of 25 laps.
It was another near-miss for O’Ward in his NTT INDYCAR SERIES career. He scored four podium finishes in 2020, including three seconds. One of O’Ward’s closest calls came at Road America-2 where he started from the pole and led nearly the entire race before losing the lead in the late stages to another first-time winner from Chip Ganassi Racing, Felix Rosenqvist.
The other close call came in the season-ending Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, where he finished second to two-time series champion Josef Newgarden.
With St. Petersburg on the mind, O’Ward already was looking toward this year’s edition of the Florida street race this Sunday, April 25 (live coverage starts at noon ET on NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network). Given he was just four seconds away from victory last October, O’Ward is confident his team can pick up where they left off in St. Petersburg and Birmingham.
“We’re ready for St. Pete,” he said. “We’ve had good points here. I would’ve loved to get the win, but we’ve got another shot next weekend, and we’re going to be going for it. I’m 100% sure that when St. Pete comes in a few days, we’ll be ready to get it all.”