Preview: Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio critical in IndyCar title chase

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LEXINGTON, Ohio – The middle of Ohio is smack-dab in the heart of the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series championship chase.

Traditionally a mid-to-late race in the schedule, Sunday’s Honda Indy 200 at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course (LIVE, 1:30 p.m. ET, CNBC and NBC Sports Live Extra) actually marks the 14th of 16 races this season, so it takes on a more important role in the championship picture.

Mistakes will be magnified and multiplied this weekend. If you miss your mark this weekend, it will be very difficult to claw back the lost points.

It’s also an important strategy race. Over 90 laps, three stops are likely but two is possible.

This weekend’s race marks the first on a road course since the hybrid oval/infield road course at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May, and the first on a permanent road course since Barber Motorsports Park in April.

“The Penskes flew to the front at the Indy road course; it was them and only them,” said KVSH Racing’s Sebastien Bourdais, a two-time winner this year and the defending Mid-Ohio polesitter. “It was a bad surprise for us.

“For our program, we do understand a lot of things much better now. We hope to give a run to the Penskes, who have been so dominant on that type of track.”

Penskes have been dominant in qualifying this year but at Mid-Ohio, the first task the majority of the field has is stopping the freight train that is Scott Dixon and Chip Ganassi Racing.

Dixon has five wins in eight years at the circuit dating to 2007, and Ganassi’s team has won six straight at the track dating to 2007. In fact, since IndyCar’s return in 2007, only Ryan Briscoe of Team Penske has broken up the Ganassi string of dominance in 2008.

Briscoe could again play spoiler this year driving for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, having been quick but with nothing to lose as he seeks to become the 10th different winner this season.

It’s Penske, though, Briscoe’s former team, that has held the upper hand in qualifying. With eight poles on all eight road and street course races this year, all of Will Power, Helio Castroneves and points leader Juan Pablo Montoya have been forces to be reckoned with on Saturday.

Qualifying is especially crucial at Mid-Ohio and any of those three, plus Simon Pagenaud, who traditionally runs well at Mid-Ohio, will be ones to watch.

The other Ganassi drivers – Tony Kanaan, Charlie Kimball and Sage Karam – all have their own points to prove this weekend. Kanaan has struggled in qualifying at Mid-Ohio in recent years, until last year when he started third. Kimball has yet to recapture the magic he found when he won his first and thus far only IndyCar race at Mid-Ohio in 2013, and Karam looks to carry the momentum from Iowa onto a completely different type of circuit.

The career year for Graham Rahal and the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing team rolls into both driver and team’s home race, outside Columbus at the Lexington, Ohio road course. They need a good qualifying run because the run of Harry Houdini recover-from-disaster type performances on race day can’t go on forever.

Andretti Autosport is yet to win at Mid-Ohio since IndyCar’s return. It’s been a tougher track for the team in the past; Ryan Hunter-Reay finally got on the board in Iowa but given Honda’s qualifying struggles on road or street courses this year, it’s hard to see RHR, Marco Andretti, Carlos Munoz or even Justin Wilson making too big a dent in the leaderboard this weekend. Munoz, to his credit, did make his first career Firestone Fast Six this race last year, but has yet to provide an encore.

Other Chevy teams – KVSH/KV Racing Technology and CFH Racing – should be good. Bourdais must be considered a Fast Six if not podium contender once again, while Josef Newgarden looks to capture the win that got away from him last year. New father Luca Filippi makes his return to the cockpit after a near two-month hiatus in the second car; Stefano Coletti needs any result of sort.

Of note elsewhere, Takuma Sato makes his 100th career IndyCar start this weekend, and the always exciting-to-watch Japanese driver will look to impress in one of the Honda-sponsored races.

The remaining runners – rookie leader Gabby Chaves, Jack Hawksworth, James Jakes, Tristan Vautier and Rodolfo Gonzalez – likely will need help of some sort to produce a result of note.

In tears after the Indianapolis 500, Santino Ferrucci is proud of his third-place finish

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INDIANAPOLIS – Santino Ferrucci was in tears after last Sunday’s 107th Indy 500.

The AJ Foyt Racing driver from Woodbury, Connecticut had just driven the best race of his career, only to have the final yellow flag of the race fly just a second or two before he would have been in position for the win.

The field had just been given the green flag with four laps to go and Ferrucci was charging in the No. 14 Chevrolet into Turn 1, about to pass both Josef Newgarden for second place, which would have put him in prime position to draft past Marcus Ericsson for the victory.

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But IndyCar race control issued the third red flag stoppage in the final 15 laps of the race and with Ferrucci 2 inches behind Newgarden’s Chevrolet, he was lined up third.

When IndyCar had the remaining drivers refire the engines for three-quarters of a lap behind the Pace Car followed by a one-lap green and white flag dash to the finish, Ferrucci knew there was little he could do to get past the front two cars.

Newgarden passed Ericsson on the backstretch and went on to take the checkered flag for his first Indianapolis 500 victory. Ericsson was just 0.0974-of-a-second away from winning the Indy 500 for the second year in a row and Ferrucci was 0.5273-of-a-second away from winning his first career NTT IndyCar Series race.

It was a fantastic effort for Ferrucci, but to come so close to winning the biggest race in the world, the kid from Connecticut was heartbroken.

“We were so good this month,” Ferrucci told NBC Sports after climbing out of his car. “When you are that fast all month long, you just want it that much more. The way we did everything to finish the race under green, it’s great for the fans, IndyCar did the right thing, but sometimes it’s a tough pill to swallow restarting third like that when you are really second.

“It’s all timing and scoring. That doesn’t lie. If it says we are third, we are third. It’s very bittersweet.”

When Ericsson and Newgarden were both “Unleashing the Dragon” with the draft-breaking zigzag moves at the end of the race, Ferrucci admitted he was hoping it would play into his favor if those two made contact ahead of him.

“I was hoping and praying because when you are third, that’s all you can do – hope and pray,” Ferrucci said.

His prayers were not answered, but his determination to win the Indianapolis 500 remains undeterred.

He has never finished outside of the top 10 in the Indianapolis 500. Ferrucci was seventh as a rookie in 2019, fourth in 2020, sixth in 2021, 10th last year and third this past Sunday.

“I love this place,” the driver said. “I love coming here. I’m always so comfortable in the race. We are good at avoiding all of the accidents that happened in front of us.

“We will win it eventually. We have to.”

Ferrucci has proven he likes to rise to the big moments.

“I like the pressure,” he said. “We do well under pressure.

“But you have to take third, sometimes.

“We had a really good shot at winning this race. We made the most of it.”

Ferrucci continues to display the uncanny knack for racing hard and avoiding trouble. When he took the lead in the No. 14 car made famous by his team owner, legendary four-time Indianapolis 500 winner AJ Foyt, many of the fans in the crowd of 330,000 roared with approval.

Ferrucci was in front for 11 laps and was in prime position to pounce at the end, before the final 15 laps brought out red flag fever.

Because of that, and the timing of where he was when the last yellow light came on before the final red, put him in a difficult position to win the race.

“It’s just emotional, bittersweet,” he said. “It was emotional getting in the car, which was kind of strange because you feel like there’s a lot of people that really want this, the team really wants this.

“We worked so hard to be where we were. We ran out front all day long. It’s definitely one of the more difficult races that I’ve probably ever run, and just we also knew that we had a really good car.

“We got really close with Felix Rosenqvist when he was wrecking so very thankful, we were able to avoid that. And then yeah, coming to the end, I think on the second to final restart, me and Marcus battling it into 1, and obviously it going red when it did, it’s part of this place, it’s part of racing, it’s part of the Speedway.

“I’m just bummed. I’m sure Marcus Ericsson thinks the same thing I do.

“All three of us could have won it at any point in time.

“Yeah, it’s bittersweet.”

A few days have passed since Ferrucci was crying when he got out of the race car. He celebrated his birthday on Wednesday by mowing his lawn after a 12-hour drive back to his home in Texas. On Thursday morning, he flies to Detroit to get ready for this weekend’s Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix on the streets of downtown Detroit.

It has given him a chance to reflect on the biggest weekend of his career.

“Everybody saw on national television I was basically crying,” Ferrucci said. “It’s just one of those competitor things in you that there was so much riding on that race, and it was going so well up until that — it finished really well.

“It wasn’t just pressure to perform but emotional pressure to just be there and to know that we probably had that race won, had it gone yellow two seconds later, it’s just kind of heartbreaking. But still, at the end of the day, you come home in third, to join Helio Castroneves and one other driver, (Harry Hartz, who finished second, second, fourth, fourth and second from 1922-1926), in five of your first five starts in top 10s. And, then you really start to look at what you’ve accomplished at the 500 in your first five starts with four different teams and what you did with A.J. Foyt — what we’ve done at AJ Foyt Racing, who hasn’t had a podium or top 3 since the year 2000 at the Speedway.

“There are so many positives, and that day could have been so much worse. We had so many close calls between pit lane and some of the crashes on track that at the end of the day I was just really, really happy.

“I went to bed that night knowing that I did the best I could, the team did the best they could, and that’s the track.”

Ferrucci stressed that he didn’t have a problem with IndyCar race control doing everything in their power to make sure the race finished the distance under green.

“The way that IndyCar finished under green was 100 percent correct for the fans,” Ferrucci said. “It didn’t affect anything for me. What affected me wasn’t the red, it was the yellow.

“The second it went yellow, had it gone yellow two seconds later had they waited, which you can’t wait when you’re crashing, so there’s nothing you can do, I was in third, I was about 6 inches behind Newgarden, and that’s very clear in the video.

“At the end of the day, nothing changed for me. The fact that they actually went red and restarted the race gave me that opportunity to win again. I just didn’t have a great restart because it’s chaotic when you just go. You’ve got to also remember there’s no restart zone.

“At that point when you’re going green for one lap, it was really cool to see the shootout, I’m not going to lie, but you know that they’re going green, so you were literally at the hands of the leader on a completely random — you could start going into 3 in the middle of 3 and 4 out of 4. He could start the race whenever he wanted to start the race instead of in the zone, so it was completely unpredictable.

“(Ericsson) had a really good jump, and I did not. That’s what took me out of the win at the end of the race. It had nothing to do with IndyCar or the red in my opinion.”

Ferrucci and rookie teammate Benjamin Pedersen helped put a smile on 88-year-old AJ Foyt’s face in what started as the one of the saddest months of Foyt’s life after his wife of 68 years, Lucy, died.

Foyt returned to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway dealing with grief, but for the past three weeks, he was able to see his racing team return to prominence.

I think he was really proud,” Ferrucci said of Foyt. “There’s truly two people that understood my emotions and felt my emotions on Sunday. A.J. was one, and Michael Cannon (his engineer) was the other.

“If you look at some of the photos from that day, you can kind of see it in my eyes, just — you really have to have it in your hands and then lose it in your hands to kind of understand that feeling of when you work that hard. You have to understand you’re coming from a team with two cars, a budget that’s a quarter of the size of Penske and Ganassi, and that’s all month long. We wanted it probably that much more than everybody else that day.

“To come up that short, A.J.’s finished second and third on dominant days in the ’70s, and he talked about those races, where we had the car to win. We were by far the best car at the end of that race. Once the Team McLarens were out of it and the 10 car and the 21 had the incident in pit lane, that left us.

“We were the car to win, and yeah, just sitting third knowing there’s nothing you can do, after all that hard work, yeah, it’s a feeling that very few people would understand.

“But he was incredibly proud of I think what the organization accomplished. I’m very proud of Larry and what Larry Foyt has done with the team because Larry has had control of this team since 2007, and to see him get his first podium as a team boss and team owner at the speedway was huge.

“I think everybody was incredibly proud of what we’ve accomplished.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500