Young guns Pato O’Ward, Alex Palou look to hold off veterans in tight Indycar championship battle

tight Indycar championship battle
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With four first time winners so far in the 2021 NTT IndyCar season, the conversation has focused on the changing of the guard, but at the halfway mark, there are signs that veterans just may be lying in wait in a tight championship battle.

With eight races in the books and either eight or nine races remaining, depending on whether IndyCar finds a venue to replace Toronto, two young guns stand atop the standings.

Two veterans sit third and fourth, eyeing the leaders.

The Chevrolet Grand Prix of Detroit doubleheader was won by a pair of drivers who entered the 2021 season searching for their first IndyCar victory. Marcus Ericsson won Race 1 of the weekend with two determined young guns on his tail.

Pato O’Ward, 22, won on Sunday while Alex Palou, 24, and Colton Herta, 21, engaged in a fierce battle for the podium.

But the driver who finished in the runner-up position on Sunday and a driver who almost won on Saturday suggest the younger drivers in the field need to keep a close eye on their rear view mirrors.

“If I’m looking at half (of the season), it’s seems okay,” Josef Newgarden said in a post race press conference after finishing second in Race 2 at Belle Isle. “It’s not exactly what we wanted, but it’s not too bad; we’re in the hunt. But we have halfway to go. There is a lot of racing to hopefully still be in this fight.”

AUTO: JUN 13 INDYCAR - Raceway at Belle Isle Park Race 2
Josef Newgarden led 67 of 70 laps of the Detroit Grand Prix Race 2 to jump to fourth in the points. (Brian Spurlock / Getty Images)

The podium for Race 1 of the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix was swept by drivers 30 or younger, but if not for a late-race caution, Will Power, 40, would likely have maintained the top position. He was furious with IndyCar for throwing a late-race caution while he was leading that allowed his ECU to overheat on pit road. Unable to refire, Power fell out of contention in the three-lap shootout.

On Sunday, Newgarden, a 10-year veteran, led 67 of the 70 laps, but fell victim to O’Ward, in his second full season, because of a decision to end the race on softer compound red Firestone tires.

The points’ battle is intense and halfway through the season, only one point separates first from second.

And the defining race of the first half of the season was IndyCar’s showcase. The Indy 500 awards double points and created a major shift in the mid-season dynamics. Veteran Helio Castroneves won and banked 103 points for the effort, but he is not running fulltime in 2021.

That left Palou as the greatest points’ benefactor. He entered the Indy 500 13 points behind Scott Dixon.

Dixon won the pole and earned nine points for the effort, but when crossed under the checkers 17th, he gave up a huge advantage to Palou.

Meanwhile Palou was less than half a second behind Castroneves in second, earning 85 points for his runner-up finish. He left Indianapolis with a 36-point lead in the driver championship.

O’Ward was third in the standings, one point behind Dixon. The young guns were blazing.

With Palou in sight at Belle Isle, O’Ward swept the podium in Detroit’s two races.

Finishing third in Race 1, O’Ward closed to within 15 points of Palou. His victory in Race 2 and a third-place finish for Palou allowed him to take the top spot by one point.

“Why is this bad news then?” Palou asked in the post race conference.  “We’re still there. You have to look to now at who has been the best and that’s Pato, for sure, and then it’s us.”

Palou was quick to point out that he can make back the 37 points he lost to O’Ward as quickly as he lost them, especially since the series is heading to a track where he was competitive in 2020 as a rookie.

Palou scored his first career podium at Road America last year in the first race of a doubleheader. He finished seventh the following week and has been eagerly anticipating IndyCar’s return since the day the series rolled out of Wisconsin.

“Honestly wanted to see myself P1, but P2 and only one point off P1 is really good,” Palou said. “Learning new tracks this year, doing new races that are crazy – like Detroit, the Indy 500 getting to experience the full race, battling with experienced guys. It’s been awesome. It’s been a lot of learning, but finally we are going to Road America. I’ve been there. We’ve been really competitive there.”

AUTO: JUN 13 INDYCAR - Raceway at Belle Isle Park Race 2
The top three finishers in the Race 2 of the Detroit doubleheader, Josef Newgarden, Pato O’Ward and Alex Palou are all in the top five in championship points (Brian Spurlock / Getty Images)

At Detroit, O’Ward became the first repeat winner of 2021. In addition, he has another four top-fives giving him six for the season, the most of anyone in the series. Palou has been close, however, with five top-fives and a seventh in eight races.

“In my head, the two guys I’m fighting the championship for are in front of me, and I was not going to be pleased if I ended up behind them,” O’Ward said after the race. “Especially if we had a restart and we were all together – so, if I had a chance, I was going to strike.”

And strike he did.

In the closing laps, the veteran Newgarden made his car as wide as possible without blocking. He conserved his push-to-pass in order to use it when he was under attack. And he didn’t use it when there was no benefit.

The final laps at Detroit were a chess match between Newgarden and Colton Herta, who ran second at the time. By not utilizing the push-to-pass button, he allowed O’Ward and Palou to catch Herta. Just as it seemed those three young guns would become embroiled in a battle that would allow Newgarden some breathing room, O’Ward emerged in second.

O’Ward and Newgarden rubbed tire on sidepod. Newgarden tried to push O’Ward offline into the marbles, but the young gun would not budge.

Newgarden’s veteran experience did not go unnoticed by Palou, who watch Newgarden salvage the runner-up finish.

“Over the years in IndyCar, we saw some really young drivers that are really good one or two years and then the veterans are always there,:” Palou said. “So we have to keep the consistency up, that’s how you can run up front in championships.”

But while the young guns lead for now, the veterans are not going away.

Defending 2020 Dixon has not had the type of year he wanted. With only two podium finishes and none in the last five races, he finds himself third in the standings, 36 points out of first. Notably, that is same deficit O’Ward overcame in Detroit’s two races. And while Dixon has not stood on the podium for a while, he has been in the top 10 in every race except the Indy 500.

Meanwhile Newgarden’s second-place finish in Race 2 at Detroit jumped him to fourth in the standings – 51 points out of the lead.

With throaty roar, NASCAR Next Gen Camaro is taking Le Mans by storm on global stage

Le Mans 24 Hour Race - Car Parade
Chris Graythen/Getty Images
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LE MANS, France — The V8 engine of the NASCAR Chevrolet Camaro has a distinct growl that cannot go unnoticed even among the most elite sports cars in the world at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

When the Hendrick Motorsports crew fired up the car inside Garage 56, NASCAR chairman Jim France broke into a huge grin and gave a thumbs up.

“The only guy who didn’t cover his ears,” laughed seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson.

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France has been waiting since 1962 – the year his father, NASCAR founder Bill France Sr., brought him to his first 24 Hours of Le Mans – to hear the roar of a stock car at the most prestigious endurance race in the world.

A path finally opened when NASCAR developed its Next Gen car, which debuted last year. France worked out a deal to enter a car in a specialized “Innovative Car” class designed to showcase technology and development. The effort would be part of NASCAR’s 75th celebration and it comes as Le Mans marks its 100th.

Once he had the approval, France persuaded Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear – NASCAR’s winningest team, manufacturer and tire supplier – to build a car capable of running the twice-around-the-clock race.

The race doesn’t start until Saturday, but NASCAR’s arrival has already been wildly embraced and France could not be more thrilled.

“Dad’s vision, to be able to follow it, it took awhile to follow it up, and my goal was to outdo what he accomplished,” France told The Associated Press. “I just hope we don’t fall on our ass.”

The car is in a class of its own and not racing anyone else in the 62-car field. But the lineup of 2010 Le Mans winner Mike Rockenfeller, 2009 Formula One champion Jenson Button and Johnson has been fast enough; Rockenfeller put down a qualifying lap that was faster than every car in the GTE AM class by a full three seconds.

The Hendrick Motorsports crew won its class in the pit stop competition and finished fifth overall as the only team using a manual jack against teams exclusively using air jacks. Rick Hendrick said he could not be prouder of the showing his organization has made even before race day.

“When we said we’re gonna do it, I said, ‘Look, we can’t do this half-assed. I want to be as sharp as anybody out there,” Hendrick told AP. “I don’t want to be any less than any other team here. And just to see the reaction from the crowd, people are so excited about this car. My granddaughter has been sending me all these TikTok things that fans are making about NASCAR being at Le Mans.”

This isn’t NASCAR’s first attempt to run Le Mans. The late France Sr. brokered a deal in 1976, as America celebrated its bicentennial, to bring two cars to compete in the Grand International class and NASCAR selected the teams. Herschel McGriff and his son, Doug, drove a Wedge-powered, Olympia Beer-sponsored Dodge Charger, and Junie Donlavey piloted a Ford Torino shared by Richard Brooks and Dick Hutcherson.

Neither car came close to finishing the race. McGriff, now 95 and inducted into NASCAR’s Hall of Fame in January, is in Le Mans as France’s guest, clad head-to-toe in the noticeable Garage 56 uniforms.

“I threw a lot of hints that I would like to come. And I’ve been treated as royalty,” McGriff said. “This is unbelievable to me. I recognize nothing but I’m anxious to see everything. I’ve been watching and seeing pictures and I can certainly see the fans love their NASCAR.”

The goal is to finish the full race Sunday and, just maybe, beat cars from other classes. Should they pull off the feat, the driver trio wants its own podium celebration.

“I think people will talk about this car for a long, long time,” said Rockenfeller, who along with sports car driver Jordan Taylor did much of the development alongside crew chief Chad Knaus and Greg Ives, a former crew chief who stepped into a projects role at Hendrick this year.

“When we started with the Cup car, we felt already there was so much potential,” Rockenfeller said. “And then we tweaked it. And we go faster, and faster, at Le Mans on the SIM. But you never know until you hit the real track, and to be actually faster than the SIM. Everybody in the paddock, all the drivers, they come up and they are, ‘Wow, this is so cool,’ and they were impressed by the pit stops. We’ve overachieved, almost, and now of course the goal is to run for 24 hours.”

The car completed a full 24-hour test at Sebring, Florida, earlier this year, Knaus said, and is capable of finishing the race. Button believes NASCAR will leave a lasting impression no matter what happens.

“If you haven’t seen this car live yet, it’s an absolute beast,” Button said. “When you see and hear it go by, it just puts a massive smile on your face.”

For Hendrick, the effort is the first in his newfound embrace of racing outside NASCAR, the stock car series founded long ago in the American South. Aside from the Le Mans project, he will own the Indy car that Kyle Larson drives for Arrow McLaren in next year’s Indianapolis 500 and it will be sponsored by his automotive company.

“If you’d have told me I’d be racing at Le Mans and Indianapolis within the same year, I’d never have believed you,” Hendrick told AP. “But we’re doing both and we’re going to do it right.”

Le Mans 24 Hour Race - Car Parade
Fans gather around the NASCAR Next Gen Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 that is the Garage 56 entry for the 100th 24 Hours of Le Mans at the Circuit de la Sarthe (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).

General Motors is celebrating the achievement with a 2024 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 Garage 56 Edition and only 56 will be available to collectors later this year.

“Even though Chevrolet has been racing since its inception in 1911, we’ve never done anything quite like Garage 56,” said GM President Mark Reuss. “A NASCAR stock car running at Le Mans is something fans doubted they would see again.”

The race hasn’t even started yet, but Hendrick has enjoyed it so much that he doesn’t want the project to end.

“It’s like a shame to go through all this and do all this, and then Sunday it’s done,” Hendrick said. “It’s just really special to be here.”