Pato O’Ward won the Honda Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park, continuing his rebound Sunday from a slow start to the NTT IndyCar Series season
The Arrow McLaren SP driver made a sublime pass of pole-sitter Rinus VeeKay in Turn 5 a lap after both drivers’ final pit stops on Lap 61 of 90.
O’Ward’s No. 5 Dallara-Chevrolet inherited the lead when defending race winner and series champion Alex Palou pitted on Lap 64, and the Mexican star led the final 27 laps for his third career victory and first in nearly a year.
“(Team president) Taylor (Kiel) told me we were fighting for the win when we almost got (VeeKay) in the pit stops, so I said, ‘No, this is the chance, man,’ ” O’Ward told NBC Sports’ Marty Snider. “It was so tough to follow just because it’s such a fast and flowing circuit, so I knew if I would have the opportunity it would have been right then and there.
“I got on my (push to pass) button, got around him into 5, and I knew if we would get into clean air, we could kind of control the thing.
“Once we did that, it was cruise to victory lane.”
LAP LEADER CHART: Who was at the front Sunday
Palou finished second, followed by VeeKay, Will Power and Scott Dixon.
“We had a good day overall, super happy with a P2,” Palou told NBC Sports’ Dillon Welch. “I did a mistake on a restart, so I think that was all the difference. (O’Ward) was really fast today. Super happy with the No. 10 American Legion Honda car was super fast all weekend and another podium. We’ll try (to win) the next one.”
O’Ward made it four consecutive victories to start the season for Chevrolet (and the first by a non-Team Penske driver after Scott McLaughlin won the season opener, and Josef Newgarden the past two).
It was the first IndyCar win since June 13, 2021 in Detroit for O’Ward. The McLaren championship hopeful started the season with a 12th in the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg and a 15th at Texas Motor Speedway amid a plethora of mistakes by driver and team.
But O’Ward, who turns 23 this Friday, began a turnaround by finishing fifth after starting 11th in the Grand Prix of Long Beach, and he told NBC Sports a few days later that he was ready to refocus after starting the season “with so much noise” because of his desire for a reworked contract.
His new deal with McLaren now seems imminent, and O’Ward will head into May at Indianapolis Motor Speedway with the momentum to be pegged as a serious contender for his first Indy 500 win on May 29.
“It sucks to be at war within your own team, so I’m glad there’s been very positive talks for the future,” O’Ward told Snider after Sunday’s win. “And man I wanted to do it for these guys, Arrow McLaren SP. Team Chevy, they’ve swept this year so far, so I think it’s great for them.
“Yeah man, I was tired of being 10th, 11th and fifth so I said let’s get a win under our belts so we can claw our way back into this championship fight.”
WHAT A MOVE by @PatricioOWard!
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VeeKay led a race-high 57 of 90 laps for the third podium finish of his career.
“We were having a great race and coming into pit lane, and I really got held up a little bit with Jimmie (Johnson), so Pato closed the gap a lot,” VeeKay told NBC Sports’ Kevin Lee. “I was so much looking in my mirrors, I forgot to use the push to pass because I was too much looking in my mirrors. Yeah, I was just a little bit too conservative there. So pretty bummed missing out on that win. We had a great car, great race.”
McLaughlin finished sixth, followed by Romain Grosjean, Graham Rahal, Alexander Rossi and Colton Herta.
Rahal was upset with Grosjean after they made contact multiple times in the closing laps before Grosjean gained the position on the last lap as Rahal ran low on fuel.
“I just think it’s clear when you watch the in-car camera, and look at the angle of his head,” Rahal told NBC Sports’ Lee when asked about the contact. “When I can see in the mirror his head is directed this way, and the track is the (other) way, it’s pretty self-explanatory.
“I gave him room. I knew Romain was going to dive-bomb me because I already had been warned that’s what he was doing. But look where he scraped me, why are you turning into me? Your right front is at my left rear. There’s no excuse for that here. Look, he just releases the car to hit me. And here again. Look at how much room he has.
“I’m just frustrated because this isn’t the first time. At St. Pete, he hit everyone he could hit. We come here, he hit Rossi, hit Herta, hit me. At some point, we have to clean up our act.”
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Asked if he expected IndyCar officials to take action, Rahal said, “I’ll let you guys decide. You guys know. As another driver in the series told me, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, and he’s had that reputation over his whole career in Europe, and we’re learning his reputation quickly here.
“If race control doesn’t want to do anything, they’re not going to do anything. But when we go and punt him, they better not do anything to me. Which in the past, I’ve been penalized for a lot less than that.”
Grosjean said he didn’t intentionally hit Rahal.
“We touched a couple of times, but it was good racing,” Grosjean told NBC Sports’ Snider. “It was tough out there. Barber is a very good track but very tough to pass, especially when you’re in a train.
“If the guy in front of you doesn’t have anyone in front of them, you can try to defend a different line, but they’re all in line, so it was quite tricky. It’s good racing. It’s IndyCar. Wheel to wheel action. We didn’t have the right strategy; the three-stop didn’t work, and we were better than others on tires. On to the next one.”
The complexion of the race significantly changed on Lap 32 when the first yellow flag waved after Callum Ilott’s No. 77 Chevy was stuck in a Turn 9 gravel trap from running off course while trying to pass Helio Castroneves.
The caution played right into the hands of pole-sitter VeeKay, who was on a two-stop strategy and had pitted just two laps earlier.
The Ed Carpenter Racing driver cycled into the lead ahead of 16 other drivers on the two-stop strategy: O’Ward, Scott McLaughlin, Palou, Alexander Rossi, Felix Rosenqvist, Graham Rahal, Dixon, Takuma Sato, Power, Christian Lundgaard, Devlin DeFrancesco, Simon Pagenaud, Dalton Kellett and David Malukas.
Newgarden, who had been aiming for a $1 million bonus for winning his third consecutive race, restarted in 17h as the first of the drivers who were on a three-stop strategy that effectively was blunted by the timing of the yellow.
Other drivers who were on a three-stop strategy: Colton Herta, Marcus Ericsson Romain Grosjean, Conor Daly, Jack Harvey, Kyle Kirkwood and Castroneves.
Herta raced his way back into contention for a top five but fell to 10th after a late spin.