By David Morgan, Associate Editor
Pato O’Ward came into Saturday night’s Bommarito Automotive Group 500 at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway 21 points in arrears of the points lead, but after a mid-race crash collected his championship rivals, he will be leaving with the points lead firmly in hand.
The 22-year-old pilot of the No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet kept his nose clean throughout the night, bringing home a runner-up result to give him a 10-point advantage heading into the final three-race stretch of the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series season.
“It’s a very big points day for us,” O’Ward said. “To be honest, man, it’s so tight. There’s still three races to go, 150 points on the table. Yeah, I mean, this means we’re going on the right path. We came off a solid run in Indy road course, now we have a podium with second. It would be great to rack up a couple more, a few more podiums.
“Yeah, man, we’re just going to push until the checkered flag waves in Long Beach and see where we stand.”
The points race shuffle began at lap 65, as the field stormed into Turn 1 following a restart, when Rinus VeeKay made contact with Palou, sending the two for a spin and collecting Palou’s Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Scott Dixon in the process.
Palou would be unable to continue on in the race as the damage to his No. 10 Honda was too much to try and fix to get him back out on track, leaving him to finish 20th on the day.
“I had plenty of room with Scott and Scott had plenty of room with the guy in front and we just got hit,” Palou said. “I don’t know where they wanted to go. It’s a shame. We’ve got American Legion on board and we were having a great day so far. Starting 21st after the grid penalty, it was hard to get up to the top-10. We just wanted to have a clean race. We just wanted to get some points and I thought we had a good race car.
“Nothing we could do today. Just a shame that it didn’t pay out like that. It’s 200 laps to go, so I don’t know what the others were thinking.”
Saturday night’s crash marked the second race in a row that Palou lost ground in the points race after his engine expired at Indianapolis last weekend.
“We’re doing our job,” Palou added. “Indy road course, we were doing an amazing job, I felt, and here, we did a good job as well. The guys did a really good pit stop, gave us two or three spots, I think. We came from 21st to 10th. We did our job. We got hit, but that’s racing. There’s still three races to go, so we’ll try to get that championship home.”
While Palou was out of the race immediately after the crash, Dixon’s No. 9 team worked furiously on his Honda to get his car back in raceable shape, allowing him to run until lap 100, when he too would retire from the race.
Dixon would be scored with a 19th place finish, dropping him to fourth in the standings, 43 points behind O’Ward in the championship battle.
“I can’t thank the team enough,” Dixon said of his team’s effort to get him back in the race. “I think we even changed diffs and it broke the diff. We tried to fix everything that was wrong with the car just to see if we could get back out there. It took us almost 80 laps to fix it, so we ran until we could make up the spots that we could and that was it.
“Unfortunate. I feel really bad for myself and Alex. I really don’t know what VeeKay was trying to do there and obviously, took us both out of the race. We’ll have to see if race control will do anything about this. We’ve had some pretty erratic and pretty crazy driving this season, but it just seems to go unnoticed, so we’ll see.
“Kudos to everybody on the PNC Bank car and everybody at Honda for digging deep there. Unfortunately, that was our rough night.”