By David Morgan, Associate Editor
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – The 2022 NTT IndyCar Series season may have gotten off to a rocky start for Pato O’Ward, but the driver of the No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP has decided to take the fight to the competition, leading to a win Sunday at Barber Motorsports Park.
It seemed as if the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama would be a runaway for polesitter Rinus VeeKey, who led the first 57 laps of the event, but heading into the final round of pit stops, O’Ward saw his chance to strike and did just that.
As VeeKay found himself caught behind slower traffic heading toward pit road, O’Ward was able to close the gap between the two to be in position to make the winning move.
While VeeKay beat O’Ward off pit road, the black and orange Arrow McLaren SP was growing larger and larger in VeeKay’s rear-view mirror, with O’Ward passing VeeKay in Turn 5 on their out lap following the final pit stop and setting sail for the remainder of the race.
“Taylor (Kiel, team president) told me we are fighting for the win,” O’Ward said of the decisive move on VeeKay. “We almost got them in the pit stops, so I said no this is your chance man.
“It’s so tough to follow just because it’s such a fast and flowing circuit. I knew if I would have the opportunity, it would have been right then and there. I got on my button and got around him into (Turn) five and then I knew if he would get into clean air, we can kind of control the thing. Once we did that it was a cruise to victory lane.”
Heading into the season, O’Ward’s contract situation was a big talking point, but after the win, O’Ward alluded to the mental shift that both he and the team have undergone in recent weeks, culminating in a positive uptick in their results in the last two races, including a top-five in Long Beach and Sunday’s win at Barber.
“It sucks to be at war within your own team,” O’Ward said. “I’m glad there’s been very positive talks for the future and man I wanted to do it for these guys. I wanted to do it for Arrow McLaren SP, Team Chevy. They’ve swept this year so far, so I think it’s great for them.
“Yeah, man I was just tired of being 10th and 11th and fifth. I said let’s get a win under our belt so we can claw our way back to this championship fight.”
Defending series champion Alex Palou was able to pass VeeKay for second place down the stretch, with VeeKay fading to third at the finish. Will Power charged from deep in the field to finish the race in fourth-place, followed by another veteran in Scott Dixon rebounding from a subpar qualifying result to round out the top-five finishers.
VeeKay was obviously disappointed in his third place run after leading so many laps, but noted that he was too conservative when he and O’Ward were battling for the lead, opening the door for O’Ward to take the lead and eventually the win.
“We started out the first two-thirds of the race very strong, leading, saving a lot of fuel. Very happy with that,” VeeKay said.
“Unfortunately I got held up a little bit before getting into my second pit stop, so Pato was on me, really on me. I did beat him out of pit lane. Coming into turn five, I just took it a little bit too conservative, and he got around me. Yeah, he drove away basically. Lacked a little bit of pace on the last set of tires. Pato and Alex were a little bit too fast for me to hang with.
“Yeah, I think third place is pretty good still.
Scott McLaughlin brought his Team Penske Chevrolet home in sixth, followed by Romain Grosjean, Graham Rahal, Alexander Rossi and Colton Herta.
With Sunday’s race now in the books, the drivers and teams will turn their focus to the Month of May at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where the GMR Grand Prix awaits them in two weeks before the 106th running of the Indianapolis 500 on Memorial Day Weekend.