By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
On a day where all rookies were snake bitten in some shape or form, Arrow McLaren SP’s Pato O’Ward survived the 104th Indianapolis 500 with a sixth-place finish and likely to claim Rookie of the Year honors.
After failing to qualify last year for Carlin, O’Ward had a noble showing in his Indy 500 debut Sunday, but it would take such showing and a lot of help from other rookies to make it possible.
That’s because at the start of the race, it was Rinus VeeKay and Alex Palou who set the tone due to their strong qualifying efforts while O’Ward had his work cut out for him from the 15th position.
For a period of time, VeeKay appeared to be the guy to beat as he was carrying the torch for Chevrolet where he ran as high as third before reaching the one-quarter mark. The only thing that got in the 19-year-old’s way was his own Ed Carpenter Racing machine as the No. 21 car stalled on Lap 63.
VeeKay would never recover from the misfortune and ended up a lap behind race winner Takuma Sato in 20th.
This would set stage for O’Ward’s teammate Oliver Askew taking command among, even leading a few laps in the afternoon which in the past has been key for several Indy 500 ROTY honorees. Askew’s aspirations changed on the Lap 93 restart when VeeKay’s teammate Conor Daly lost control in Turn 4.
Askew, who had recently pitted, tried avoiding the carnage but would also spin and slam the inside retaining wall near pit entry. Last year’s Freedom 100 winner was checked and released from the infield care center, finishing in 30th.
A massive crash for Oliver Askew in the #Indy500.@IMS added SAFER Barriers designed for safety, and we're so glad they exist as he and Conor Daly are OK. Watch the race on @NBC: https://t.co/B6M3MXYpFe pic.twitter.com/2T6m3Y8ZYL
— NBC Sports (@NBCSports) August 23, 2020
O’Ward was thankful Askew was okay, hoping he and the rest of the team will move on from the low point and prepare for the Gateway doubleheader next weekend.
“Thankfully he’s okay,” said O’Ward during the post-race video conference. “These guys are going to put the car back together and we’re going to be right back on it in Gateway. He just has to shake it off. We have to collect, we have to push each other in Gateway, try to build the strongest package, try to get a couple podiums there.”
The 23-year-old was one of three rookies whose Indy dreams were dashed due to accidents. In fact, prior to the restart, the track was just cleaned up from the previous caution caused by AJ Foyt Racing’s Dalton Kellett on Lap 84.
A caution for Dalton Kellett erases Scott Dixon's massive lead in the #Indy500.
— Indy 500 on NBC (@IndyCaronNBC) August 23, 2020
The Canadian tried getting by Ben Hanley, but to no avail and resulted him going up the track and hit the Turn 3 wall.
Later on Lap 122, Palou’s day came to a crashing halt as he careened into the Turn 1 wall which all but gave O’Ward top honors. Palou was credited with a 28th place outing.
— Indy 500 on NBC (@IndyCaronNBC) August 23, 2020
From that point on, it was the former Indy Lights champion’s time to shine at the 2.5-mile circuit. Even mixing it up with the main protagonists of the race winning battle which were Sato, Scott Dixon and Alexander Rossi.
However, O’Ward lost ground in the end and fell one sport short of getting a top-five that would’ve made him the Bowtie Brigade’s front man which ended up going to fifth-place Josef Newgarden.
O’Ward said that while it was a solid day, he just couldn’t compete with the ferocious Hondas that claimed eight out of the first 10 finishing spots.
“I think we juiced out the car. We got everything out of it,” said O’Ward. “We were the second Chevy right behind Josef in fifth. I think it was a good job for my first-ever Indy 500. The only thing that matters here is winning. Excited to come back next year and try to get that win because this place is pretty special. For now, move on to Gateway.”
Now with a full Indy 500 under his belt, O’Ward attributed his patience and not losing confidence being instrumental of his entire No. 5 team getting the job done at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway this month, including being fastest on Carb Day Friday.
“(Last year) never really brought down my confidence. This year I had a very capable car, a car that deserves to be in the show, a car that deserves to be in the front,” said O’Ward. “I was just doing what I was paid to do and what I always have done. It wasn’t really much of a difference from last year in terms of speedway knowledge. I had Texas under my belt. But Indy is quite a bit faster and different.
“I think just being patient all weekend, learning every session, being slow and working my way up in traffic was a very good thing that we did. We took care of the car. We finished the race. We had a good qualifying in terms of where we were Chevy-wise. I think we maximized everything we could in the race.
“But yeah, I think it was a good job. Yeah, it wasn’t really much of a knowledge difference from last year. I just think in an oval it is so important to have a strong car that makes you feel confident, that allows you to stay up into people, to tow up, to really just ride behind someone without just completely losing the rear out of nowhere. It’s not easy for sure. It’s quick out there.”
Should O’Ward be declared as this year’s Indy 500 Rookie of the Year, he’ll join Josele Garza (1981) and Bernard Jourdain (co-won with Scott Pruett in 1989) as the only drivers from Mexico to accomplish this feat.