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