The NTT IndyCar Series visited the Barber Motorsports Park for the 12th time and the 2.3-mile road course delivered a possible championship contender rising to the occasion. The 90-lap contest was a strategy-filled race that showed much about the season’s front runners and where they stand.
Pato O’Ward led the final 27 laps after passing pole-sitter Rinus VeeKay into Turn 5 on the out-lap following pit stops. Alex Palou ended up second to take the championship lead, while VeeKay took third.
Before the month of May officially gets underway, here’s what we learned from the fourth race of the season:
1. O’Ward Back On?
Turning 23-years old at the end of the week (May 6) and being now a three-time race winner in North America’s premier open-wheel championship shows the continued strength of IndyCar’s youth.
Since the start of the season, contractual issues were being reported within Arrow McLaren SP and O’Ward. The situation was a potential distraction as they opened the season with two finishing places outside the top 10: a 12th at St. Petersburg and 15th at the Texas Motor Speedway. Those pair of results weren’t fitting for a driver who finished third in the standings a season ago.
A top five at Long Beach was the bounce back O’Ward needed to have a chance to rewrite the two previous starts.
Qualifying on the front-row was his first starting position in the top 10 and it opened the door for the victory. Now, things appear to be on the upswing for O’Ward, who also revealed a new deal is on the horizon.
2. McLaughlin’s Consistency
From top to bottom, the performance turnaround for Scott McLaughlin from 2021’s rookie year has positively improved.
The Kiwi has a fourth-place average finishing position through the opening four races compared to last year’s ninth. He currently stands second in the championship with a win – the first of his IndyCar career – captured at St. Pete.
The No. 3 Team Penske Chevrolet crew has only had one ‘off weekend’ in Long Beach finishing 14th after an early spin off the inside wall. A victory then a runner-up and sixth this past weekend, McLaughlin has kept his objectives intact.
“One of our goals at the beginning of the season was to not finish worse than seventh,” said McLaughlin. “We did that. We didn’t lose anything, but we didn’t gain any either.”
3. Newgarden Hot or Cold
Finishing last out of the Penske organization happens for a second time with Josef Newgarden placing 14th.
Two victories in the first three events is about as hot a driver can get, but the three-time winner at Barber couldn’t get the three-stop strategy to work in his favor.
Multiple teams opted for the early pit-stop at Lap 11 including Newgarden’s crew due to their seventh place starting position and lack of passing opportunities. Another disadvantage was having a set of used alternates fitted for the final stint.
Newgarden is currently third in points and with two wins being bookended with poor results, it can be cleaned up easily with the speed they’ve shown.
4. Chevrolet’s Dominance
It’s been all bowties crossing the finish-line first at the end of each race this season.
Penske kept the manufacture ‘perfect’ to open the year and with O’Ward’s win it proves strength can be found across multiple Chevy-powered organizations. Currently they have scored seven podiums compared to Honda’s five.
From a birds-eye view, both makers have an equal five drivers in the top 10 of the championship. Chevrolet also leads in laps led, 412 to 111 from the Japanese manufacturer.
The last time the American side of the battle has been off to this great of a start in the win column was bagging the first five races of 2016.
5. Rosenqvist’s Future
Since joining AMSP in 2021, Felix Rosenqvist has had his fair share of ups and downs and this season has gotten off to a start that is no different.
Qualifying has been in tip top shape for Rosenqvist as he’s made the Fast Six in the last three race weekends. Starting sixth turned into 16th, which placed him out of the top 15 for the third time this season.
Additionally, the Swede having a teammate who has already grabbed a trophy compared to his lack of top 10s, is a contract renewal likely? Team president, Taylor Kiel spoke on the matter in Alabama following the race.
“Ultimately for us, I think we want to take our time with any driver decision,” he said. “His (Rosenqvist) situation, as I’ve talked about it quite a bit, for us, we want to get through a lot of the season, just kind of understand where we’re at. I want to take more of a sample size than what we’ve got.”