'I'm here to win': Pato O'Ward's furious finish clinches Detroit Grand Prix Race No. 2

David Goricki
The Detroit News

Detroit — Josef Newgarden won the pole for Race No. 2 of the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix doubleheader on Belle Isle Sunday morning, then put Team Penske in position to earn its first win of the season later in the afternoon.

Would Newgarden have trouble finishing the deal, the same way his Team Penske teammate Will Power did in Race 1 Saturday, when he failed to restart his car when the race resumed following a 20-minute red flag period while holding the lead?

Pato O'Ward celebrates his victory last year in the Detroit Grand Prix Race No. 2 on Belle Isle.

Yes, there was drama. And, no, Newgarden couldn’t hold on as 22-year-old Mexican Pato O’Ward put on a late charge for the ages to go from fifth to Victory Lane after the final restart with seven laps remaining.

It was O’Ward’s second win of the season — and career — in the No. 5 Chevrolet for the Arrow McLaren team owned by Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson.

Yes, the "young guns" are taking over the IndyCar series with O’Ward now the points leader, owning the top spot by a single point (299-298) over 24-year-old Alex Palou, who is in his first season with Chip Ganassi Racing. Palou’s teammate, six-time series champion Scott Dixon, is 36 points back.

“I had such a great car all weekend," O'Ward said. "Today, it was my fault that we made it a little extra harder on ourselves starting from the back, but I knew I had a great car under me. Team Chevy, this is a Team Chevy territory so I’m so excited, so pumped to get them this. I texted Felix this morning. It’s important that he’s OK, but I told him I’m going to win it for you, so this is for him.”

O’Ward’s teammate Felix Rosenqvist was involved in a scary accident in Race 1, which red flagged the race for 1 hour, 18 minutes. He was cleared and released by the DMC Detroit Receiving Hospital.

Newgarden led the entire race when rookie Romain Grosjean forced the final caution with 11 laps remaining.

Newgarden was having trouble holding off his competition while running in used alternate tires — which run faster, but wear out quicker — while Colton Herta, Palou, Graham Rahal and O’Ward were all driving on primary tires, which last longer because they're made of a harder compound.

O’Ward, who started the race 16th, quickly overtook Rahal and Palou when the final restart took place with seven laps remaining, then overtook Herta for second with six to go and set his sights on Newgarden.

With three laps to go and Newgarden leading all 67 laps around the 13-turn, 2.3-mile temporary street course, O’Ward got around Newgarden — the cars touched — and he went on to dominate from that point on, winning by 6.7 seconds over Newgarden, with Palou finishing third, followed by Herta, Rahal, Will Power and Dixon.

“I had to fight my way literally to the front,” said O’Ward, who finished third in Race No. 1. “Yellow came out and I had a lot of faith in myself whenever the car is wiggling around. I know I’ve very strong in cold tires, so I took advantage of it, got by people and got it done.

“It was wiggly, but I felt like I still had life in the tire available. I knew I had only one chance to get every single guy, so every time I would pull out to do something I had to take the risk of pushing the braking zone or getting that mega exit to get in front of them. I’m very happy with how I executed it.

“The problem is whenever you let people step around over you then it becomes a habit. People know that I’m not here to be fifth or sixth. They know I’m here to win, and I’m pretty sure that’s the message I portrayed today.”

Pato O'Ward races through Turn 1 in the Detroit Grand Prix on Sunday at Belle Isle.

Newgarden said the finish was "pretty sad.

"It’s hard not to be disappointed because we had the car to beat," he said. "We had cautions when we didn’t need them. We had the wrong tires when we didn’t need them. We did well, but it was just the caution that killed us. My rears were shot, and we really didn’t need that.

“We tried. We went for what we went for and it just didn’t fall our way at the end there so that’s pretty sad. Obviously, Team Chevy won still and to get a 1-2 is a big thing here in Detroit, so I’m super happy for that. We’re just disappointed. Obviously, we wanted to win and felt like we had the car to do it.”

Newgarden called O’Ward’s pass and the contact between them "good, hard racing.

"There’s a kink on the backstretch so it’s not perfectly straight," Newgarden said, "so when you’re fighting side-by-side you’ll probably get a little bit contact like that; it’s not completely abnormal down on that section of the track. He was coming like a freight train, and my tires were cooked and he was having great drives off the corner. It was just good, hard racing.”

Said O’Ward: “He was moving me into the marbles, but I didn’t move. I think it makes it a more exciting when there’s a little rub and rub.”

It was a chaotic start to Race No. 2 with Dixon, Grosjean and Alexander Rossi going three-wide into Turn 1 of the opening lap, which is not a desired position. All three cars made contact, including the tires on Dixon and Rossi’s machines, but all were able to continue racing.

Then, just two turns later, Max Chilton’s No. 59 Chevrolet climbed over the back end of James Hinchcliffe’s No. 29 Andretti Steinbrenner Autosport Honda after a car in front of them slowed, causing the first caution of the afternoon.

There would be more cautions to follow, which put an end to Newgarden’s chance for a win.

Now, Team Penske is winless through the first eight races, something that hasn’t happened with the powerhouse team since the IndyCar season started 20 years ago. Team Penske went winless through the first seven races in 2013 before Helio Castroneves won at Texas in the eighth race of the season.

“We haven’t completed it yet (season). so I don’t know how to look at it yet completely,” Newgarden said of Team Penske’s season. “If I’m looking at half of it, it seems OK. It’s not exactly what we wanted, but it’s not too bad and we’re in the hunt. We have halfway to go, so a lot of races to hopefully still be in this fight.”

Newgarden sits fourth in points, 51 behind O’Ward. He won 15 races for Team Penske from 2017-2020, including series titles in 2017 and 2019, finishing runner-up to Dixon last season.