Yes, Marcus Ericsson has peeked at the NTT INDYCAR SERIES standings – how could he not?
Last time Indianapolis Motor Speedway saw the third-year INDYCAR driver, he was mid-pack, finishing 11th in the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge to climb to 10th in the standings.
That was then; this is now.
If not for fellow Chip Ganassi Racing drivers Alex Palou and Scott Dixon leading the championship with five races remaining, Ericsson’s recent charge might be the talk of the midseason. Don’t look now, but the winner of two of the five races since the “500” has climbed to fifth in the standings.
Since the “500” on May 30, Ericsson has scored more points than any other INDYCAR driver, 31 more than Palou, 37 more than Dixon, and 42 more than Pato O’Ward and Josef Newgarden, the other two drivers ahead of him in the standings.
Can Ericsson completely erase the early championship deficit he was in? Still 79 points to overcome, it seems like a big ask. But the Swede has at least allowed himself to ask the question – can he win the Astor Cup? – because the opportunity is within reach.
“I’ve said I don’t want to look too much at the championship until September and then sort of focus in on a goal (then),” he said Friday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, site of Saturday’s Big Machine Spiked Coolers Grand Prix. “But yeah, it’s impossible not to look at the championship and see we’ve been closing in on it quite a lot since the Month of May. We’re getting closer to the frontrunners.”
Ericsson’s timing coincides with his 31st birthday Sept. 2, relevant considering how much time he has spent in the sport. If he finishes fifth or higher in the standings this year, it will be his best finish in a full-season pursuit since winning Japan’s Formula 3 championship in 2009.
Before starting a five-year run in Formula One, Ericsson finished sixth in GP2. He never finished higher than 17th in F1 and was 12th in INDYCAR last year.
Now here he is, in title contention with the No. 8 Huski Chocolate Honda that has posted three top-10 finishes on the IMS road course in its past four starts.
“I try not to think about it, but how could you not?” he said of a potential shot at the title. “We’ve scored the most points of anyone since May, so that’s something. Who knows?”
Ericsson will start 11th in Saturday’s 85-lap race (12:30 p.m. ET, NBC and the INDYCAR Radio Network).
Ericsson’s Nashville Adventure
Many in the INDYCAR paddock are still buzzing over the height Ericsson’s car achieved after hitting the back of Sebastien Bourdais’ No. 14 ROKiT/AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet in the Lap 5 restart of last week’s Big Machine Music City Grand Prix, especially after going on to win the inaugural race in Nashville, Tennessee.
Ericsson said his car’s floor and front suspension suffered minor damage, but it was “obviously nothing major because we still had speed in the car.” Still, he feared the car was going to “break in half” on landing, and he came close to shutting off the engine before the wing broke free, allowing the right front wheel to resume rolling.
Seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion and Ganassi teammate Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Carvana Honda) said he saw a photograph of the car before the race was over but didn’t initially know whose car it was.
“I just assumed that car was out of the race,” Johnson said. “Then later I found out it was Marcus’, and he wins the damn thing!
“Seeing that, any of my concerns about (INDYCAR cars) riding rough and the suspension being strong enough to handle these type of things kind of went away.”
Dixon, the driver of the No. 9 PNC Bank Grow Up Great Honda, has been in the sport 21 years and has seen several cars break their front wings, get out of pit sequence and finish the race with a good result or even win, as Ericsson did. Thus, when Dixon’s strategist, Mike Hull, described what happened to Ericsson on the radio, Dixon replied with prophetic words.
“I (said), ‘OK, he’s broken the front wing and he’s flipped up in the air; he’ll probably win now,’ because that used to be a thing with a lot of our street course races,” Dixon said. “Whoever had to replace a front wing had a very high percentage of winning the race.
“Of course, that’s what happened.”
Castroneves Still Working Way Back
Helio Castroneves, who has not been a full-time INDYCAR driver since 2017, concedes he is still rusty on road courses, even as he finished ninth last week on the temporary street circuit in Nashville.
“I felt it was a good result, but I’m still off (the expected pace),” he said.
Castroneves has already been confirmed to Meyer Shank Racing’s No. 06 Honda for next season, so he hopes to use the final four road courses of 2021 to work back into INDYCAR shape. That begins Saturday on this 14-turn, 2.439-mile circuit, where he has finished 21st, 20th and 21st in his past three starts.
“You’ve got to keep running, getting laps and improving because testing is so limited,” he said. “Testing would be great to have because you get rid of the silly things, like seats, the steering grip.
“For example, the first practice in Nashville, I couldn’t focus on my details; I had to focus on the track. So, the next step was, what are you feeling? I didn’t know; I was still learning the track. It’s progress. I’m so far behind, but I’m catching. Hopefully by the last race of the season we’ll be right up there.”
Castroneves will start 23rd in Saturday’s race.
Miller Honored alongside Castroneves
Four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves was the featured selection to the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America’s 2022 class announced at IMS. But it was a member of the 2021 class – veteran journalist Robin Miller, who was publicly honored for the first time Friday – who, as usual, stole the show.
Miller is battling cancer and leukemia, hospitalized as recently as Thursday. His body was weak, but his voice and memory strong, and he delivered an emotional “thank you” to all of the motorsports legends and lifelong friends who have helped him through this difficult period.
“If I don’t get up tomorrow morning,” Miller said, “I’ve had a great life.”
When informed of the honor last year, Miller said he questioned the selection given the on-track heroics of his racing heroes. He singled out Bob Sweikert, Jim Hurtubise, Jimmy Bryan, Mario Andretti, A.J. Foyt, Parnelli Jones and 18-time Indy-winning car owner, Roger Penske, the latter of whom was in attendance.
“(I) shouldn’t even be in the same sentence (as them),” Miller said.
More than 200 people vote for the Hall of Fame, including journalists, historians and hall members. Miller joked about legendary drag racer Don Prudhomme calling him.
“You owe me,” Miller recalled Prudhomme saying. “I voted for you.”
Odds and Ends
- Rinus VeeKay is behind the wheel of the No. 21 Sonax/Autogeek Chevrolet of Ed Carpenter Racing that he drove to victory with in the GMR Grand Prix on May 15. That was the first win of his INDYCAR career. He started seventh in that race; he will grid in the ninth position Saturday.
- VeeKay’s teammate, Conor Daly, is nursing a sore right wrist after competing last week on Nashville’s bumpy and twisty street circuit. The driver of the No. 20 U.S. Air Force Chevrolet of Ed Carpenter Racing initially injured the wrist in GMR Grand Prix when his car made contact with Simon Pagenaud’s No. 22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet in the race’s first corner. “The wheel snapped out of my hand and whipped the wrist,” he said. “(Nashville) kind of reignited (the pain), but it’s not a big issue.” He will start eighth in Saturday’s race.
- Pato O’Ward (No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet) said there was a positive from last weekend’s Nashville race. “In terms of mixing up the championship, it did the job,” he said. O’Ward’s 13th-place finish dropped him from second to third in the point standings. He won the NTT P1 Award pole here, his third No. 1 starting position of the season.
- INDYCAR rookie Romain Grosjean (No. 51 Nurtec ODT Honda of Dale Coyne Racing with RWR) has photographs of his family on his helmet this weekend. His wife and three children have been vacationing with him in the U.S. over the past few weeks. They will return to Europe after Saturday’s race to begin school. Grosjean won the pole for the May 15 race here; he will start third this time.
- Jimmie Johnson had his former NASCAR crew chief, Chad Knaus, on his pit stand during qualifying. Johnson earned the 22nd starting position, only 1.1 seconds behind pole sitter O’Ward. He outqualified Indy 500 winners Castroneves (23rd) and Dixon (26th).