Notice anything about the way Pato O’Ward raced Saturday night, Aug. 21 at World Wide Technology Raceway? If it seemed he drove with a championship mentality, that apparently would be accurate.
As the driver of the No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet said following his second-place finish in the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 presented by Axalta and Valvoline, title contenders like him should now be racing with the bigger picture in mind.
“Just really being aware of who we’re racing and when,” he said. “To make your life easier, you score more points than the guys you’re fighting (for the championship).”
Then a big smile came over O’Ward’s face.
“It’s not really as easy as it sounds,” he said.
The battle for the 2021 NTT INDYCAR SERIES championship is indeed up for grabs as three drivers are within 22 points, four within 43 and five within 60. A driver can gain up to 54 points per race, with a maximum of 162 achievable over the last three races.
O’Ward leads Chip Ganassi Racing’s Alex Palou by 10 points, an order easily flipped by a result in any of the remaining three races.
The stretch run begins Sept. 12 with the Grand Prix of Portland at Portland International Raceway followed by the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca on Sept. 19 and finally the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach on Sept. 26.
O’Ward finished fourth in last year’s standings, but he wasn’t seriously in championship contention heading down the stretch. This year he is, and he realizes the challenges involved with it.
“I mean, you try not to think about it too much because there’s so much racing (to go),” he said. “Whenever it’s so competitive like this series is in INDYCAR, just a lot can shift in one race as we saw (at WWTR).
“You just always try to maximize every (on-track) session you’re in, whether it’s practice, qualifying or the race. Obviously, the race counts way more than the others. Yeah, you kind of just have to weigh it out and understand who you’re racing against.”
By virtue of winning at WWTR, Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden followed O’Ward into the media center for post-race interviews. As a two-time series champion and regular frontrunner since joining Roger Penske’s team, Newgarden knows how to approach the championship-deciding moments that are to come.
“When you go into (a) weekend, I think you’re just trying to maximize whatever your result is,” he said. “It’s really the best way to approach it.”
Newgarden went on to say those in contention – himself, O’Ward, Palou and Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon and Marcus Ericsson – can’t relax “about anything.”
“We’ve just got to keep doing what we’ve been doing,” he said. “We certainly have to be strong. We’re not in some cushiony position where we can just sit back and (let) anything happen to us. We can’t. We have to be solid.
“Hopefully we have a good, solid end here. If we do, that could add up to a championship.”