Marcus Ericsson

Marcus Ericsson knows he is the underdog in this year’s battle for the Astor Challenge Cup, sitting fifth in the standings with three races remaining in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES season.

The driver of the No. 8 Huski Chocolate Chip Ganassi Racing Honda isn’t taking offense to his underdog status, understanding it has nothing to do with his abilities behind the wheel of a car and everything to do with the fact he’s 60 points behind leader Pato O’Ward.

Ericsson knows that things can, and likely will, change quickly in what has been an unpredictable 2021 season.

“If we were 10 points behind, we’d be right there,” Ericsson said. “But now, three races to go and 60 points, it can change quickly, but there are other people that have a better chance. We don’t mind that. That’s a good thing. We’re hunting. It’s always easier to hunt than to be hunted.

“Things can happen in these last three races. If we can continue to be consistent and not make any mistakes, we’re going to be in the mix.”

Ericsson might face the biggest uphill battle on the path to the NTT INDYCAR SERIES championship, but in his eyes, he’s playing with house money.

The Swede is arguably the hottest driver in the second half of this season. Since the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge in May, Ericsson has scored the most points of any driver in the field. He’s one of the winningest drivers this season, with two victories, tied with O’Ward, Alex Palou and Josef Newgarden.

He also hasn’t finished outside the top 10 since his 11th-place result in the “500,” and he’s tied with Newgarden for the best average finish of the championship contenders over the last month at 6.3.

Ericsson said coming into this season, his main goal was simply to earn his first NTT INDYCAR SERIES victory. He accomplished that at Belle Isle-1 in June and backed it up with another in the Streets of Nashville in August.

Since his win in Nashville, Ericsson has finished ninth in each of the last two races, one on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and another at World Wide Technology Raceway. He admitted those two finishes were disappointing for the team. But with a little retrospect, it quickly turns to pride.

“I think one thing that’s pretty telling, which is quite cool, is going into this year a top 10 was something that was a really good result,” he said. “Now, the last two races, we’ve finished ninth, and the whole No. 8 group has been a bit disappointed because we felt like that was a bad day for us.

“I think that shows a lot on how we’ve progressed this year and how we see things now that a ninth-place finish is a disappointing result. Definitely going into this year that wasn’t the case.”

The three-race trip down the West Coast to finish the season starts this Sunday with the Grand Prix of Portland (3 p.m. ET, live on NBC) before heading to WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca (Sept. 19) and the Streets of Long Beach (Sept. 26).

It’s a grueling grind that could pose a challenging start for Ericsson, who has never raced at Portland International Raceway.

Still, his success this season has renewed confidence in himself after a challenging career in Formula One. In five seasons split between Caterham, Sauber and Alfa Romeo, his best result was an eighth-place finish in 2015 in Australia.

He admits things were getting tough near the end of his F1 career in 2018. Running for a bottom-of-the-grid team, when a top-10 finish can feel like a win, takes its toll on a driver.

Ericsson said his move to the NTT INDYCAR SERIES in 2019 was a fresh start, reinvigorating his racing career at age 28 and helping him realize he still had what it takes compete in a highly competitive series.

He wished the results in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES would have come sooner, but he’ll take the wins in year three. His newfound success has given credence to the thought that he might be one of INDYCAR’s new stars alongside O’Ward, Palou, Colton Herta, Rinus VeeKay and several other new athletes making a name for themselves (Ericsson, who turned 31 on Sept. 2, finds it funny he gets lumped into the same category as the new, young drivers on the scene.)

Ericsson admits that he doesn’t “really dream way too much” about lofty goals, instead focusing on making himself and his team the best they can be in the moment. The big items, such as the Astor Challenge Cup, he believes will come due to those short-term goals.

That’s not to say he doesn’t aspire to win the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge or the championship, because he certainly does. There’s a strong desire to match his mentor and fellow Swede Kenny Brack, who took him under his wing when he was 15 and molded him into a Formula One and NTT INDYCAR SERIES driver.

Ericsson can vividly remember his childhood days growing up in Kumla, Sweden, and staying up late to watch INDYCAR SERIES races with his dad, cheering on Brack, a 1998 INDYCAR SERIES champion and 1999 Indy 500 winner.

Coming from a non-racing family, making a career out of this never felt like realistic option. Ericsson was a talented ice hockey player, as well, and the latter being the more financially sensible passion always felt like the route he would take.

But after renting go-karts for fun at age 8, his dad bought him a go-kart at age 9, and he began racing. For the next six years, he won several races and championships, catching the eye of Brack.

Thanks to Brack’s success and influence on Sweden, he always knew the NTT INDYCAR SERIES was a possible landing spot. When he found out he was not returning to the Formula One paddock in 2018, Ericsson began exploring NTT INDYCAR SERIES options in America, even if his fellow racers found the career path “strange.”

Now, the man who never realistically thought he would become a race car driver – the same one who thought maybe his career was coming to an end three years ago – is vying for his first NTT INDYCAR SERIES title.