Had Lap 61 at Barber Motorsports Park gone differently for Rinus VeeKay, followers of the NTT INDYCAR SERIES might be thinking differently about the third-year Ed Carpenter Racing driver heading to this month’s races at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Starting on pole as the NTT P1 Award winner, VeeKay was leading the Honda Grand Prix of Alabama presented by AmFirst on May 1 when it was time to make his final pit stop. The problem was, a slower car interrupted his smooth entry to pit road, allowing second-place Pato O’Ward of Arrow McLaren SP to trim what had been a 2.5-second gap between them.
VeeKay’s crew got the No. 21 SONAX Chevrolet serviced and out in front of O’Ward, but VeeKay was so preoccupied with O’Ward’s proximity that he forgot to use his push-to-pass boost getting up to speed. At Turn 5, O’Ward ducked under him to take the lead. Moments later, Chip Ganassi Racing’s Alex Palou squeezed in front of VeeKay by virtue of pitting two laps later and running quicker laps in clean air.
When the pit sequence cycled through, VeeKay was in third place and befuddled by how his control of the race and a chance at a second career INDYCAR SERIES victory had slipped away.
“Unfortunately, I didn’t push enough on that out lap,” a disappointed VeeKay said after finishing third. “Another lesson learned, unfortunately the hard way.”
There likely is no better place than IMS to offer VeeKay a bounce-back. He will be the reigning champion of the GMR Grand Prix when practice begins at 9:30 a.m. (ET) Friday, and he has qualified in the top four for the past two Indianapolis 500s presented by Gainbridge. His third chance to win “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” comes Sunday, May 29.
Both IMS races air live on NBC and the INDYCAR Radio Network. The broadcast for the GMR Grand Prix is set for Saturday at 3 p.m. (ET).
VeeKay arrives at IMS action seventh in point standings after four races, again overshadowed by some of the biggest names in the sport. But the 21-year-old Dutch driver trails six-time series champion Scott Dixon by just seven points, Barber race winner O’Ward by eight, and he should be able to operate without the spotlight of the series’ most-recent race winner.
Know this: VeeKay’s confidence is rising by the race.
“Yeah, (Barber was) a big confidence booster,” he said. “We were very fast in qualifying, (and) we had the pace to win the race.
“I’m happy. I think coming into (IMS), I know the Indy road course is going to be good for us, and then the Indy 500. I think we’re in a good position.”
VeeKay’s performance at Barber is evidence of his rebound from the disappointing second half of last season. He was one of the stars of the first half of the year, winning the IMS road race and finishing eighth in the “500.” When VeeKay chased Marcus Ericsson to the finish line of Race 1 in Detroit, he was fourth in the standings after seven races with an average finish of 7.9.
Then the cycling accident occurred.
With a broken collarbone, VeeKay was forced to sit out the Road America race, and little went right from a results standpoint thereafter. Five of his final six races ended with finishes of 22nd or lower, and his average finish after returning from the cycling accident was 19.7. He tumbled to 12th in the standings, an opportunity lost, he felt.
With the crew supporting him intact for this season, VeeKay qualified fourth in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg and finished sixth. He was 10th in the XPEL 375 at Texas Motor Speedway, 13th in the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach and then third last week at Barber.
VeeKay seems to be back in the groove.
“(Barber) is the first road course of the season, (so) coming into the Indy Grand Prix I think you’re basically kind of on the same (chassis) setup,” he said. “Gives me good confidence going through there.
“Momentum always helps – positive vibes in the team, everyone being happy. I think this definitely helps. I think we can carry it through all the way till hopefully the end of the season.”
On-track activity for Friday and Saturday includes USF2000, Indy Pro 2000, Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires and the NTT INDYCAR SERIES. Tickets are available at IMS.com.