As most races are at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Sunday's 106th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge was one for the history books.
In front of more than 325,000 race fans, Marcus Ericsson of Chip Ganassi Racing held off Pato O’Ward of Arrow McLaren and 2013 race winner Tony Kanaan of Chip Ganassi Racing in an exciting final two-lap chase.
Yet again, the “Sneaky Swede” came from seemingly nowhere to score his third career NTT INDYCAR SERIES victory. Ericsson’s other two wins came in Detroit and Nashville last season.
Records were broken and memories were made for the 33 drivers racing for glory in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” Allow us to shift our minds into fifth gear and unpack the largest single-day sporting event in the world.
Turn 1, Lap 200
The last-lap battle for the lead was the moment of the race -- two drivers going all-out for a win in the biggest motorsports event in the world, a win that quite literally defines a career.
Ericsson wanted it; so did O’Ward.
Ericsson was snaking his No. 8 Huski Chocolate Chip Ganassi Racing Honda down the main straightaway with O’Ward gaining ground in the No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet. As they approached the historic Yard of Bricks, Ericsson stayed low, with O’Ward darting to the outside. Approaching Turn 1, it was likely the last shot at victory for O’Ward.
O’Ward edged slightly ahead of Ericsson as they entered Turn 1, but Ericsson kept his foot in the throttle, refusing to give up an Indy 500 win without a fight. Ericsson said he knew he had the advantage being on the inside; all he had to do was hope O’Ward realized his disadvantage.
“I wanted to put him on the outside because I knew it was going to be hard to go around my outside,” Ericsson said. “I was not going to lift; there was no way I was going to lift. I just kept my foot down, and that was the race-winning move.”
Said O’Ward: “Staying on the inside helped him. I got alongside him, but we all know how that ends up on the last lap. No way he would have backed off.”
The attempted pass for the lead was reminiscent of the 2012 battle between Dario Franchitti and Takuma Sato. In that race, Sato ended up losing control as Franchitti sailed on to victory.
While this duel didn’t end in a crash, it was still an unforgettable battle for the Indy 500 win and a defining moment in the careers of Ericsson and O’Ward.
Palou Rallies for Top 10
Oh, what could have been.
Early in Sunday’s race, defending NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion Alex Palou looked to be one of the drivers to beat. He had started second and vaulted past pole sitter and teammate Scott Dixon in Turn 3 of the opening lap.
From there, Palou led 47 of the first 68 laps in the No. 10 NTT DATA Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, occasionally exchanging the lead with Dixon in the No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda as the teammates played a fuel-strategy game.
Palou’s day went downhill on Lap 69 as he entered pit lane for his second pit stop. As Palou approached the pit lane commitment line, the caution came out for rookie Callum Ilott’s Turn 2 incident in the No. 77 Juncos Hollinger Racing Chevrolet.
Palou did not stop in his pit box, instead driving through pit lane and merging back onto the track. Unfortunately, Palou didn’t have enough fuel in the car to run under caution until pit lane was opened. So, Palou made an emergency service for fuel in a closed pit.
That, however, is a penalty, and Palou had to go to the back of the field on the Lap 77 restart in 31st position.
Palou quietly rose through the field over the next 120 laps and managed a ninth-place finish – his second top 10 in three of these races. He finished second to Helio Castroneves of Meyer Shank Racing last year.
Ever the optimist, Palou’s outlook on his Indy 500 result was as happy as he usually is. It likely helped that he only fell from second to third in the championship standings, just 14 points behind teammate and points leader Ericsson.
“We had a really good car, led a bunch of laps, but unfortunately it wasn’t our day to make it happen,” he said. “We will keep knocking on that door. What an awesome experience to race with all the fans. It was mind blowing seeing the grandstands full.”
Malukas Highest Finishing Rookie
It wasn’t a star-studded debut, but rookie David Malukas kept his nose clean in his first Indy 500, coming home as the highest-finishing rookie in 16th.
The driver of the No. 18 HMD Honda of Dale Coyne Racing with HMD led a train of rookies behind him, with Kyle Kirkwood of AJ Foyt Racing finishing 17th, Christian Lundgaard of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing 18th and Devlin DeFrancesco of Andretti Steinbrenner Autosport 20th.
Malukas’ performance is all the more impressive as three other rookies crashed out of the race with incidents in Turn 2. Ilott wrecked on Lap 69 and finished 32nd, Romain Grosjean of Andretti Autosport wrecked on Lap 106 and finished 31st, and Jimmie Johnson of Chip Ganassi Racing wrecked on Lap 195 and finished 28th.
“We finished – we finished the race,” Malukas said. “It was everything I wanted. I wanted to finish the race and be the highest-finishing rookie, and we achieved both of those things today. I’m so happy.”
Ferrucci Keeps His Streak
You have to go back to 2018 to find the last time an Indianapolis 500-Mile race was held and Santino Ferrucci didn’t finish in the top 10. That’s because he wasn’t in that race.
Ferrucci drove to a 10th-place finish in the No. 23 Screamin Sicilian DRR Chevrolet. What’s even more impressive is the fact that it was actually his worst “500” finish in four starts. His previous results are seventh, fourth and sixth, respectively.
Ferrucci also ended his streak of leading at least one lap in each of his Indy 500 starts. We’re piling on here like it was a poor race for Ferrucci, but he ran in the top 10 and at times the top five in his first start for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing.
Ferrucci started the race in 15th – a career best start for him – and quickly raced through the field in a show of his open-wheel racing talent.
A Banner Day for Hildebrand
With a 12th-place finish in Sunday’s race, JR Hildebrand scored his best NTT INDYCAR SERIES finish in four years. He finished 11th in 2018.
Hildebrand drove a quiet race all day long in the No. 11 Homes For Our Troops / AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet, starting 17th and running on the edge of the top 10 throughout.
What’s more impressive is that Hildebrand’s good result came after two untimely cautions put him at the rear of the field twice throughout the 200-lap race. On an alternate strategy than the leaders to try to undercut the field, the strategy ultimately didn’t completely work out.
It was AJ Foyt Racing’s best Indy 500 finish since Tony Kanaan finished ninth for the organization in 2019.
“It was an eventful day,” Hildebrand said. “At the halfway point, it was looking a little grim in terms of where we were going to be as it was definitely hard to pass. I managed to make lemonade out of lemons for the second half of the race.”