Pato O'Ward

Pato O’Ward was again wearing one of those red Firestone hats, honoring a top finisher in an NTT INDYCAR SERIES race, following Sunday’s PPG 375 at Texas Motor Speedway, but he preferred the one Josef Newgarden donned.

Newgarden’s winning hat proclaimed him “1st,” as in the position in which he finished. O’Ward’s hat declared a different outcome.

That O’Ward finished the race in the second position – and therefore received the “2nd” hat – came as something of a surprise given how well the driver of the No. 5 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet performed on this sunny afternoon. His car was so much in command through the middle portion of the race that 26 of the 27 other drivers had been lapped. Only Newgarden remained within striking distance of O’Ward, and even that separation was increasing with each move O’Ward made.

Ironically, it was one of O’Ward’s teammates – Felix Rosenqvist – who brought out the field-closing caution flag. The stoppage of intense action allowed the gap to Newgarden to be all but erased, and other drivers were given the opportunity to get back on the lead lap when the two frontrunners pitted on Lap 195 of 250.

Suddenly, O’Ward’s sure-fire win became in doubt, and that was cemented late in the race when O’Ward tucked in behind Newgarden just prior to Romain Grosjean’s wall contact in Turn 2 that brought out the race-ending caution flag.

Afterward, O’Ward predicted different results had the final lap and a half ended under green, and he based that on the way he had timed side-by-side runs with Newgarden over the preceding laps.

“Oh, yeah, I had the timing right,” he said of judging Newgarden’s pace on the inside lane. “The lap before we crossed the line my (car’s) nose was slightly in front of his. There was no way it was going to finish in single file. Yeah, (the) racing gods had other plans.”

As dejected as O’Ward was last month for losing the lead in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg when his engine plenum hiccuped on the final restart, he was more resigned at the conclusion of this race. Maybe the bigger picture won out, and even in defeat it is something to celebrate. After all, O’Ward, who has never finished higher than third in series points, has the early lead after starting the season with a pair of second-place finishes.

Maybe red hats such as these are fine for now.

“It’s been a hell of a start to the year,” O’Ward said while working a half-smile as he sat on the side of his car as Newgarden was honored nearby in victory lane.

O’Ward led 91 laps in this race – “I had a rocket, like I don’t think there’s another way to put it,” he said -- and served notice that he will again be a contender to win the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge on May 28 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. O’Ward finished second to Chip Ganassi Racing’s Marcus Ericsson in last year’s “500,” and Sunday’s performance is another example of how confident he and his team’s program are now on oval tracks, especially superspeedways such as Texas and Indy.

There have been 16 oval races since O’Ward joined this team for the start of the 2020 season, and he has finished in the top four in 12 of them with the 2021 victory here at Texas and last year’s win at Iowa Speedway. This is the fifth time he has finished second in such a race, and he had two other thirds and a pair of fourths. Interestingly, O’Ward and Newgarden have been first or second in five of those 16 oval races.

Scott McLaughlin led 186 laps in last year’s Texas race, and it wasn’t until pit stops that fewer than a dozen cars remained on the lead lap. But under green Sunday, O’Ward lapped everyone but Newgarden, and he also posted the race’s fastest lap at 221.090 mph. The performance certainly was worthy of wearing the best hat, even if he wasn’t awarded it.

“We’ve had two second-place finishes, so we’re still waiting for that win this year,” O’Ward said. “But that’s a great start to the championship year, and that’s what we need.

“We’re going to keep chipping at it to get that first win and then try to rack some more up.”

O’Ward’s next chance to reach victory lane comes Sunday, April 16 in the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, a street race that will air at 3 p.m. ET on NBC, Peacock, INDYCAR Live! and the INDYCAR Radio Network.