Colton Herta Marcus Ericsson

Marcus Ericsson returns to Indianapolis Motor Speedway this week as a driver to beat not only for the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge, which he won last year, but also the NTT INDYCAR SERIES championship, a season-long pursuit which he leads.

A third-place finish in last weekend’s third race of the season, the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, has Ericsson leading the standings heading to the two-day open test on the IMS oval that begins Thursday. Ericsson holds a 15-point advantage over Pato O’Ward.

It has been quite a calendar year for Ericsson on and off the track. He has frequently been honored as the “500” champion while trying to maintain his progression toward becoming an INDYCAR SERIES champion, and in that he has fared better than many would have expected.

Last year’s Indy double-points win vaulted him to the series lead, and he remained first or second place in the standings through the seven events that followed. He faded a bit in the late going, settling for the sixth position, but this year he has resumed his strong pace.

Driving the No. 8 Huski Chocolate Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, Ericsson won the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, finished eighth in the XPEL 375 at Texas Motor Speedway and came home third in Long Beach. His finishes have been propelled by an average starting position that is better than four spots higher than his 2022 average, and he has three consecutive top-10 finishes for the first time since last year’s doubleheader at Iowa Speedway.

Sunday’s finish was his eighth in the top three in the past 30 races dating to his first series win – 2021 in the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix at Belle Isle – and he has two additional top-fives in that span.

And he can’t wait to get back to IMS, where he feels good about his chances to become the first repeat winner of the “500” since Helio Castroneves in 2002.

“Over the last couple of seasons, my consistency has been my key, to always be there,” he said. “I think Texas last race was a good example of that. We had a bad day, but we still finished eighth. That is consistency.

“Yeah, we need to keep doing that to win a championship. I think that's what Will (Power) did last year (to win the season title) – he was so consistently up there. He only won one race, but he was always up there scoring big points.

“In this series the way we get the points here, the way we win is consistency and being up there in the top eight, top five every time. It's how you win the championship.”

Luck comes into play, as well, and Ericsson had a good dose of it at Long Beach on Lap 26. Ericsson was in the far left lane in a bid to overtake Kyle Kirkwood for second place when O’Ward came charging up on the inside as they approached Turn 8. O’Ward admittedly overcooked the corner and spun in his bid to avoid hitting Kirkwood’s car.

Ericsson was trapped behind O’Ward’s car rear-first in the tire barrier, and he lightly clipped the front of the No. 5 Arrow McLaren Racing Chevrolet. Ericsson then took a bump on the right rear from Andretti Autosport’s Romain Grosjean. Fortunately, the damage to Ericsson’s car was minimal at both corners, but the madness left Ericsson in eighth place.

The Swede had to use the remaining two-thirds of the race to battle back. Finishing on the podium and retaking the points lead was a big improvement from a year ago, when he was eighth in the standings leaving Long Beach.

“The only sort of issue we had in the race was that restart when Pato decided to dive down there and try to take out a lot of cars,” Ericsson said. “Got caught out in that. Had to almost stop the car. I think I lost five or six positions there. From there on, it was tough.

“We had the pace in the car to fight for the win. So, it was a good recovery to come back and still finish on the podium. I think the pace on the last stint was amazing. Really, really happy.”

Ericsson said the comeback gave him “a lot of confidence” heading to the next race, the Children’s of Alabama Indy Grand Prix on Sunday, April 30 at Barber Motorsports Park.

“I think we've been really strong,” he said. “Last year already, we were fighting for the championship and leading the championship for a long time. Was disappointed to miss out on that, but I used that as motivation this winter to work hard on myself and my team. I think we've come out even stronger this year.

“Winning in St. Pete showed that. We had a good weekend on a bad weekend in Texas, quite a good result. Again (last) weekend, we had tremendous speed; we're definitely in the fight. Leading the championship feels good, but it's a long way to go. We need to keep focused and keep working hard.”

Ericsson is part of a Chip Ganassi Racing outfit that has the attention of all eyes heading into this week’s IMS test. Team drivers Scott Dixon and Alex Palou had the fastest two cars in last year’s final round of qualifying, and Ericsson earned the fifth starting position. Takuma Sato, a “500” winner in 2017 and 2020, is the team’s fourth driver this year.

How CGR stacks up against the field at IMS might not be fully apparent this week, but the battles between its drivers against those from Arrow McLaren Racing, Team Penske, Andretti Autosport and the rest will be interesting to watch.

Thursday’s session will be from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., with Friday’s action set for 10 a.m.-4 p.m. The Turn 2 viewing mounds at IMS will be open for public viewing. The test will be streamed live on Peacock for U.S. residents and internationally on INDYCAR LIVE! The INDYCAR Radio Network also will cover the test from 3-6 p.m. Thursday and from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Friday.