Marcus Ericsson

Some drivers might have been satisfied with a 13th-place qualifying effort in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES, but it’s below expectations for championship leader Marcus Ericsson.

The Swede holds a 15-point advantage over rival Pato O’Ward through three rounds in the title race for the Astor Challenge Cup and will be tasked with needing a yeoman’s drive to maintain – or extend – that margin in Sunday’s Children’s of Alabama Indy Grand Prix at Barber Motorsports Park (3 p.m. ET on NBC, Peacock; 2:30 p.m. INDYCAR Radio Network).

Ericsson’s weekend began with a respectable fifth in opening practice Friday afternoon, but he drifted down the running order to 10th in second practice Saturday morning. Despite recognizing some key setup changes to revert back to for qualifying, it wasn’t enough to advance out of Round 1 on the “go-fast” portion of the weekend, and Ericsson ended up as the highest-ranking driver to not make the Firestone Fast 12.

Uniquely, the pace of the field didn’t quicken as qualifying went on; it slowed as the rounds continued. Ericsson’s flying lap of 1 minute, 5.9207 seconds (125.605 mph) around the 2.3-mile, 17-turn natural terrain road course during the first round would have put him third on the starting grid if he registered that lap during the Firestone Fast Six.

“I think yesterday we were really happy, and then today in the morning session we felt like the car was not as good,” said Ericsson, driver of the No. 8 Huski Chocolate Chip Ganassi Racing Honda. “So, we went back a little bit to what we had yesterday, and it felt a lot better. I think the car was pretty nice to drive, but it's missing a few tenths (of a second), so we need to look at that. Disappointing, but it is what it is.”

Charging through the field at Barber Motorsports Park, a place known for its difficult passing opportunities, is nothing new for Ericsson. In three starts, he carries a 12.7 average starting position that is bettered by a ninth-place average finish. His best showing came in 2019, when he rose from 20th to finish seventh.

There are also a couple of important statistics Ericsson wants to keep intact this weekend. He is one of only two drivers, the other being Ganassi teammate Alex Palou, to finish in the top 10 in all three races this season. Additionally, Ericsson, Palou and fellow teammate Scott Dixon, along with Arrow McLaren’s O’Ward, are the only drivers to score multiple top-five results.

While traffic has been a major topic of the weekend, with the majority of the 27-car field mentioning an inability to get in a clean lap, Ericsson isn’t using that as an excuse for a frustrating showing in qualifying. Instead, he’s already zeroing in on the 12 drivers ahead that stand in his way Sunday.

“No, I think when we split it up like this, it's not a big issue,” said Ericsson, referencing the split groups in Round 1. “It's worse in the practice session, so I can't blame traffic this time. We just lacked a little bit of speed, but still, we're still not too bad.

“You know, we're in the mix there in the middle of the field, so we can still have a strong result tomorrow.”