Pato O'Ward

Pato O’Ward couldn’t catch one Team Penske driver in Sunday’s season-opening NTT INDYCAR SERIES race, but he held off two others, which counts as a win.

If O’Ward is to win his first series championship in 2024, he will need performances like this one in the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg presented by RP Funding.

After starting third, O’Ward finished second in the 100-lap race and was no match for race winner Josef Newgarden. But finishing ahead of Scott McLaughlin and Will Power likely will prove to be important in the title chase. After all, 40 points earned is still 40 points to the good. The driver of the No. 5 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet will take those markers as he marches on.

After INDYCAR’s new non-points $1 Million Challenge on Sunday, March 24 at The Thermal Club in Southern California, O’Ward will be nicely position for the rest of the championship trail.

“(A) really strong day for us today,” said O’Ward, who effectively raced directly behind Newgarden from Lap 29 on. “(It was) a very solid foundation to what is going to be a tight, very competitive rest of the year. I think the Penske (cars) were just too strong for us today. I think we were all playing the fuel game a little bit, and I’ve got to give it to everybody at Chevrolet.

“My guys over at Arrow McLaren and we got down to work in the offseason. We’ve made some gains and really cool to see the top four (finishers) were all Chevrolets. I’m really pleased to that.”

Arrow McLaren and Team Penske delivered those top four finishers for Chevrolet. Colton Herta was the top-finishing Honda driver in fifth in the No. 26 Gainbridge Honda fielded by Andretti Global.

Sunday’s race was the 73rd series race of O’Ward’s career, and finishing on the podium has been a regular occurrence. He has now done that 21 times, and this was his 11th time to finish as the runner-up. Four of those finishes came last year, including in each of the first two races.

A year ago, O’Ward finished second to Marcus Ericsson in this race, but that one was significantly more painful.

O’Ward took the lead on Lap 74 of 100 when McLaughlin and Romain Grosjean bumped each other into the tire barrier in Turn 4 battling for the lead, and he appeared to be on his way to a fifth career series victory. Then heartbreak came. O’Ward’s engine hiccupped on a restart with four laps to go, allowing a momentary pause that was enough to let Ericsson slip by.

O’Ward hasn’t forgotten the sting of that moment. But this helped.

Now, the 24-year-old driver must avoid the struggles that sank his season a year ago.

Last year’s second-place finish and the one that followed at Texas Motor Speedway helped fuel a strong start to the season, with three runner-up finishes in the first five races. But then O’Ward crashed out of the next two races – the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge and the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix presented by Lear – to fall to fifth in the point standings. By year’s end, he was fourth.

O’Ward was asked what the secret will be this year to avoid such a bump in the middle part of the season.

“Well, stay cool, I guess,” he said. “That usually works out.

“It’s tough, it really is tough. As we saw today, mistakes will (be costly). You’re going to have to pay some if you’re going to be making mistakes, and that’s what you don’t want to be doing. With the hybrid (technology) coming in halfway through the season, you’ve got to be on it. There’s no room for error. You’ve got to leave those joker cards for mishaps that could happen when you introduce something new.”

That’s why holding off McLaughlin and Power figures to be important. McLaughlin finished third in last year’s standings and regards himself as one of the championship favorites. Power is a two-time series champion looking to rebound from going winless for the first season since 2006, and he, too, is capable of hoisting the Astor Challenge Cup in September.

And then there’s Newgarden, himself a two-time series champion who won four races last year, led by the “500.” He has a bad taste in his mouth after finishing fifth in the standings, and he looked this weekend to be driving on a mission. That’s why O’Ward is happy that despite Newgarden’s domination, he kept pace as much as possible.

“There’s no room for error anymore because the guys that you’re competing with also are winning races, and when they’re not winning races, they’re on the podium,” said O’Ward, whose best season finish was third in 2021. “So, this is where we have to be; this is where we have to maintain ourselves.

“I think if we keep approaching it as we have and be aware of who we’re racing and what we can accomplish each and every weekend.”