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A new points leader, a surprise stand-in and late-race meltdowns: Detroit Winners, losers

Indianapolis Star logo Indianapolis Star 6/16/2021 Nathan Brown, Indianapolis Star

IndyCar’s Detroit Grand Prix doubleheader was dominated by Felix Rosenqvist’s scary crash partway through Race 1, and the impending relief run of Oliver Askew – returning to the team that ousted him eight months prior.

Given that Rosenqvist was able to leave DMC Detroit Receiving Hospital on Sunday morning without any known significant injuries, we can now look at the 7th and 8th races of the 2021 season from a wider lens. Motorsports Insider Nathan Brown breaks down the five biggest winners and losers of the weekend.

Marcus Ericsson, of Sweden, celebrates winning the first race of the IndyCar Detroit Grand Prix auto racing doubleheader on Belle Isle in Detroit, Saturday, June 12, 2021. © Paul Sancya, AP Marcus Ericsson, of Sweden, celebrates winning the first race of the IndyCar Detroit Grand Prix auto racing doubleheader on Belle Isle in Detroit, Saturday, June 12, 2021.

WINNERS

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Pato O’Ward

Coming off the Month of May, the Arrow McLaren SP driver was filled with mixed emotions. He’d improved his running in the Indianapolis 500 from 6th a year ago to 4th, but felt his team lacked the speed to truly battle. And what’s more, he said, they were all out of bad weekends, after finishing 15th in the GMR Grand Prix and 19th in St. Pete.

But O’Ward put on one of the best doubleheader weekend showings we’ve seen since Graham Rahal’s two-win weekend in 2017 at Detroit. Grabbing his third-career pole to set the tone, as did finishing 3rd while his team was worried about the health of his teammate Rosenqvist following his crash. But to pass five cars over the final 15 laps of Race 2 was pure mastery. Even with just a one-point lead entering the second half of the season, O'Ward has firmly planted himself on the short-list of drivers with a series title chance come the season-ending west coast swing.

Marcus Ericsson

It got lost in the craziness Saturday, combined with another race less than 20 hours later, but Ericsson finally breaking through for his first IndyCar win is a major milestone for the Swedish driver. He hadn’t won a race of any kind since 2013 in GP2 (now Formula 2), and when your team owner’s slogan is, “I like winners,” the longer you go without doing so, you can’t help but wonder what the future holds.

With the victory, Ericsson vaults himself to 7th in the season points race, ahead of big names like Graham Rahal, Colton Herta, Will Power, Alexander Rossi and others. Outside of finishing 19th in Race 1 at Texas, plagued by a late pitstop issue, the consistency Ericsson often showed in 2020 has only increased.

a person talking on a cell phone: Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing driver Santino Ferrucci (45) laughs with crew members Thursday, May 20, 2021, before day three of practice for the 105th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. © Mykal McEldowney/IndyStar Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing driver Santino Ferrucci (45) laughs with crew members Thursday, May 20, 2021, before day three of practice for the 105th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing

It wasn’t easy, but the team that’s talked about making the jump to three full-time cars proved again this weekend they have the pieces in place. After Santino Ferrucci crashed in qualifying just three hours ahead of the start of Race 2, the organization went to work and put together a Frankenstein-like backup car for the part-time driver.

After he finished 6th on Saturday, following his 6th-place finish in the 500, Ferrucci managed to get the car home in 10th. In all, the team ran 4th, 5th and 6th Saturday and all three finished in the top-12 Sunday (5th, 10th and 12th). Rahal’s pair of 5th-place runs gives him five on the year.

a person talking on a cell phone: Chip Ganassi Racing driver Alex Palou (10) waves to racing fans during a parade, Saturday, May 29, 2021, on Main Street in Speedway, Indiana. © Grace Hollars/Indianapolis Star Chip Ganassi Racing driver Alex Palou (10) waves to racing fans during a parade, Saturday, May 29, 2021, on Main Street in Speedway, Indiana.

Alex Palou

Even before we learned of the Spaniard’s six-place grid penalty for Saturday’s race following an unapproved engine change before the 500, there was little doubt the doubleheader weekend for the Ganassi driver would be a tough climb. He’d never tested on the track, let alone raced, while inheriting the points lead after a 2nd-place Indy 500 finish. That’s a lot of pressure to heap on a young, energetic driver who crashed in 500 qualifying because he was trying too hard.

Palou made up 10 places Saturday after starting last to finish a respectable 15th, and he capitalized Sunday, finishing on the podium in 3rd. With O’Ward’s double-podium weekend, Palou ceded 38 points to the AMSP driver and the current series lead. But we now head to a track where Palou had his two best races as a rookie a year ago – and one where Ganassi swept the weekend in 2020. Don’t expect him to fade soon.

a man wearing a hat: Arrow McLaren SP driver Oliver Askew (7) prepares to put on his helmet before the third day of practice for the 104th Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Friday, Aug. 14, 2020. © Mykal McEldowney/IndyStar Arrow McLaren SP driver Oliver Askew (7) prepares to put on his helmet before the third day of practice for the 104th Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Friday, Aug. 14, 2020.

Oliver Askew

His last-place finish in Sunday’s race, more than 20 laps down after a mechanical gremlin ended his day prematurely in his return to the No. 7 Arrow McLaren SP Chevy, was irrelevant. Askew’s concerns of drifting out of the series’ consciousness were very real. IndyCar has a bulk of promising talent coming through the ranks in the Road to Indy, young IndyCar drivers that look primed to get better and veterans not the slightest bit ready to retire.

It proves Askew’s capable and willing to learn on the fly, and it was also a show of support that his publicly-messy split with AMSP a year ago didn’t seem to have anything to do with ill-will toward him. Eventually, his return to the sport will likely have to do with acquiring sponsorship of his own, but making headlines and getting back in the car – with another possible stand-in drive coming this weekend at Road America – can do nothing but help the 2019 Indy Lights champ.

LOSERS

a man wearing a hat: Despite leading 67 of the 70 laps in Sunday's Race 2 of the Detroit Grand Prix, Josef Newgarden had to settle for 2nd-place, leaving Team Penske still searching for their first win of 2021. © Provided by IndyCar Despite leading 67 of the 70 laps in Sunday's Race 2 of the Detroit Grand Prix, Josef Newgarden had to settle for 2nd-place, leaving Team Penske still searching for their first win of 2021.

Team Penske

The way they lost both races this weekend – a doubleheader promoted by Penske Corp. officials – was painful enough. With five laps to go, IndyCar called for a red flag to try and finish the race under green-flag conditions after Romain Grosjean’s accident. But after Will Power came to a stop in pitlane, his car failed to refire. The ensuing restart came and went without him, and he was left giving a profanity-laden tirade on TV from pitlane moments later.

Sunday saw Josef Newgarden lead the first 67 laps of a 70-lap race, but fall victim to fast-wearing Firestone red tires that he and strategist Tim Cindric had originally planned to run for a much shorter final stint. The flow of the race prevented that, and he didn’t have the grip to contend with O’Ward’s fast-charging car. Together, it means the organization has gone the first eight races of an IndyCar season without a win for the first time since 1999 in CART. In a year with so much parity, and where they’ve finished second in five of the eight races, with seven total podiums, they haven’t yet had the right combo of luck, speed and strategy – quite possibly the season’s biggest surprise.

a person sitting on a suitcase: After starting seventh, IndyCar rookie Romain Grosjean finished 10th in his series debut at Barber Motorsports Park. © Karl Zemlin, IndyCar After starting seventh, IndyCar rookie Romain Grosjean finished 10th in his series debut at Barber Motorsports Park.

Romain Grosjean

His IndyCar season went on pause following a miraculous pole and eventual runner-up finish on the IMS road course nearly a month ago, and that run left many eager to see how he’d fair. But two DNFs in 23rd and 24th showed just how cruel this sport can be – particularly after Grosjean started 3rd and 5th, respectively, in Detroit.

As a permanent road course where he’s been able to test earlier this month, Road America certainly offers a better chance for the former F1 driver to succeed, but he’s now seen just how razor-thin the line between a good and bad weekend can be in IndyCar.

a man in a blue uniform holding a baseball bat: Andretti Autosport driver Alexander Rossi (27) gets ready as track crews work to clean a fuel spill in Rossi's pit box Friday, May 28, 2021, during Carb Day at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Rossi was held back for 5 minutes at the beginning of practice as a penalty. © Mykal McEldowney/IndyStar Andretti Autosport driver Alexander Rossi (27) gets ready as track crews work to clean a fuel spill in Rossi's pit box Friday, May 28, 2021, during Carb Day at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Rossi was held back for 5 minutes at the beginning of practice as a penalty.

Andretti Autosport

Even Colton Herta’s 4th-place in Sunday’s Race 2 was relatively disappointing, given he ran so much of the race in 2nd and was closing fast on Newgarden. Two late restarts resulted in Herta, among others, struggling to re-warm his tires and keep up with O’Ward. With a 14th-place finish Saturday, the St. Pete winner continues quite a yo-yo of a year.

And as has been the case essentially all season-long, Herta’s teammates struggled. Alexander Rossi managed his fourth top-10 of the year Saturday but is still without a top-5, and Ryan Hunter-Reay and James Hinchcliffe were outside the top-10 both days. In a year IndyCar has shown the most parity in quite some time, this team has been the one shuffled backwards the most.

Scott Dixon wearing a uniform: Scott Dixon looks on before the start of Race 2 at the Detroit Grand Prix, where he finished 7th, putting him 3rd presently in the title race. © Joe Skibinski/IndyCar Scott Dixon looks on before the start of Race 2 at the Detroit Grand Prix, where he finished 7th, putting him 3rd presently in the title race.

Scott Dixon

It’s not often we go a weekend without hardly talking about Scott Dixon, but the Ice Man was relatively invisible during a doubleheader he entered second in the points standings. It wasn’t that Dixon ran particularly poorly – improving from 11th to 8th in Race 1 and dropping one spot after starting 6th in Race 2. But after such a frustrating Indy 500, where he started on pole and had an untimely caution take him from contention, we expected to see the hard-charging six-time series champ return to form.

He sits with an identical deficit at the start of the weekend – 36 points – but is now in 3rd. This stretch of four races has had a similar feeling to the one from Mid-Ohio to the IMS road course a year ago, when Dixon went in holding enough a gap on Newgarden that he could hold onto the championship, but seemed a bit out of sorts. He goes now to a track he won on a year ago, but is no longer a sure-fire championship favorite.

a baseball player holding a bat: Carlin driver Max Chilton (59) waits to take the track Saturday, May 22, 2021, during qualifying for the 105th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. © Mykal McEldowney/IndyStar Carlin driver Max Chilton (59) waits to take the track Saturday, May 22, 2021, during qualifying for the 105th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Max Chilton

A pair of 22nd-place finishes for Chilton and his Carlin team in Detroit puts his No. 59 Chevy solidly last in the entrants points race for one of the 22 Leaders Circle spots – 22 points behind Dalton Kellett and 11 more behind the No. 7 Arrow McLaren SP car. If his car isn’t shutting down early in the St. Pete race or meandering in the bottom half of the 500, Chilton’s suffering a damaged front wing during Lap 1 of Race 2 after running into the back of James Hinchcliffe when the field backed up.

Team officials have assured the IndyStar that Carlin’s lack of performance this year doesn’t have them considering leaving the series, but they’ve never properly found their footing – outside of a couple oval races with Conor Daly a year ago – since their first season in 2018.

Email IndyStar motor sports reporter Nathan Brown at nlbrown@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter: @By_NathanBrown.

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: A new points leader, a surprise stand-in and late-race meltdowns: Detroit Winners, losers

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