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Ferrucci's oval dominance has him in prime position for IndyCar Rookie of the Year. Will it last?

Indianapolis Star logo Indianapolis Star 8/25/2019 Tyler Kraft, Indianapolis Star
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MADISON, Ill — At the beginning of the IndyCar season, who would have guessed a rookie would be one of its best oval racers?

Yet, here Santino Ferrucci is with the third-highest average finishing position (6.2) with all five ovals completed. Only Josef Newgarden and Simon Pagenaud are better. Those two also happen to be Nos. 1 and 2 in the points standings.

Ferrucci's oval prowess has rocketed him into the lead for IndyCar Rookie of the Year over Felix Rosenqvist with two races remaining. Saturday's fourth-place finish puts him ninth overall, two points ahead of Rosenqvist.

"We're definitely able to show our pace a lot more confidently (on ovals)," Ferrucci said after Friday's qualifying. "I like the ovals because they're new to me. I have no bad habits really and I'm sure if I did, my spotter would tell me about it."

a man that is standing in the snow: Santino Ferrucci (19) of Dale Coyne Racing (pictured at IMS), has the third-highest average finishing position (6.2) with all five ovals completed. © Kerry Keating/For IndyStar Santino Ferrucci (19) of Dale Coyne Racing (pictured at IMS), has the third-highest average finishing position (6.2) with all five ovals completed.

The rookie's success comes with scrutiny. Ferrucci briefly lost control of his car heading around Gateway's final turn but regained his traction in time to retake the line.

The maneuver cut off Newgarden, forcing the championship leader onto the infield grass. While Newgarden was able to regain control, Ferrucci's move likely cost Newgarden at least two positions as he finished seventh. Newgarden later called Ferrucci's tactic "very risky."

In Ferrucci's mind, the move was about trying to capture his first IndyCar podium finish. The rookie led more laps than any driver and was attempting to track down Tony Kanaan for third place.

"Frankly, our race car was good enough to win this thing ..." Ferrucci told NBC Sports in his post-race interview. "At the end of the day, I did what I had to do to save the car. Unfortunately, (Newgarden) got the worst of it, but he did finish the race and still picked up some good championship points."

Ferrucci has been a polarizing figure throughout his career. A slew of incidents in Europe marked the 21-year-old as a delinquent to some racing fans.

While driving in F2, Ferrucci intentionally crashed into teammate Arjun Miani during a post-race cool down lap. This came after Ferrucci was penalized multiple times for forcing Miani off the track in prior incidents.

Ferrucci was also accused of racist behavior toward Miani and received fines for driving with his glove off and using his phone while in the car.

The rookie has been trying to put the past behind him since coming to IndyCar. Teammate Sebastien Bourdais backed Ferrucci's character before Saturday's race.

"He's a good kid," Bourdais said Friday. "He's obviously young and committed, and no fear whatsoever. ... He's definitely been fast, and it's great for Dale Coyne Racing."

The rookie says the return to IndyCar, and the United States, was desperately needed after his problematic stint in Europe. Ferrucci has not run into off-the-track troubles since joining IndyCar.

"You're under a super high stress microscope from Formula 1, which is obviously a pinnacle of motorsport," Ferrucci said Friday. "You come here, get to be yourself. ... I don't feel like anyone's really judged me coming back home and racing Indy cars."

Ferrucci is far from in the clear in the Rookie of the Year race. While he has impressed on ovals, Rosenqvist has been the more effective on road courses. 

Both Portland and Laguna Seca are road courses. With Laguna Seca counting for double points, it will come down to the final race to decide who takes home the accolade.

"I feel like we've been strong in some of the road courses and street races as well," Ferrucci said Friday. "Luck hasn't exactly gone our way like it has on the ovals."

Looking ahead

The IndyCar series championship is still wide open, but a few drivers didn't do themselves any favors Saturday.

Scott Dixon suffered a punctured radiator on the first lap, draining his car of water and ending his race after just 136 laps. Dixon had closed his gap on points leader Josef Newgarden to 52 points heading into Gateway. His 20th place finish now puts him 70 points behind Newgarden.

Alexander Rossi struggled to finish the Bommarito 500. After spending much of the race chasing Newgarden, Rossi slowly slipped toward the back of the pack, finishing 13th.

The middling finish allowed Simon Pagenaud to pass Rossi for the No. 2 spot in the points chase. This makes two consecutive races in which Rossi has had a sub-par finish and fallen further behind Newgarden. 

Rossi now sits 46 points behind Newgarden for the championship. Pagenaud is 38 points behind the leader.

The series now sets its sights on Portland. Gateway champion Takuma Sato won the Grand Prix when it returned to the Pacific Northwest in 2018.

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This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Ferrucci's oval dominance has him in prime position for IndyCar Rookie of the Year. Will it last?

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