LEEDS, Ala. — All it took was a change of mindset for Pato O'Ward to turn around his season.
Now he's on the verge of signing a new contract, and Sunday's win at Barber Motorsports Park moved O'Ward back into the IndyCar Series championship battle.
"It's all smiles and unicorns, man," he said after his first victory of 2022 and the third of his career.
The 22-year-old Mexican entered the season vocally unhappy about his current deal with Arrow McLaren SP, which has the popular driver signed through 2024 to team-friendly terms. O'Ward wanted more money, more assurances for his Formula One aspirations and a new contract.
When his unhappiness began to hurt his on-track performance, however, O'Ward made a conscious decision to compartmentalize his complaints and focus on his job — which he did quite well Sunday.
He used a strong outside pass of Rinus VeeKay, who had started in pole position, after both pitted for fresh tires with 28 laps remaining, with O'Ward taking the lead then driving away for the victory. It broke a Team Penske stranglehold on this year's IndyCar results after Scott McLaughlin won the season opener in St. Petersburg, Florida, and Josef Newgarden won the past two races at Texas Motor Speedway and in Long Beach, California.
"Man, it sucks to be at war within your own team, right? So I'm glad there's been more positive talks for the future," said O'Ward, who has agreed with McLaren on principle on an extension. "I was tired of being 10th and 11th and fifth, and I said 'Let's get a win under our belts so we can climb back into this championship race.'"
The victory rocketed O'Ward from ninth to fifth in the standings, and it came two weeks after, on the eve of the Long Beach race, he decided he didn't want to throw his season away over hurt feelings.
He dug deep for that top-five finish in California, huddled with McLaren head Zak Brown on the terms of an extension, then showed up in Alabama ready to win. After the late pit stop, VeeKay came out ahead, but O'Ward hunted him through the first four turns then used a brave move — and his push-to-pass horsepower jump — to get around the Ed Carpenter Racing driver and seize control of the race.
The win made Chevrolet 4-for-4 as IndyCar heads next to Indianapolis Motor Speedway — first for the May 14 event on the IMS road course and then the Indy 500 on May 29.
"The driver in our team is the quarterback, right? As the quarterback goes, the rest of the team goes. As the driver goes, the rest of the team goes," McLaren team president Taylor Kiel said. "He has such an infectious spirit, such an energy, that it's impactful to what we do in a very good way.
"I think we've got a driver that can compete and win at any circuit type. We put a good car together. If we come prepared, roll off the truck in a good window, it's hard to beat."
Alex Palou, the reigning series champion and the winner of last year's race at Barber, finished second for Chip Ganassi Racing and regained the lead in the points standings. Palou's attention then turned to Indianapolis, where he was the runner-up in last year's Indy 500.
VeeKay, who led a race-high 57 of the 90 laps, faded to third.
"I was so much looking in my mirrors that I forgot to use my push-to-pass," VeeKay said of the late lapse.
Will Power rallied from 19th to finish fourth, the best of the Penske drivers, while six-time IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon was fifth for Ganassi.
There were late-race fireworks between fellow Honda drivers Graham Rahal and Romain Grosjean as the two raced for position. An irate Rahal screamed over his radio: "That guys a punk! He hit me on purpose."
An animated Rahal was seen afterward smacking his arm into Alexander Rossi, Grosjean's teammate, to demonstrate Grosjean hitting Rahal's car.
"We touched a couple of times, but it was good racing," said Grosjean, who denied hitting Rahal on purpose. "No. No. No. It's IndyCar, wheel-to-wheel action."
Rahal didn't believe him.
"Look at that, look at how much room he has!" Rahal said watching the replay. "I'm just frustrated because this isn't the first time. In St. Pete, he hit everybody."
Rahal then wondered if IndyCar officials are watching Grosjean — and even if they are, will they do anything about excessive aggression?
"As another driver in the series told me, 'You can't teach an old dog new tricks,' and he's had this reputation his whole career in Europe and we're learning his reputation quickly here," Rahal said. "If race control doesn't want to do anything, then they aren't going to do anything. But when we go and punt him, they better not do anything to me. In the past, I've been penalized for a lot less than that."
NASCAR to resume Monday at Dover
DOVER, Del. — Martin Truex Jr. has the blueprint for how to win at Dover Motor Speedway on Mondays.
Step 1: Rain on Sundays.
Truex can win for the third time at the Monster Mile on the unconventional race day for NASCAR after weather stopped the action only 78 laps into the 400-mile race Sunday. Truex raced to his first Cup Series victory on June 4, 2007, at Dover and used another rainout to take the checkered flag on May 6, 2019.
It's the fourth time out of 104 Cup Series races at Dover it will run on a Monday.
With a green flag start just after 3 p.m., and no lights at the concrete track, NASCAR faced a tight window to reach the halfway mark needed for an official race. So they'll fire the engines again at noon Monday for the restart, with reigning series champion Kyle Larson on the pole as the current race leader and Chase Elliott starting second to put a pair of Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolets on the front row. Team Penske's Ryan Blaney is third in a Ford, Truex is fourth in a Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing and Hendrick's William Byron is fifth.
Truex is winless this season with two top-five finishes over the first 10 Cup races. He won four races last season and would certainly like to break into the win column, especially amid contract negotiations with JGR. The 41-year-old New Jersey native made his 596th career start at Dover and is set to join Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick as active drivers with 600 starts.
"It's a lot of races, but pretty cool though to be around as long as we have," Truex said. "My career has not been easy. We have had a lot of tough years, been through a lot of stuff, and to still be here battling, fighting for wins is pretty cool."
Truex's 2007 Dover win was his only one from his 2004 Cup Series debut until 2013. He won once in 2013 and once in 2015 before his career skyrocketed, first with Furniture Row Racing, and now with JGR. He won the 2017 Cup champion at Furniture Row and won seven races in 2019 driving for JGR.
He's now a driver with solid credentials for the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
"I see guys in the Hall of Fame and what they have done, and stat-wise it's there," Truex said. "But I don't know. I've not really given it much thought."
He had time to think Sunday. Dover ordered a grandstand evacuation and asked fans to seek shelter or return to vehicles. Chris Buescher wrote on Twitter that he was bored during the delay and held a question-and-answer session on the social media platform. Among the revelations, a 1979 Ford Bronco is his dream car, and Rusty Wallace and Mark Martin were his favorite drivers growing up.
Buescher's lone Cup Series victory came in a weather-shortened race in 2016 — yes, on a Monday — at Pocono Raceway. Successes have been rare for Buescher since that checkered flag, but was first in Saturday qualifying at Dover for his first pole in more than 230 career Cup Series races and 74 starts on the second-tier Xfinity circuit.
"I guess it is not something that I have ever had a whole lot of emphasis on," Buescher said. "At the end of the day, it is all about that checkered flag at the end of the race."
At Dover, he'll have to chase it on a Monday.