Rinus VeeKay, 2020 IndyCar Rookie of the Year, is not the most heralded young prospect in the series. He is not even the second or third most heralded young prospect. Add in the three exciting rookies headlining the season and, odds are, he would not be the fifth driver named when going down the list of new talent to join the IndyCar circuit in recent years. But he is unquestionably talented, and, today, he finally showed what he could do.
Two of VeeKay's three best career finishes came on this track, the Indianapolis infield road course, last season. Today, he actually started seventh, just behind his teammate Conor Daly. Former Formula 1 driver Romain Grosjean was starting on pole, the first of his career in his third start, but the bigger headline of the previous day's qualifying session was what happened in the first round of cutoffs: Will Power, Patricio O'Ward, and Scott Dixon, all expected contenders for poles and wins every time the series visits a road course, did not make the Fast Twelve and would start deep in the field.
It was a perfect setup for someone unexpected to create some noise. At first, it seemed that would be either Grosjean or Jack Harvey. The former Haas F1 star led the majority of the race, but his Dale Coyne Racing team left him out too long on his first stop and struggled with timing on the tire change on his second. It was worse for Harvey, who was in second and in position to fight for the win when his tire went down after a stop that also included stalling on the pit lane. With Harvey out of the picture and Grosjean's early lead gone, VeeKay was in position to pass for the race lead as the pit cycles converged at the beginning of the final stint. Despite what the NBC broadcast saw as a potential fuel-saving concern on the final lap, he never looked back.
The win is VeeKay's first, but the story of the win goes back much further than his 19-race IndyCar career. VeeKay, a stage name for the driver whose given name is Rinus van Kalmthout, has worked his way up to IndyCar systematically through the much-ballyhooed Road To Indy ladder series. He finished second in the 2017 USF2000 series, won the 2018 Pro Mazda championship, and finished second in the 2019 Indy Lights Series. That got him the ride with Ed Carpenter Racing, and last year that ride turned into season-long Rookie of the Year honors punctuated by strong runs here at Indianapolis (two top-fives in three races on the road course plus a good day in the 500 that went awry late). This year, three top tens in four races have made for a modestly strong start to what could be a very promising year. With the win today, it is all the more interesting.
Grosjean's finish of second is exceptional, too. Since he skipped both races at Texas in a road course-only season, the run means that he is a pole sitter and podium finisher in an IndyCar after just three starts. His first two races were uninspiring but respectable performances resulting in finishes of tenth and 13th; his third was electric. If not for the team's questionable early strategy and avoidable late mistake, he would have been neck-and-neck with VeeKay at the end. He still leaves the day with an exceptional performance to build on as the season continues. Now, as he takes the rest of the Month of May off, he will be able to take in the Indianapolis 500 as a spectator before returning to the car at Detroit.
In third, Alex Palou is no longer a surprise. The Barber race-winner and vaunted Chip Ganassi Racing prospect is now a close second in the championship hunt, within striking distance of teammate Scott Dixon heading into the Indianapolis 500. With strong performances every time he has stepped into the No. 10 CGR entry, this is already becoming part-for-the-course.
Josef Newgarden and Graham Rahal competed the top five. Simon Pagenaud, Alexander Rossi, Scott McLaughlin, Scott Dixon, and Marcus Ericsson completed a top ten that was heavy on the strong teams despite smaller programs finishing first and second. Notably poor days for contenders include Will Power in 11th, Colton Herta in 13th, and Patricio O'Ward in 15th, although Jack Harvey's performance throughout 2020 means that his finish of 23rd is also a major disappointment in what was quietly shaping up to be something of a contending season.
Conor Daly was the day's lone retirement, victim of an early mechanical failure. With Grosjean in second and McLaughlin in eighth, Jimmie Johnson completed the rookie set in 24th, last of running entries.
IndyCar now shifts its focus to the Indianapolis 500, where it will stay for the next two weeks. Practices start this week, qualifying is the following weekend, and the race itself will be held on its traditional date: the last Sunday in May.
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