What a difference a year makes for young Pato O’Ward.
The 21-year-old from Monterrey, Mexico, was bumped from the field during qualifications for the 2020 Indianapolis 500 but found himself quickest one year later in final practice for the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.
O'Ward is also fourth in the championship standings, one summer removed from an off-season switch from Carlin to ARROW McLaren SP—having nearly won his first race last month at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin.
He is officially listed as a rookie but has driven nothing like one over the past two weeks, establishing himself as a contender during Carb Day on Friday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. O'Ward was the only driver to break the 225-mph barrier and did so on his 11th lap, at 225.355 mph.
That was 0.7 mph ahead of five-time IndyCar Series champion and 2008 Indianapolis 500 winner Scott Dixon. Two other previous winners followed them: Alexander Rossi (2016) and Takuma Sato (2017).
The two-hour session was a steady stream of pack racing as teams dialed in their setups for Sunday.
"I think it's just been really important to try and get the best car under us for race day," O'Ward said afterwards. "I think traffic running is going to be key. It's going to be my first 500. From just feeling out practice and everything, it's so important to have a car that's able to follow closely and be able to get runs on people, ultimately move forward instead of moving backwards.
"I think today was a good step forward. Yeah, we're just going to have to kind of go with our gut and hope this works like it did today in a race day on Sunday."
With qualifications behind them, this was the first opportunity for everyone to work towards race-day handling, with the expectation that Sunday is going to be a little warmer than Friday.
"Had some obstacles here (but) felt really good," Dixon said. "There was a bit of a strange time through that session with maybe about 30 minutes to go that we lost the balance a little bit, and figured out what was wrong, got the car going again.
"We started with just a short list of things that we kind of wanted to get through. We did that. A lot of those were improvements, which were good. Seems like Marcus [Ericsson] went in the same direction. Felix [Rosenqvist] wasn't sure on a couple things back there. All three [Chip Ganassi Racing] cars are in definitely in a good situation to run really well in traffic. Hopefully we can continue on in staying close to the front there and fight it out at the end."
After leading a session and qualifying on the middle of Row 1, the championship leader has likely established himself as the favorite, and the Las Vegas odds reflect it.
"The car was pretty comfortable," Dixon said. "Some of those laps you kind of get lucky and roll into it. Threw out four or five 224s. The car was pulling up pretty well.
"Some situations I think are a bit better than others. You get a bit lucky. Pato threw up a 225. That's a pretty stout lap."
Pole sitter Marco Andretti was not comfortable throughout the session, posting just the 28th-quickest lap, as he was unable to pick up a draft from those in front of his No. 98 Honda.
Meanwhile, Team Penske looked more competitive in race trim than it had in the build up to qualifications, with Josef Newgarden posting the seventh best lap. Defending race winner Simon Pagenaud was 14th quickest, with Helio Castroneves and Will Power posting the 17th and 24th fastest overall laps.
Newgarden especially expressed cautious, optimistic confidence in his No. 1 Chevrolet.
"I almost wanted to go back to the garage after 30 minutes and just leave the car the way it was," Newgarden said. "It felt really good. Carb Day is one of those days where if you car feels good, you almost don't want to use it up. If it doesn't feel good, you're going to use the whole session before Sunday.
"I feel confident. You can't go in with too much confidence. You have to be cautious. Trying to make sure we have every detail in place, have a good game plan. Make sure we look at the small things that could catch us out.
"Obviously not where we wanted to be on qualifying weekend, but I feel confident with what we're bringing into race day and think we can challenge the front guys."
For two weeks drivers expressed concern that passing opportunities would be limited due to warmer conditions and a draggier car with the windscreen. It didn’t look that way on Friday, but drivers are expecting Sunday’s warmer weather to potentially stifle passing still.
"I think it was just a little cooler this morning," Newgarden said. "That made it probably easier for everybody. I've said I think the race is going to be quite similar to last year as far as the ability to pass. I don't think you're going to see a huge departure from what you saw in the race last year really."
"I think race day is going to be probably a lot windier and hotter," he said. "That may make it more difficult."
1. Pato O'Ward (C) 84 Laps | 225.355
2. Scott Dixon (H) 59 Laps | 224.646
3. Alexander Rossi (H) | 58 Laps | 224.599
4. Takuma Sato (H) 85 Laps | 224.580
5. Oliver Askew (C) 82 Laps | 224.128
6. Zach Veach (H) 73 Laps | 223.957
7. Josef Newgarden (C) 68 Laps | 223.764
8. Marcus Ericsson (H) 105 Laps | 223.700
9. Jack Harvey (H) 72 Laps | 223.641
10. Alex Palou (H) 91 Laps | 223.570
11. Charlie Kimball (C) | 79 Laps | 223.491
12. James Hinchcliffe (H) 103 Laps | 223.461
13. Colton Herta (H) 88 Laps | 223.433
14. Simon Pagenaud (C) 89 Laps 223.419
15. Ed Carpenter (C) 65 Laps | 223.410
16. Rinus VeeKay (C) 92 Laps | 223.385
17. Helio Castroneves (C) 93 Laps | 223.093
18. Conor Daly (C) 78 Laps | 223.010
19. Tony Kanaan (C) 51 Laps | 222.999
20. Dalton Kellett (C) 73 Laps | 222.951
21. Santino Ferrucci (H) 95 Laps | 222.806
22. Ryan Hunter-Reay (H) 81 Laps | 222.731
23. Fernando Alonso (C) 72 Laps | 222.680
24. Will Power (C) 81 Laps | 222.578
25. Graham Rahal (H) 71 Laps | 222.158
26. Spencer Pigot (H) 48 Laps | 221.789
27. Felix Rosenqvist (H) 71 Laps | 221.675
28. Marco Andretti (H) 70 Laps | 221.314
29. James Davison (H) 64 Laps | 220.889
30. Max Chilton (C) 80 Laps | 220.666
31. JR Hildebrand (C) 44 Laps | 219.723
32. Sage Karam (C) 38 Laps | 219.396
33. Ben Hanley (C) 104 Laps | 217.984
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