Not only did Rinus VeeKay drive himself to the front of the NTT IndyCar Series pack this weekend, he is plunging into the flesh of the May schedule with a confidence he hasn’t felt in nearly a year.
The 21-year-old Ed Carpenter Racing driver started from pole position and finished third in Sunday’s Honda Alabama Grand Prix at Barber Motorsports Park, his best weekend since last May when he won at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.
Next up: the GMR Grand Prix at IMS on May 14, then the Indianapolis 500 on May 29.
“I know the Indy track will be good for us (and also) for the Indy 500,” said VeeKay. “I think we are in a good position.”
He’s had this feeling before.
Last May, after a top-10 finish in three of the first four races, VeeKay led 33 laps and stopped a late attack by Romain Grosjean to win the GMR Grand Prix on the IMS road course.
It was his first IndyCar career win and launched a solid month of May. A week later, VeeKay qualified third for the Indianapolis 500 to become the youngest driver in history, at age 20, to start on the front row in the legendary race. He led 32 laps in the 500 and finished eighth.
He followed that with a second-place finish in the opening race of the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix doubleheader, less than a second behind winner Marcus Ericsson. VeeKay finished 18e in race two at Detroit, but came out of the weekend fifth in the points standings and solid in the season title chase.
Then the good vibes disappeared.
VeeKay took to the bike while training for the June 20 race at Road America, and his season literally tumbled over the handlebars. He crashed his bike and suffered a collarbone fracture that forced him to miss that race. He drove the remaining seven races but finished no better than 16e and was worse than 20e four times.
VeeKay knew things had to change. In addition to recovering physically, he spent more time talking to his Ed Carpenter Racing engineer, Matt Barnes, and says it gave them a better understanding of what VeeKay wants out of the car.
This season’s results confirm that.
VeeKay qualified fourth and finished sixth in the opener in St. Petersburg, leading five laps and finishing 10e in Texas after running out of fuel, he tripped over a 13eplace finished at Long Beach, but recovered strongly at Barber, taking pole and leading 57 laps.
Pato O’Ward made an outside pass into Turn 5 on lap 64 and then won the 90-lap race, with VeeKay finishing third after Alex Palou later passed him for second.
VeeKay blamed himself for being too conservative when O’Ward passed him.
“Learned another lesson, unfortunately the hard way,” he said. “I screwed myself a few times in the past by braking a little too deep, locking up a tire (and) basically destroying my entire last stint. If I could go back I would go much deeper and stay ahead of him.”
An angle doesn’t spoil VeeKay’s encouragement over the bigger picture, though. It was his best weekend in nearly a year and entered the most important part of the young season with two races at Indianapolis.
“I feel like we’re definitely back,” he said. “I felt like qualifying fourth and sixth at St. Pete was a great way to bounce back. Leading in Texas … running out of fuel (and) still 10e … I think we started very well.
“(Barber) was the icing on the cake with pole position and having a car to win the race, the whole race. It’s a big confidence boost.”
Follow Kirby Arnold on Twitter @KirbyArnold