Marcus Ericsson had to leave Formula One to become a global superstar, a goal achieved Sunday when the Swedish driver won the Indianapolis 500.
Ericsson took control of the race late — largely because of teammate Scott Dixon's speeding penalty — and had the win in reach for Chip Ganassi Racing until a crash by teammate Jimmie Johnson with four laps remaining brought out a rare red-flag stoppage at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
IndyCar is among the purest forms of motorsports and rarely throws artificial cautions or issues stoppages that might change the outcome. But the crowd of more than 300,000 — only a few thousand shy of a sellout and the largest sporting event since the start of the pandemic — roared when IndyCar called the cars to pit road.
The stoppage gave Pato O'Ward and the rest of the challengers almost 12 minutes on pit road to strategize how to catch Ericsson for the win.
The race resumed with two laps remaining and Ericsson easily got the jump on O'Ward. The Mexican got one final look for the lead that Ericsson defended and O'Ward knew not to force the issue.
"Nah, he was going to put me in the wall if I had gone for it," O'Ward said.
A crash by Sage Karam back in traffic brought out the caution on the final lap and Ericsson coasted to the victory podium under yellow. Karam was transported to a hospital for evaluation of muscular soreness.
For Ericsson, it was his third career IndyCar victory in 52 career starts. All three have been strange wins in that Ericsson sealed the victories after red-flag stoppages, but he never assumed he had the Indy 500 won as he sat inside his cockpit waiting to get back to racing.
"I felt you can never take anything for granted, and obviously there was two laps to go. I was praying so hard there was not going to be another yellow, but I knew there was probably going to be one," Ericsson said. "It was hard to re-focus but I knew the car was amazing. But it was still hard, you know? I had to do everything there and then to keep them behind — I can't believe it. I'm so happy."
It's the biggest victory of the 31-year-old's career. Ericsson was winless in five seasons in F1 before he packed up for the United States and a move to North American open-wheel racing. He joined the Ganassi organization in his second IndyCar season and has been steadily adapting to the formula and understanding ovals; Ericsson finished a career-best third on the Texas Motor Speedway oval that was the warmup for the Indy 500.
It is the fifth Indy 500 win for team owner Chip Ganassi, who caught a ride to the victory podium on the side of Ericsson's car. Ericsson is the second Swede to win the Indy 500 in 106 runnings, joining Kenny Brack in 1999.
Ericsson poured his jug of milk all over his face, then handed the bottle to Ganassi so the boss could take his own swig. Ganassi had not won the 500 in 10 years and sent five legitimate contenders to Indy to end the drought.
The win seemed to belong to Dixon, the six-time IndyCar champion who went more than 234 mph in qualifying to win the pole. The New Zealander led 95 of the 200 laps on Sunday and his Honda was easily the fastest in the field — so fast that Dixon didn't slow down enough on his final pit stop.
The penalty took Dixon out of contention for the win.
That left Ericsson and Tony Kanaan still in the fight for Ganassi. Kanaan, at 47 the oldest driver in the field, thought he was in perfect position for the win sitting in fourth on the restart.
O'Ward wouldn't relent. He signed a contract extension with Arrow McLaren SP on Friday and desperately wanted the win to celebrate his status as McLaren's star. But O'Ward finished second, falling just short as he tried to give Mexico a banner celebration on the biggest day in motorsports; Sergio Perez opened Sunday with a win in the Monaco Grand Prix.
Kanaan was third in a Ganassi car and followed by Felix Rosenqvist, another Swede, who was fourth for McLaren. Rosenqvist is in a contract year with McLaren and fighting for his job, but the McLaren group carried the Chevrolet banner at Indy as Juan Pablo Montoya finished 11th.
American drivers Alexander Rossi and Conor Daly finished fifth and sixth, Rossi for Andretti Autosport and Daly for Ed Carpenter Racing.
Helio Castroneves, last year's winner, finished seventh and one spot ahead of Meyer Shank Racing teammate Simon Pagenaud. Reigning IndyCar champion Alex Palou finished 10th in another Ganassi entry.
Palou was an early contender until a caution closed the pits when he needed to stop for fuel. He had to make the emergency fill-up and the penalty took him out of contention.
Dixon faded to 21st after the penalty, and although he visited Ericsson on the victory podium, he was consoled by his wife on pit road after the race. Johnson finished 28th in his Indy 500 debut.
"It's one team, everybody roots for everybody else, everybody works together and everybody is an open book," Ganassi said. "You're going to have things happen in these 500-mile races and they're not always going to fall your way. So, you know, we were lucky to have five good cars and five good drivers."
Honda drivers took six of the top nine spots, along with the win, and Kanaan had no problem with IndyCar's decision to throw the race-deciding red flag.
"I believe we're here for the fans. We hear the fans," Kanaan said. "They came here to see a race. That was the right call. That is the only reason race control called that, I think, it's because that's what people wanted to see. If I was in the stands, I want to see a race finish under the green."
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