Rinus VeeKay not only drove himself to the front of the NTT IndyCar Series pack over the weekend, he’s charging into the meat of the May schedule with a confidence he hasn’t felt in almost a year.
The 21-year-old driver for Ed Carpenter Racing started from the pole position and finished third in Sunday’s Honda Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park, his best weekend since last May when he won on 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 road course is going to be good for us, (and also) the Indy 500,” VeeKay said. “I think we’re in a good position.”
He’s had this feeling before.
Last May, after top-10 finishes in three of the first four races, VeeKay led 33 laps and held off a late charge from Romain Grosjean to win the GMR Grand Prix on the IMS road course.
It was his first IndyCar career victory 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 storied race. He led 32 laps in the 500 and finished eighth.
He followed that with a second-place finish in the first race of the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix doubleheader, less than a second behind winner Marcus Ericsson. VeeKay finished 18th in the second Detroit race but came out of the weekend fifth in the point standings and solidly in the season title chase.
Then the good vibes disappeared.
VeeKay went on bicycle ride as he trained before the June 20 race at Road America, and his season figuratively tumbled over the handlebars. He crashed his bike and suffered a broken collarbone that caused him to miss that race. He drove the remaining seven races but didn’t finish better than 16th and was worse than 20th four times.
VeeKay knew some things had to change. Besides mending physically, he spent more time talking with his Ed Carpenter Racing engineer, Matt Barnes, and says it gave them a better understanding of what VeeKay wants out of the car.
Results this season are confirming that.
VeeKay qualified fourth and finished sixth in the opener at St. Petersburg, led five laps and finished 10th at Texas after running out of fuel, stumbled to a 13th-place finish at Long Beach, but rebounded strongly at Barber, winning the pole and leading 57 laps.
Pato O’Ward made an outside pass into Turn 5 on lap 64 and went on to win the 90-lap race, with VeeKay third after Alex Palou later passed him for second finishing place.
VeeKay blamed himself for being too conservative when O’Ward passed him.
“Another lesson learned, unfortunately the hard way,” he said. “I have screwed myself a few times in the past braking a little too deep, locking a tire (and) basically destroying my whole last stint. If I could go back, I would go way deeper and stay ahead of him.”
One corner, though, doesn’t spoil VeeKay’s encouragement over the bigger picture. It was his best weekend in almost a year, going into the most important part of the young season with two races at Indianapolis.
“I feel we’re definitely back,” he said. “I felt like at St. Pete, qualifying fourth and finishing sixth, that was a great way to bounce back. Leading in Texas … running out of fuel (and) still finishing 10th … I think we started out really well.
“(Barber) was the cherry on the cake with the pole position and having a car to win the race, all race. It’s a big confidence booster.”
Follow Kirby Arnold on Twitter @KirbyArnold