Marcus Ericsson grabs 4th IndyCar win in crash-filled crazy season-opener

Nathan Brown
Indianapolis Star

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Two cars went airborne. Jack Harvey was sent to the hospital "under an abundance of caution." Helio Castroneves was seen icing his right hand after getting an X-ray on his right knee. Race leaders Romain Grosjean and Scott McLaughlin crashed while drag-racing for the lead.

And with under five laps to go, Pato O'Ward suffered a brief loss of power on the front straight, handing the race lead and a wild season-opening win to Marcus Ericsson.

Huski Chocolate Chip Ganassi Racing driver Marcus Ericsson makes a video call in Victory Lane after winning the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg auto race Sunday, March 5, 2023, in St. Petersburg, Fla. (AP Photo/Steve Nesius)

The Chip Ganassi Racing driver now has four wins -- all coming in red-flagged races. Sunday's was his first since his career-altering Indianapolis 500 win last may. His other three have come on street courses (also Detroit and Nashville).

More:Late-race St. Pete leaders Scott McLaughlin, Romain Grosjean crash in season-opener

More:Massive crashes send 2 cars airborne in IndyCar St. Pete opener, and an (expletive)

Ericsson survived a day that began with a red flag on Lap 1, as nearly a half-dozen cars crashed out in an incident that began with Ericsson's Ganassi teammate Scott Dixon. The six-time champ and Felix Rosenqvist tapped wheels between Turns 2 and 3, eventually slowing Rosenqvist and sending him into the wall. Behind him, Santino Ferrucci slammed on his brakes but couldn't avoid running into the back of Helio Castroneves, who then collected Devlin DeFrancesco, Simon Pagenaud, Sting Ray Robb and Benjamin Pedersen. The latter was the final car to enter the fray and barreled into DeFrancesco, sending him airborne.

Nearly 40 laps later, Rinus VeeKay ended up in the tires, collecting Jack Harvey, and Kyle Kirkwood came up from behind and flew over the top of Harvey's car. The Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing driver was later taken to a local hospital out of an abundance of caution for further review. Just a few laps later, Colton Herta was pushed into the wall by Will Power, forcing another race-altering caution for a contender.

The race's pivotal moment came on Lap 72 as McLaughlin pulled out of pitlane on cold tires just a car length ahead of Grosjean, who had pitted the lap before. McLaughlin admitted after the race that he made a mistake by not backing out as the pair neared Turn 4. He did manage to continue, but Grosjean's day was done.

"I'm very sorry to Romain. He's a friend, and we were both going for the win there," McLaughlin told NBC Sports. "I made a mistake trying to push on cold tires, and I locked the rears and just took us both out. I don't race like that, and I apologize.

"I'll go see (Romain) soon."

O'Ward took over the lead of the race with 25 laps to go when it went back green. With three laps to go headed to the start-finish line and Ericsson on his heels, having closed a two-plus second gap into a half-second, O'Ward suffered a brief engine failure that gave the Ganassi driver a shot to spring ahead and take the win.

"We did everything right today. Ahh! It's always something. The boys deserved that (win)," O'Ward told NBC Sports. "Compared to where we were last year here, that's a massive step, but we gave one away.

"We can't have that happen anymore. I know we were second, but..."

Ericsson, on the other hand, didn't feel bad at all in being able to capitalize late by staying out of trouble and being in the right place at the right time.

"That's racing. You need to get to the finish," Ericsson said. "I was hunting him down and putting pressure on him, and that's when things can happen. I think people forget us in some conversations when they talk about the championship. This is a good start, but I don't mind (being forgotten). It's alright. Bring it on."