By Steve Keating
INDIANAPOLIS (Reuters) -Sweden's Marcus Ericsson prevailed in a two-lap shootout to win a dramatic Indianapolis 500 on Sunday as the Brickyard reclaimed the mantle of the world's biggest single day sporting event, living up to its billing as the 'Greatest Spectacle in Racing".
On a day of twists and turns on the 2.5 mile oval, the biggest came just six laps from the end when Jimmie Johnson got down on the grass and spun up into the wall, bringing out a red flag and sending the cars onto the pit lane.
When the debris was cleared, the drivers returned to the track and with over 300,000 spectators on their feet for a breathtaking two-lap winner-takes-all sprint, Ericsson held off hard-charging Mexican Pato O'Ward to put his car on Victory Lane and give owner Chip Ganaasi a fifth Borg Warner trophy.
Ericsson, who spent five years in Formula One making 97 starts without a podium before moving to IndyCar, becomes the second Swede to win the Indy 500 after Kenny Brack in 1999.
"I did almost 100 Grand Prix running for small teams towards back most of it," said Ericsson. "You don't get a lot of credit running in the back. Formula One people think you are not very good.
"Moved here and put my whole life into trying to become an IndyCar and Indianapolis 500 champion. It has been tough, it has been not easy, but I have been working extremely hard and it feels good to show hard work pays off."
With five cars in the race, including pole sitter Scott Dixon, many expected to see a Chip Ganassi Racing driver grab the win but few predicted it would be Ericsson, the least celebrated of the all-star stable.
But after Dixon made a late pit stop blunder, Alex Palou, the defending IndyCar Series champion, suffered bad luck, and Johnson crashed, Ericsson stepped up to seize his chance and was joined on the podium by another team mate Tony Kanaan in third.
O'Ward, who extended his contract with Arrow McLaren on Friday, shot up alongside Ericsson as the two cars charged into the final lap but could not get past the Swede, who had just enough speed to hold on for a third career win.
"Whenever the restart happened I had one shot, I had to go flat out and it still wasn't enough," said O'Ward. "So sadly they had the faster car.
"I'm proud of the job we did today, it's my best result in the 500. It's just a bit of a tough pill to swallow after such a long race."
No driver will have a harder time digesting the result than Dixon.
The New Zealander had been running out front most of the day and appeared poised to collect a second Indy 500 win until the 'The Iceman' made a fatal mistake on the final scheduled pit stop, taking a stop and go penalty for speeding.
Palou, who started alongside Dixon on the front row, was also left frustrated when he was sent to the back of the pack after coming into the closed pits for an emergency service and sent to the back of the field for the restart.
Helio Castroneves, who joined the Brickyard's exclusive club of four-time champions last year, came into the race looking to make history as the first to win five and mounted a late charge but could not get in the final fight, finishing seventh.
After COVID-19 forced spectator restrictions on the previous two 500s, the crowd on Sunday was the largest in the last 20 years with the exception of the 100th running in 2016.
Nobody was more excited to see the fans back in force than Roger Penske, who completed his purchase of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and IndyCar Series in 2019, just before COVID-19 shut down global sport.
There would have been no better way to celebrate than the Team Penske owner putting one of his three entries on Victory Lane for a record-extending 19th time but his top finisher was Josef Newgarden placing 13th.
(Reporting by Steve Keating Indianapolis. Additional reporting Rory Carroll in Los Angeles, Lewis Franck; Editing by Clare Fallon/Toby Davis/Ken Ferris)