In the days leading up to the IndyCar season-opening race, Chip Ganassi made clear that Marcus Ericsson was a valued member of the organization.
“I want him here beyond this year,” Ganassi said of the Swedish driver.
Ericsson then went on to win the March 5 race on the downtown streets of St. Petersburg, Florida, with a late pass of Pato O'Ward to pick up the fourth win of his IndyCar career. Ericsson heads into Sunday's race at Texas Motor Speedway as the points leader and determined to be a serious championship contender.
He is the reigning Indianapolis 500 winner — a victory that pushed him into last year's championship fight before he faded and finished sixth in the final standings. But as Ericsson begins his fourth season with a powerhouse organization, Ganassi believes the Indianapolis victory changed the career trajectory for the 32-year-old former Formula One driver.
The win propelled Ericsson on a monthslong media tour that included a weeklong celebration in Sweden — which has gone IndyCar mad for Ericsson and fellow IndyCar countryman Felix Rosenqvist of McLaren — with the famed Borg-Warner Trophy.
“He seems to have gotten more out of winning the Indy 500 than anyone else has of recent time," Ganassi said. "He’s been everywhere. It’s been a really positive thing for Marcus, the team, the series. He’s grown with that as well.”
So much so that Ericsson is adamant that people take the No. 8 team seriously this year.
“It seems whatever I do, people are thinking maybe I don’t deserve it or stuff like that,” he said. “I won a lot of races and been at the top of the championship the last couple years, so I’m just going to keep doing that.
“I’m here to win. I want to win a championship. I want to win another 500. That’s our goals, and what other people say doesn’t really matter. But I think we’ve proven last year and the year before that we can be up front and run, fighting for a championship. We just need to keep doing that, and what people say, I don’t really mind too much."
Oh, but he does care. If he didn't, then “not bad for a pay driver” wouldn't have been among the first things Ericsson said after winning the 500 last May.
When his F1 days ended after 97 winless races at the end of the 2018 season, Ericsson made the move to American racing in the IndyCar Series, initially with what is now Arrow McLaren Racing. But he wasn't retained after one season and Ericsson had to secure the sponsorship — through Huski Chocolate, a Swedish brand that isn't even sold in the United States — to buy a seat at Ganassi.
But it took him nearly two seasons in Ganassi cars to win, and when he finally got that first victory, it came in Detroit when race leader Will Power couldn't get his car restarted after a late red flag stoppage. In fact, all four of Ericsson's wins have been in races that were red-flagged, and it was teammate Scott Dixon who had the dominant car at Indianapolis last year until a speeding penalty on Dixon gave Ericsson a chance.
Winning in weird ways could be part of the reason why Ericsson doesn't get the championship consideration he craves, but he believes eeking out victories under strange circumstances is a show of strength for his team.
“It seems when a lot of things are happening in the race, and people are making mistakes, we seem to be able to stay cool,” Ericsson said. “Both me and the car, and the guys on the strategy and pit stops and everything. And we seem to be able to get everything together in those situations. All those races are very high-intensity races. It’s not sort of straightforward races.
"There’s a lot of things happening. You need to be ready to adjust your strategy, pit stops, restarts. There’s a lot of things going on, and we seem to be very good at that. That’s definitely one of our strengths. Not saying we cannot win without the red flag, but it’s definitely been working for us.”
Ericsson, who began oval racing only when he moved to IndyCar in 2019, finished a career-best third at Texas last year in what turned out to be a warmup for his Indy 500 run. Josef Newgarden is the defending race winner and Ericsson teammate Dixon is the winningest driver at Texas with five victories. Dixon has won three of the past six and four of the past nine stops at Texas.
More AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports