Pato O'Ward to return to Arrow McLaren SP for 2021 IndyCar season

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Team Penske’s Will Power wins the IndyCar Harvest Grand Prix Race 2. Indianapolis Star

Pato O’Ward will return to drive for Arrow McLaren SP in the 2021 INDYCAR season, the team announced Tuesday, just one day after announcing the dismissal of O’Ward’s counterpart Oliver Askew.

In his first full season at the highest level of American open-wheel racing, O’Ward sits fifth in the standings, which would tie the second-best mark in team history, with one race remaining in the 2020 season. He’s amassed one pole (Road America Race 2) and three podium finishes, and the Mexican driver has sat as high as third in the standings, following a sixth-place finish in his first Indianapolis 500 and back-to-back podiums during the doubleheader weekend at WWT Raceway.

“I am beyond excited to be racing with Arrow McLaren SP next season to build on what we have accomplished so far this year,” O’Ward said in a team release. “Such a great group of people who truly have welcomed me like a second family. Given how much change I have seen in my career to this point, it is invaluable to get the opportunity to put down roots and build on a foundation year over year.” 

Added team co-owner Sam Schmidt in the release: “The entire team and I are thrilled to have Pato back in the car next year. He has shown incredible form this year and has kept himself in the championship hunt all season long. I think he has the potential to compete at the highest level in the INDYCAR series for a long time.”

O’Ward was hired this past offseason, along with Askew, as AMSP pledged to embrace the youth of a then-20 and 22-year-old while cutting series veteran James Hinchcliffe with one year left on his contract.

“These young guns we feel are the future of this team,” Schmidt said last October. “A lot of people have said that it’s really risky, it’s a gamble, but we really don’t think it is.”

Schmidt added this in February: “It’s a total long play. As a group, where do we want to be in 3-5 years, and what do we need to do to start that process now? I think these two young men are the future of the company.”

But there’s always a risk in any sport when starting two young budding stars on the same path at the same time that one will blossom sooner. Though Askew landed a top-10 in the season-opener at Texas (ninth), with O’Ward in 12th, and fought into the Fast Six in the second race of the year in the GMR Grand Prix, their paths seemed to diverge later that weekend. Askew lost control mid-race and slammed into the Turn 14 wall at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to finish last (26th) and went on to take 15th and 21st at Road America, while O’Ward finished eighth in Race 1, secured the pole for Race 2 and nearly won before settling for second.

Both excelled in the Iowa doubleheader, where Askew landed the team’s second consecutive podium with third-place in Race 1, while O’Ward trailed one spot behind in fourth. They both led laps the following evening, with Askew taking sixth and O’Ward slipping to 12th with a late-race mishap in the pits.

Both starting mid-pack for the Indy 500, Askew lost control during a restart on Lap 91 from the smoke of Conor Daly’s out-of-control car and smashed into the inside wall — a tough crash that would follow him into the next month. Though the INDYCAR rookie drove in the next two doubleheader weekends at WWT Raceway and Mid-Ohio, he struggled with a best-finish of 14th. After the Sept. 13 race, he alerted INDYCAR medical officials to concussion-like symptoms. Askew was then held out of the Harvest Grand Prix doubleheader at IMS, replaced by series veteran Helio Castroneves in the No. 7 Chevy.

More on O’Ward, Askew’s futures:

The team said Monday that, should he be cleared by series medical officials, Askew will return to AMSP to close out his rookie year alongside his teammate Oct. 25 in St. Pete. From there, though, their paths will officially fork in separate directions, as O’Ward waits for a new teammate for 2021 after a likely top-five finish in the championship, while Askew hopes to find his next step in open-wheel or sports car racing.

The team has not given a timeline for announcing O’Ward’s next partner on-track. Though team officials have said previously there could be a chance of jumping to three cars for 2021, adding two new drivers in the first full offseason to properly align the former Arrow Schmidt Peterson and McLaren Racing teams would seem unlikely.

Among drivers pegged as possibilities to replace Askew in the No. 7, notably, Castroneves has made it clear he hopes to return to INDYCAR full-time in 2021 and has said previously he’s in talks with four teams, though he hasn’t clarified whether AMSP is one of the four. In his two races on the IMS road course this month while subbing for Askew, Castroneves finished 20th and 21st, while O’Ward took 22nd and fifth.

Email IndyStar motor sports reporter Nathan Brown at nlbrown@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter: @By_NathanBrown.