NASHVILLE, Tenn. — “The Sneaky Swede” isn’t so much anymore, although the t-shirt heralding Marcus Ericsson as the star of the NTT IndyCar Series finally arrived at a racetrack this weekend.
Official event merchandise trailers at the Music City Grand Prix sported a red No. 8 reading “The Sneaky Swede,” a nod to the Chip Ganassi Racing driver’s penchant for shining while on the lookout.
But Ericsson also noted in May that he sometimes feels a little too far out of the limelight – a journalist from his Swedish hometown told Ericsson he had not been able to locate any goods at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with the driver.
Of course that was beginning to change after Ericsson won the 106th Indy 500 and then led the championship standings for almost two months.
But it really began with the first Music City Grand Prix, the Ericsson won stunningly despite extraordinary circumstances that required seven pit stops.
Though his first IndyCar win had come two months earlier, Ericsson found new prominence in Nashville — where he blew up on lap five, served a stop-and-go penalty, and then executed a perfect strategy to pass from behind for the lead over pole-sitter Colton Herta (who crashed with five laps to go while chasing the lead in vain).
“Yeah, it was a huge win for me,” said Ericsson, who re-signed with Ganassi’s team a few weeks later. “It was the first Music City Grand Prix in downtown Nashville and many eyes were on the event. Being the first winner and making history was really cool and really helped me establish myself at the top of IndyCar. It was a really big win for me and I’ll try to attack that win on Sunday.”
After losing the points lead after the July 30 race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway street course, the No. 8 Dallara-Honda driver could use another momentum and he also needs to do better on Sunday in Nashville (3 p.m ET, NBC) Overcoming Adversity Again ) After Qualifying 18th of 26 cars.
Ericsson struggled to find grip all weekend despite lacking in speed – which is unusual as he considers road courses to be his greatest strength outside of the Indy Oval this season. He was in the top 10 at every street circuit except Long Beach, where he was out on track for a podium before a late crash.
“I still feel like St. Pete and Long Beach, we were the fastest cars in both races,” said Ericsson on Thursday ahead of his first lap of the track. “St. Pete we were going really well and I got this pit lane penalty which I think was still very harsh and put us at the end of the field and still managed to get a top 10. Long Beach, was running P3 late in the race and I made a mistake on a restart and crammed it into the wall.
“Our road course package was probably our best as a team, so I’m really looking forward to this weekend. I’m really confident we’ll be in the mix to win this thing on Sunday.”
With four races remaining this season, Ericsson is nine points behind 2014 series champion Will Power of Team Penske.
“He’s just a great driver, a great competitor and has been around for a very long time,” said Ericsson. “He had an incredible season with his consistency and his ability to keep coming back to races. Pretty crazy how often he seems like he’s having a bad day and somehow ends up in the top four. He’ll be hard to beat.”
But Power expects the same from Ericsson, whom he described as “probably the best racer in the series” during the Iowa Speedway race weekend.
Nashville could be a big opportunity either way. Power will start eighth after a penalty prevented him from advancing to the final lap in qualifying and although Ericsson will start 10 places down he proved last year on the 2.1-mile, 11-turn layout everything is possible.
Ericsson will also have advice from four-time IndyCar Champion and Ganassi advisor Dario Franchitti on managing the title race. Ericsson has managed to contain his points loss in the last three races – at the Iowa Speedway he “took the fight” with the Penske duo of Power and Race 1 winner Josef Newgarden before his car finished 12th on the grid in eighth place fell backth. After qualifying 15 he was sixthth in Race 2 and he rallied again at Indy last week by moving up 14 places in a run from last to 11thth.
“We need to have that risk/reward calculation,” Ericsson said. “It’s a dangerous thing. You think too much about points and then you don’t take any chances because then you put yourself in difficult situations. (Last week in Indy), battling from the back of the field and wheel to wheel with the boys for P15 could be her highlight of the season. Then I find it hard to take the same risks because I don’t have to have a DNF.
“You have to keep things like that in mind, but there’s a fine line to walk. The way to go is to maximize every weekend. If we can win, we must win. P5, be there. Then we are in a good position to win this thing.”
Franchitti is also the youngest to win both the Indy 500 and IndyCar series championships in the same season (2010) — a story not lost on Ericsson, 31.
“When I came to America from European racing and Formula 1, the biggest thing was the championship, but the more I’ve been here, the more I understand that you want to win the 500,” he said. “What drives me now is to do the double. That hasn’t happened often in the history of IndyCar. It’s hard to win both in the same year.
“After the 500 I was very motivated to work extremely hard to win the championship and the double. We have a chance to do it and I’m really, really, really excited to try the double.”