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Leist Makes Big Splash for Foyt with Fourth-Place Finish after Wet Strategy Call

Matheus Leist hoped it would rain as soon as possible and provide wet conditions that he considered favorable in Saturday's INDYCAR Grand Prix.

That said, the 20-year-old Brazilian driver of the No. 4 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet still approached expectations with a minimalist perspective, that the unpredictability of the wet might at best enable him to finish in the top 15, a modest improvement from his 21st starting position.

Then it didn’t rain as hard as anticipated in the early going of the 85-lap race on Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s 2.439-mile road course. A change in plans in holding off on using rain tires – as well as ideal timing for his final pit stop – not only worked to Leist’s advantage, it enabled him to finish fourth, the best result in his 22 career NTT IndyCar Series starts.

“Everybody needed this,” said Leist, whose previous best was 11th as a rookie last year at Pocono.

It's the best a Foyt car has finished since Takuma Sato was second in 2015 at Detroit. The team's previous best result this season was Tony Kanaan placing 12th in the INDYCAR Classic at the Circuit of The Americas.

Leist couldn’t have chosen a more ideal venue to deliver this pick-me-up performance, considering his boss is a legendary four-time Indianapolis 500 winner who considers “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” above all other races and reminds each year that Indianapolis Motor Speedway made him what he is today.

“You did a great job,” an emotional Foyt told Leist in the Gasoline Alley garage. “We’ll get there.”

“It was good,” Leist said, patting the appreciative Foyt on the shoulder.

Then Foyt stated the obvious, reiterating to his young driver the goal moving forward as teams now prepare anew for the 103rd Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge on Sunday, May 26.

“First is first,” Foyt said. “You’ve got to improve three more spots.”

Leist didn’t need the reminder.

“You’re never satisfied enough,” he said. “Of course, this was good. The whole team deserves it. The whole team has worked so hard.”

Team director/race strategist George Klotz made the all-important call on that final stop, which brought in Leist early before an extended caution period. Leist came in at the same time as eventual winner Simon Pagenaud of Team Penske and runner-up Scott Dixon of Chip Ganassi Racing.

Leist got his rain tires. He had excellent track position, especially after most of the rest of the field pitted later. And then it started raining harder.

“It happened at the right time at the end,” Leist said. “I was probably the only one on the team that wanted it to rain. When it started raining and we were P4, I knew we had a shot. I knew we could stay there and finish up there. That was exactly what happened.”

Too many times in the last year, Leist couldn’t seem to catch a break in what he admitted has been a series of "average" performances. When the team had the pace, the strategy would backfire or he would make a mistake. Then the strategy would click, but the pace was off, and he couldn’t make up the difference or something unexpected would knock him back.

Leist mentioned how he qualified 11th for his long-awaited Indy 500 debut last year and was running in the top 10 for much of the race. He struggled on a late restart and had to settle for 13th.

As he exited the pits after his final stop this time, he was determined to make the most of this opportunity.

“I was fourth on the restart when I had a chance to pass (Ed) Jones,” Leist said. “I was like: ‘I have to go for it. I want to finish as high up as I can.’ I went for it and passed him.”

On such an overcast, gloomy day, it was merely a matter of time before the brightest object on the track sped into Leist’s rear-view mirror — the Day-glo yellow No. 22 Chevrolet freight train driven by Pagenaud.

Leist might be young and still learning, but he knew he couldn’t hold off the speedy Frenchman who had sights set on a third INDYCAR Grand Prix victory.

“He was like two or three seconds behind me, then suddenly he was just right behind me,” Leist said. “I was like: ‘OK, I’m not going to fight with him. We would just lose time here. Let’s play smart.’ I let him go and stayed focused and tried to follow him.”

Leist couldn’t get past Jack Harvey, so satisfaction this day meant fourth place.

“The good thing about this team is we never gave up,” Leist said. “We always kept going. We always kept working hard and trying to improve as much as we could.

“They all deserve it, especially A.J. We’ve been together for a year and a half now, and I’m always looking forward to these kind of results. That’s where we belong, and that’s where we want to be.”

Leist reminded that when he came to the U.S. in 2017 to race in Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires, his strongest initial results were at IMS — third on the road course and a first victory on the oval in the Freedom 100.

“It’s an awesome place to have my best finish in INDYCAR,” Leist said. “I think this place likes me. At the same time, I like it. I’ll try to keep the momentum going for the ‘500.’”

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