Adding another spectacular pass for a lead to go with another consistent display of speed, Josef Newgarden claimed his fourth win of the Verizon IndyCar Series season, his first on an oval – and the fifth straight for Team Penske – in the Bommarito Auto Group 500 at Gateway Motorsports Park.
Newgarden, who led for 170 of the 248 laps, found himself back in second at the final caution, after Penske teammate Simon Pagenaud beat him out of the pits, but the championship leader reversed that order – and put a strong personal stamp of authority on his status as championship leader – with a bold move down the inside of Pagenaud into Turn 1 for the lead, and the win.
“We had an awesome race – I hope the fans enjoyed it,” enthused Newgarden, who now enjoys a 31-point lead with two races to go. “It was a lot about strategy and fuel saving, and then a good battle with Simon at the end. We’ve got to be aggressive and win these races. I think that’s what’s gonna win us the championship.
“With Simon there, I tried to get inside of him and he gave me the lane, so I took it. I didn’t mean to touch him and push him out a little bit, but I’m happy he didn’t get into the wall and still finished in the top four.”
Pagenaud, who slipped back to third as a result of Newgarden’s banzai move, disagreed with his young teammate’s assessment.
“[About] the move, I don’t have anything nice to say so I’m not going to say it,” said the clearly unimpressed reigning series champ. “It’s disappointing.”
Told Newgarden felt there he had been left room to make the move, Pagenaud replied: “There was room with me. Anybody else he would be in the fence right now.”
In between the two came, once again, Scott Dixon, finishing second in a race that saw him running near the bottom of the top five most of the night. Dixon, who started seventh, was still mystified an hour after the race that he’d come home second.
“I don’t think we were expecting a podium and I figured a top-10 would be good,” he said. “But I thought after the last practice session on Friday night that Chevy might not be as dominant and we just battled all night and I got great pits stops and here were are.”
The race got off to a bizarre start when Tony Kanaan lost control on the pace lap and backed into the wall in Turn 4. He rejoined with a new rear wing and a three-lap deficit.
When it finally came, the official start was no cleaner. Newgarden swept around the outside of his pole-sitting teammate Will Power – who almost instantly went loose, lost the back end and spun, while behind him Ed Carpenter spun in avoidance but collected Takuma Sato before backing into Power. Carpenter ‘s Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet then climbed over the top of Power’s Verizon Team Penske Chevy, fortunately without injury to either driver.
“Was just super slippery, and then Josef took my air on the exit and I spun,” Power told NBCSN. “I just tried to get back on the power and got some dirty air, I think and man, it just went.”
“Everybody had issues getting heat into the tires, because Firestone had to bring the harder tire for the new surface,” related Sato. “Will was struggling, and then when he spun I had to lift to avoid him, and unfortunately behind there was a whole check-up and I think Ed [Carpenter] had a problem and hit me.”
“It was slick – even warming up the tires,” echoed Carpenter, making his final appearance of the season. “It’s no excuse – I’m just bummed out, man. This year…2018 can’t get here fast enough.”
The restart on lap 19 finally allowed a clean getaway, with Helio Castroneves making a brief try around the outside before settling for second behind Newgarden and ahead of Simon Pagenaud as the Penske team maintained its qualifying advantage ahead of Dixon and Ryan Hunter-Reay.
Newgarden maintained the lead through the first round of pit stops, although Castroneves closed ground on him through the stint, which ended with a suspected suspension failure for JR Hildebrand that sent the Ed Carpenter Racing driver into the wall between Turns 3 and 4.
Castroneves then beat Newgarden out of the pits, helped by a moment of caution from the No.2 Penske crew in releasing their driver. The Brazilian appeared to take control of the race through the middle stages, building a 3sec advantage before his next pit stop. However, a stall on that stop delayed Castroneves a critical couple of seconds and dropped him to fourth behind his teammates and Dixon.
After Ryan Hunter-Reay slapped the wall on lap 203 to bring out what would be the final yellow, Pagenaud won the race out of the pits by a half car length over Newgarden, and kept it on the ensuing restart by holding tight to the inside line. But Newgarden would not be denied, taking that inside line to the next level into Turn 1 with 31 laps to go. The two cars made brief contact as Newgarden squeezed his car between the pit wall and his teammate, sending Pagenaud drifting high and into Dixon’s clutches and Newgarden through to victory.
“That’s racing,” Newgarden declared. “We’ve got to go racing at the end of the day.”