It took eight tries, but Josef Newgarden finally figured out the streets of St. Pete.
In his previous seven NTT IndyCar races at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, the 28-year-old Team Penske driver had never finished better than seventh. He greatly improved on that record Sunday, as he led 59 of the final 60 laps to capture the IndyCar season opener.
Newgarden, knocked from the pole in Saturday qualifying by teammate Will Power in the session’s final seconds, used a patient strategy to pick up his 11th IndyCar win and his eighth in the last 35 events. It was also the 2017 champion’s first podium finish since winning at Road America last June.
“I’m so pumped that we were able to execute today,” Newgarden said. “I was really bummed (Saturday). I thought we had a good qualifying position and it was a great team effort being 1-2, but I thought we had pole speed, and I didn’t fully execute on that qualifying lap.
“I’m so proud of the team. The engine was great. Team Chevy did a great job this week, had everything we needed. Everything was really solid, we found our footing (Saturday) and finished it off right (Sunday).”
Newgarden credits the decision to go with used red Firestone tires at the start of the race. While it meant not being able to really push at the start, it meant they had a new set on hand to go on the car for a later stint. Newgarden went to the new kicks on his Lap 55 stop, and was able to pull out to a huge lead. Runner-up Scott Dixon made it interesting in the late stages of the race by closing an eight-second gap down to two, but Newgarden was never really challenged and won by 2.8998 seconds.
Newgarden only led one lap through the first 50 circuits, but from there on held the lead save for one lap when he made his final stop. The race featured 11 laps under caution in the first 33 laps, but went green the rest of the way, which definitely played into Newgarden’s hands.
“Where we ripped a big one was just on red tires, and when we went out on brand new reds we were able to open up a huge chunk and it was just really good timing and positioning and once we established that gap, it was about managing it, really,” he said. “We didn’t have to blow it wide open and we didn’t need to see it shrink too quickly but we let it seesaw back and forth how it needed to.”
Chip Ganassi Racing’s Dixon has never won at St. Pete and picked up his fourth runner-up finish Sunday. The defending series champion had an up-and-down weekend, and while he was disappointed in finishing second – again – he was happy with the end result.
“I felt our cars were strong for the first 15, 20 laps, especially on restarts, as well,” Dixon said. “I had some great battles out there. Lap traffic was interesting, Will and I had a really tough fight in one, two, and then all the way to three I think it was, and then, you know, it worked out for us.
“But all in all, I think strategy-wise and pit stops, it was a clean day for us. I think any of us got out front, as will said, had some really good pace, you would have been able to capitalize and Josef’s did that and their strategy, they were able to run and start on new reds and used reds later. Their pace opened it up. It was an interesting day, and good points for us and hopefully we can keep maintaining that.”
Power captured his eighth pole at St. Pete – and 55th career overall – and looked to be the car to beat over the first stint of the race, leading 17 of the first 22 laps. But he felt his race changed on a Lap 23 restart when he was passed by Felix Rosenqvist as the two headed into Turn 1.
The first-year CGR driver who was running his first IndyCar race, paced the field through Lap 50 before Newgarden took over.
“Yeah, the thing that cost me the race was when I was passed on that restart,” Power said. “I felt we were quicker than Rosenqvist, and we could have pulled a big gap, but unfortunately, I lost that position and I was stuck there.”
Rosenqvist was impressive in his debut, leading a total of 31 laps and finishing in fourth place, while Alexander Rossi was fifth. Two-time defending champion Sebastien Bourdais dropped out of the race after 11 laps due to a mechanical issue and finished 24th.
Pit Lane Parley Experience
As we mentioned in this space, we will be bringing you the Pit Lane Parley Experience, which is a special podcast with Harding Steinbrenner Racing. This week we talked with team co-owner George Steinbrenner IV, then Mike J, Jess and Mike K. gave their post-race thoughts on driver Colton Herta’s performance.
Follow along all season as we give you exclusive access to HSR. You can hear this week’s episode on all of your favorite platforms, including iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/pit-lane-parley/id1324125876?mt=2.