It was an expression I’ve seldom seen in the 49 years I’ve spent around Roger Penske. The man whose cars have now won 188 IndyCar races and 14 championships was downright giddy after Josef Newgarden’s victory at Barber Motorsports Park.
“He kept Scott Dixon behind him for what, the last 20 laps?” said The Captain of his first-year driver. “I mean, that’s impressive isn’t it? He made a great move to get around Dixon and then held him off.
“What a job that kid did. That was Scott Dixon.“
Newgarden’s first of what figures to be many wins for Team Penske illustrated why he got hired to replace Juan Montoya and why the 26-year-old native of Hendersonville, Tenn. has been a force on any track the past couple seasons.
Starting seventh because he gambled on scuffed red tires in qualifying and just missed the Fast Six, Newgarden opted for black tires at the green flag and promptly blew past James Hinchcliffe and teammate Simon Pagenaud before the first pit stop.
He leapfrogged Helio Castroneves and Dixon on that stop and found himself in second behind polesitter Will Power. As the third race of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar series headed into the stretch it was Power, Newgarden and Dixon separated by a couple seconds.
A caution with 22 laps left brought that trio into the pits one last time and Dixon’s crew got him out second between the two Penske Chevys. On the restart, Newgarden dived inside the four-time IndyCar champ at Turn 16 and snatched second place.
“I like passing people there – I got Hinch earlier and I think with Scott I might have surprised him a little bit,” said Newgarden. “It got him a little off-line and I was under him.”
Following the podium celebration Dixon tipped his hat. “I usually keep it pretty tight around there but I was loose and he was really good in those last few corners, so it was a great move on his part.”
Of course that only made one of the best performers of the past 25 years more intent on reclaiming the top spot and he had twice as much push-to-pass in his arsenal. But the young man who was allowed to hone his craft and mature thanks to Sarah Fisher, Wink Hartman and Ed Carpenter, did the unthinkable and kept Dixon behind him. And when Power punctured a tire and had to pit with 14 laps to go, Newgarden reaped the reward.
“Tough deal for Will – he led most of the race and was really strong but it’s happened to all of us,” said Newgarden. “You’ve got to seize your opportunities.”
In the litany of stars that have graced The Captain’s roster since he went full-time IndyCar racing in 1971, few have seized it as quickly. It took Pagenaud 19 starts to get that first win, Paul Tracy 17, Mark Donohue 16, 11 for Tom Sneva and Montoya, seven for Rick Mears and Castroneves, five for Gil de Ferran and Power. Al Unser Jr matched Newgarden in winning on his third start back in 1994. Only Danny Sullivan (start number two, the 1985 Indy 500) and Sam Hornish, who won his 2004 debut, have made R.P. smile quicker.
Newgarden scored a podium in his second start and a win in his third – and first time out for sponsor Fitzgerald Glider Kits. I’ve been saying for four years he’s the Penske Perfect driver because of his sponsor-perfect demeanor, media savvy, fan friendliness and prodigious talent.
“I think he’s got a great future,” said Penske as he skipped (OK that’s an exaggeration) off towards Victory Lane.
But what a great start.
Noteworthy at Barber…
• As first impressions go, Fernando Alonso wowed the IndyCar paddock and press corps with his honestly, openness and sense of humor. The two-time world driving champion gave one of the most entertaining press conferences since Alex Zanardi, mingled with the fans on the grid and repeatedly gave the Indianapolis 500 his ringing endorsement. “It’s the greatest race in the world and I’m looking forward to being part of it,” he said several times.
• Spencer Pigot was having another fine race when he spun out while running eighth in ECR’s Fuzzy’s Chevy. The 2015 Indy Lights champ started 17th and made some nifty passes just like he did at St. Pete and was pulling away from veterans Tony Kanaan and Sebastien Bourdais when he made a mistake. “And it wasn’t even for position, it was a lapped car, so I feel terrible for my crew,” said Pigot, who may run Phoenix if J.R. Hildebrand’s broken hand isn’t sufficiently healed.
• A.J. Foyt missed Barber and won’t be at Phoenix as he recovers from his stem cell surgery but Super Tex is on the mend and definitely will be in Indy next month.