It started in a downpour, restarted in the dry, ended in the wet and took two days to complete, but when it was over, Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden completed a sweep from pole by winning a wild strategy game at Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama.
Late showers and a master call by Newgarden’s race strategist Tim Cindric turned the tables on Sebastien Bourdais with less than 10 minutes remaining as the Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser-Sullivan driver tried to survive on Firestone’s slick tires.
Moved to wet tires earlier than was optimal, Newgarden saw a massive lead in the dry and a two-stop plan go south for a brief period as Bourdais looked to leapfrog the American with a one-stop plan.
With the track damp but far from drenched, Bourdais pulled away from Newgarden as his slicks had enough grip to generate speed. The crossover came a few minutes later as increasingly heavy rain made the Honda driver’s slicks a liability, and with the worsening track conditions, Bourdais’ one-stop strategy was abandoned as wets were needed to survive the final laps.
The timing of Newgarden’s early switch to wets, coupled with the big margin he held to the drivers behind Bourdais, allowed the Tennessee native to cruise home with almost 10 seconds in hand over Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ James Hinchcliffe.
SPM rookie Robert Wickens came home in fourth, two seconds behind his teammate, and due to his last-minute stop for wets, Bourdais crossed the finish line in fifth.
“Everyone did a great job,” said Newgarden, who became the first repeat winner of 2018 and took the points lead with the victory. “That was more eventful than I wanted it. That rain crept in and I couldn’t believe how long everyone stayed out, and I’m glad we made the choice to stop so soon. It kept getting worse and worse every lap. We put the rain on early to protect, but I fried the fronts early.”
Coming off a dismal race at Long Beach, Hunter-Reay was thankful to reach the checkered flag without incident or misfortune ruining his day.
“This is the first weekend we haven’t had any problems and we finished second,” he said. “I’m relieved with the result, but we need to get back to winning.”
Hinchcliffe was proud to lead a 3-4 result for SPM.
“Solid weekend for us,” he said. “Two cars in the top 10 in qualifying, two cars in the top five for the race.”
Bourdais, who moved to third in the drivers’ standing after Barber, was not particularly pleased with losing the strategy gamble to Newgarden.
“We did everything we could, and it was seemingly good enough because I’d saved a ton of fuel but the sky opened and that was that,” he said. “We tried to go for the win, and I gave it my best, but it bit us in the end.”
Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon, whose team also tried to complete the race on a single stop, drag-raced Bourdais to the line and completed the top six, a scant 0.08 seconds behind his fellow four-time Indy car champion.
With 23 of the 90 laps completed Sunday on a water-logged track, drivers had 75 minutes to finish the race Monday morning. An overnight decision was made by the Verizon IndyCar Series to allow each car to start with a full tank of fuel and a full complement of push-to-pass.
The dry race finally went green on lap 28 after Max Chilton’s car stalled on the formation laps, and with clear road ahead, polesitter Josef Newgarden marched away with ease. By lap 32, the Penske driver was more than four seconds ahead of Bourdais and nearly five seconds clear of Hunter-Reay.
By lap 36 the margin over the DCR driver was over six seconds as the Frenchman, Hunter-Reay, his Andretti teammate Alexander Rossi, Hinchcliffe and Andretti’s Zach Veach lost big chunks of time with each tour.
With the top six running in formation, lap 42 brought a change of position as Wickens dropped Veach down to seventh. Dixon took seventh from Veach on lap 46 at the same time Newgarden’s lead over Bourdais hit the 10-second mark.
As the clock wound down to 43 minutes remaining, the only movement of interest in the lead pack was coming from Wickens, who started with an eight-second deficit to his teammate in fifth. Lap 48 saw Hinchcliffe take fourth from Rossi, and behind the Long Beach winner, Wickens drew down the gap to a half-second. Wickens demoted Rossi on lap 49 and resumed his hunt for Hinchcliffe as Newgarden pitted on lap 50.
With 41 minutes left to run, Bourdais took the lead and tried to stretch his tires and fuel for their one-stop plan. Newgarden’s fresher Firestone primary tires were almost 1.0s faster per lap, and the battle of all-out speed versus conservation was on.
Hunter-Reay and Hinchcliffe stopped on lap 54 and returned nose to tail as Bourdais and Dixon stayed out. Bourdais finally stopped on lap 56 – with 33 minutes to go – and Dixon pushed his pit lane visit one lap father. Once the stops were done, Newgarden held a massive 23s lead over Bourdais, but had a second stop in his future as the clock dipped below the 30-minute point.
Hunter-Reay, Hinchcliffe, Rossi, and Wickens filled out the top six as Dixon’s extended one-stop gamble left him 41s arrears due to running longer on tires that were well past their prime. Behind the top six, Ed Carpenter Racing’s Jordan King was impressing once more as the rookie pursued Wickens from seventh. King also faced pressure from behind, as Dixon took eighth from Penske’s Simon Pagenaud, and behind him, A.J. Foyt Racing rookie Matheus Leist wasn’t far behind in 10th with 22 minutes to go.
A call for Rossi to pit on lap 65 with rain drop starting to fall put the American on Firestone slicks. Rossi would return in 12th, as Dixon passed King for seventh with a neat move into Turn 5. An off-track excursion and a another stop for wets would relegate Rossi to 11th at the finish.
As rain started to fall more consistently, Newgarden maintained a 25s gap to Bourdais as teams wondered if a stop for Firestone wets would be required before the two-hour time limit was reached.
Newgarden was first in on lap 72 – with 14 minutes to go – to take wets as Bourdais stayed out. The Penske driver resumed with a 7.0s deficit to Bourdais and fell back on wets that, at the present level of rainfall, were approximately 5.0s per lap slower than Bourdais on Firestone slicks.
Hunter-Reay took second from the compromised Newgarden, but pitted shortly after the pass. Most of the field, barring Bourdais and Dixon, shot into the pits for wets as the race fell below the 10-minute mark.
Down to eight minutes, and with the rain falling harder, Newgarden cut Bourdais’ lead to almost nothing as the Coyne driver was forced to pit for wets. With the gamble working in the polesitter’s favor, Newgarden cruised home to an easy 9.9s win in his Chevy over the Honda duo of Hunter-Reay and Hinchcliffe.
Fastest in the dry and fastest in the wet, Newgarden and Team Penske ruled the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama. Will the trend continue as the series moves to its second consecutive natural terrain road course for the Indy GP on May 12? If Barber Motorsports Park was an indicator, the front-running Bowtie drivers could be preparing for another trip to Victory Lane.