Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden took control of the Kohler Grand Prix weekend on Friday with the fastest lap of the day, earned pole position on Saturday, and withstood intense pressure on Sunday to capture his third win of the season.
Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay stalked Newgarden for 55 torrid laps at Road America, got within a half-second after the final pit stop, and did his best to move the No. 28 Honda ahead of the No. 1 Chevy, but the defending series champion was too faultless and too fast to catch.
“Man, what a day,” Newgarden said after taking his 10th career win under gorgeous blue skies. “I don’t know what to say. I’m worn out! It was a day of executing. It was not as easy at it looked; I was looking in my mirrors all day at Ryan. I think the Chevy engine made the difference. Our car was phenomenal, and you just gotta keep pushing. Whenever you take it easy, that’s when bad things happen.”
Commanding 53 laps from the front of the field, Newgarden launched his bid to retain the drivers’ title as IndyCar speeds through the final eight races of the year in bold style. Circulating a 4.0-mile Road America facility packed with fans, Hunter-Reay crossed the finish line 3.3 seconds arrears confident in the fact that he got the most out of the car.
“Hats off to Josef, he did a great job,” he said. “I gave it 110 percent. We didn’t have anything for him.”
Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon used more blinding pit work from his No. 9 Honda crew and a series of daring passes to improve from eighth to third at the checkered flag.
“The car’s been fast all weekend; we made a little fumble in qualifying and had we started near the front row, I think we could have won this thing,” he said. “It’s tough. The competition is very tight. Just didn’t have enough.”
Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Takuma Sato put on his best performance of the season with a run to fourth in the No. 30 Honda that included some spirited passing.
“The guys did a fantastic job,” he said after coming home two positions ahead of teammate Graham Rahal. “Really happy with the result. It was a great event.”
Schmidt Peterson Motorsports completed the top five with Robert Wickens who held station in the No. 6 Honda.
“All things considered, to come home fifth was good,” said the series’ top rookie. “We wanted to be on the podium, we had a car to be on the podium, but it didn’t go our way.”
Like Sato, Spencer Pigot finally delivered the strong result he needed in the No. 20 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevy. The young American held seventh in the waning moments of the 1h40m race but dropped to eighth when Penske’s Simon Pagenaud motored by with the end in sight. It gave Pigot his second top 10 of the year, and with teammate Jordan King finishing 12th, both ECR drivers recorded their best results to date in 2018.
With no cautions to slow the race and pack the field up, those who suffered problems were also destined to finish off the lead lap.
The race got off to a bad start for Penske’s Will Power, whose Chevy engine sounded like it was firing on fewer than six cylinders. Falling back immediately, the points leader pitted to seek repairs, returned for an exploratory lap, and pulled in to retire. Credited with 23rd place, the Australian went backwards in the championship standings as a result of the misfortune.
Sebastien Bourdais was another front-runner to experience difficulties early in the race when a shifting issue cropped up that cost the Frenchman a lap. He’d finish 13th after starting sixth.
“The prospects were looking good,” Bourdais said, “then I lost all shifting for about 30 seconds. It started to work again when I got on pit lane. We rebooted, but at that point the race was basically over, as there was never a yellow to reset the field. Because we pitted early we had to save a massive amount of fuel, so that was pretty much a double penalty, the time lost and the amount of fuel I had to save the rest of the way.”
Although Hunter-Reay showed the full potential of the Andretti team, he was shadowed by teammate Alexander Rossi past the halfway point and it looked like both drivers could have filled out the podium until the left-front camber shims in the No. 27 appeared to loosen. Forced to pit to have the problem rectified, Rossi dropped to 16th in the race which promoted Hunter-Reay to a share of second in the championship.
At the head of the standings, Dixon’s good day turned a 23-point lead entering Road America into a 45-point advantage over Hunter-Reay/Rossi in second. Newgarden, fifth coming into the weekend, improved to fourth and needs just five points to equal the Andretti duo.
Power, who led the championship after his big victory at the Indy 500, is 65 points back to Dixon in fifth.
Newgarden’s on a charge with Iowa up next, but with a stout lead in the standings, Dixon is in an enviable position. If the four-time champion can hover around the podium in the weeks ahead, the path to a fifth title could begin to appear.
The old guard pitted against the new guard, with Chevy and Honda engines offering different strengths at different tracks, is building toward a thrilling run to the season finale in September.