Executing brilliant tire tactics as well as maximizing opportunities, Josef Newgarden opened the NTT IndyCar Series with a decisive victory for Team Penske over reigning series champion Scott Dixon and teammate Will Power.
After being edged for pole by Power, Newgarden’s No. 2 Hitachi Chevrolet was shuffled further back at the start by a fast-starting Felix Rosenqvist, but after biding his time through the opening stints, Newgarden took advantage of a clear track to make up time on a green-flag pit stop sequence to vault into the lead and then take control of the race.
“We were talking about it right before the race, Tim (Cindric) and me were, trying to figure out should we go used or new reds. We made the call at the last minute to stay with used, so we’d have that advantage if we needed it,” Newgarden related. “We used it, and it just worked out perfectly.”
On the used reds, Newgarden stretched his advantage to more than 9sec before pitting for the final time to switch to primaries. His only issue from there was getting stuck behind Marco Andretti — who ironically had helped Newgarden’s cause by baulking Power and Dixon during the decisive pit stop sequence that had got him the lead. Andretti held up the No. 2 enough to burn down the advantage from 9 to 1.3s before the Tennessean squeezed by the Andretti Autosport driver on the inside of Turn 1. Once ahead, Newgarden was able to stabilize the gap.
“It was definitely manufacturers playing good guys with each other,” added Newgarden. “It was really tough. I just didn’t want to see people in front of me. I knew I had the pace to stay ahead of Scott, but I was worried about something going wrong. Everybody was kind enough, I would say — it was still hard, but they were kind enough.”
“It was a tough race. We never really had any down time. Pretty flat-out — just one caution I think,” noted Dixon, who had to deal with it all without an operational drink bottle. “It was pretty physical with no fluids, but the PNC Bank car was really fast for the first 10-15 laps and we could really pressure the Penskes.
“But as soon as they got to the last 10 laps, we fell off a bit, so we’ve definitely got to work on that.”
Power said after qualifying that his focus was on a clean start after blowing it with a spin on the first lap here last year, and he pulled it off this time, easing away to a comfortable advantage before becoming the first leader to pit. That was due to an early exit for Sebastien Bourdais, whose hopes of a St. Pete three-peat went up in literal smoke with an engine failure, although the Penske team failed to steal a march on the rest when a caution proved unnecessary.
The yellow did come out a few minutes later, though, when a second Honda erupted in the back of Ryan Hunter-Reay’s Andretti Autosport car in dramatic fashion.
On the ensuing restart, Power got a little squirrelly on the run out of the final corner due to a minor overboost issue, and that was all Rosenqvist needed. The Swede’s NTT Data Honda squirted past Power’s Verizon Chevy under braking for Turn 1, locking the right-front tire briefly and drifting wide, but just able to hold Power off until the track narrowed into Turn 2.
The Ganassi team rookie then pulled away by a couple of seconds before the race was neutralized when Ed Jones brushed the inside wall in Turn 9, then slid across and slammed the outside wall. After Zach Veach missed the stricken Ed Carpenter Racing car by inches, Matheus Leist drifted a few inches closer and deranged his left-rear wheel against Jones’ wreck.
Jones was evaluated at the Infield Care Center after complaining of left hand pain following the crash. It was determined the ECR driver had suffered a small non-displaced fracture of his distal fourth metacarpal (finger bone). It is expected that with proper splinting he will still be able to participate in racing activities.
Another perfect restart from Rosenqvist secured his lead over Power until the Australian was able to jump him — just — on the next round of green flag stops, as did teammate Dixon. But all three of them wound up being jumped big time by Newgarden.
“It’s risk and reward,” said team boss Cindric, who also serves as Newgarden’s race strategist, of the decision to run a long stint after the leaders ahead of the Hitachi Chevy had pitted. “When those guys pitted in front of him he (Newgarden) did a great job of knocking out laps. But as you’re doing that, those five or six laps, knowing that if a caution comes, you’re the zero — you’re done for the day.”
This time, it proved a hero move.
Alexander Rossi (Andretti Autosport) had a fairly quiet run to fifth, his hopes of overhauling Rosenqvist for fourth also hindered by traffic.
Colton Herta (Harding Steinbrenner Racing) and Santino Ferrucci (Dale Coyne Racing) made it three rookies in the top 10 by finishing eighth and ninth, while Jack Harvey (Meyer Shank Racing with Arrow SPM) rounded out the top 10.
For Herta, who had looked so strong in pre-season and earlier in the weekend, eighth was both good and bad.
“Could have been better,” mused the 18-year-old. “I made a mistake on the first restart and we fell all the way back to 17th 18th, so I’m proud that we were able to fight back into the top 10. But it could have been a little better day, so I’m a little bit disappointed. Still…starting off the year right.”