You have to be good, and have good fortune, to win any NTT IndyCar Series race, especially in a wet/dry affair like the first race of the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix double-header turned out to be. Josef Newgarden and his Hitachi Penske team were all that and more in winning their second race of the year and the 12th of the young American’s career.
Newgarden vaulted from third to first on his sole pit stop of his day on Lap 17, thanks to a timely caution that came out just as he left the pits and gave him track position ahead of the Honda-powered cars of Alexander Rossi and Scott Dixon that had looked in control in the early, wet stages of the race.
“It was the perfect call to get us the position that we needed,” said Newgarden, who went from tied for the championship lead to 25 points ahead with the win. “I was hoping it dried up, I thought that would give us a little more opportunity to do something. But our Chevy engine was awesome — had the fuel mileage, the horsepower, the driveability, and in Chevy’s backyard, that was amazing. We worked so hard in the off-season to get our street course cars ready, and I think we were ready today.”
Rossi had felt ready too, but it wasn’t enough, as the Andretti Autosport driver finished second to a Penske for the second straight week, this time by just 0.8237s after another late-race shootout.
“These yellows are tough, man” rued Rossi of the timing of the stop that cost him the lead, and ultimately the win. “It’s part of the game in IndyCar and it’s the same for everyone. But we had a really good car in the wet and we were able to control the race, and then track position on a one-line track — because obviously there was really only one dry line — there wasn’t much I could do.
“I’m frustrated. I think we had the best car again today…but ultimately for one reason or another we’re not on the top step of the podium.”
After severe weather delayed the start, IndyCar switched from the planned 70 laps to a 75-minute timed race to fit the TV window. That threw an extra element into the strategy game. With light rain forcing a start on wet tires, the key became how long you could afford to stay off slicks on the mixed concrete and asphalt track surface, given that the shortened distance made only one refueling stop necessary.
Polesitter Rossi had a safe advantage due to Race Control’s decision to opt for a single-file start. Not so Zach Veach, who looped it on the pace lap while jumping on the power too soon, forfeiting his eighth-place qualifying position and ensuring the timed race started under yellow.
The predictably contentious first lap under green didn’t last long as Takuma Sato drifted into Pato O’Ward and there was another spin, this one by Matheus Leist — although not before Scott Dixon darted past a squirrelly Newgarden for second.
The second try for green went more smoothly, with Rosenqvist moving up to third behind Rossi and Dixon, who quickly established a comfortable advantage, while farther back, Will Power carved his way up to seventh from 12th at the start. The Australian added Colton Herta and Sato to his his list within a handful of laps to effectively erase his qualifying miscue. Teammate Simon Pagenaud, too, excelled in the wet making up six places in the early going.
Marco Andretti made the brave move to be the first on slicks some 15 minutes in, and was 20 seconds off the pace on his out-lap. However, a dry line was rapidly forming and a lot of anxious radio messages were exchanged over when to follow. A full-course caution then waved as Ed Jones drifted into the wall at Turn 7. That was perfectly timed for Newgarden, who had stopped for slicks as the yellow came out, and therefore cycled into the lead.
But it was the opposite of perfect for Power, whose error-prone season took another gutting turn, this time through no fault of his own: The right-front tire changer failed to correctly connect the wheel on his stop, and it fell off as the No. 12 Verizon Chevy left the pit lane. Power was able to three-wheel back to the pits and continue from the back of the pack.
To make matters worse, he was called back when a penalty was applied for an unsafe release.
Even worse off soon afterward was Dixon, who clipped the inside wall and slid into the tires at Turn 6 — out of the race shortly after the restart with a half-hour to go. Remarkably, it was the first DNF in two years for the reigning series champ.
The extra yellow was beneficial for Newgarden, whose pit stop was deemed to have not given him a full load of fuel and made it questionable whether the Hitachi No. 2 had enough to make the finish. Not to worry, though, as another caution soon followed when Leist caught the barriers at the end of the back straight to bring the yellow back out. Moments before that, Sato pulled off a sweet pass on Rosenqvist in Turn 3 to move up to third.
All this set up the joint championship leaders going head to head on the restart with a dozen minutes left. Newgarden managed the start perfectly while Sato resisted Rosenqvist’s effort to return the favor on him, ahead of Ryan Hunter-Reay, Pagenaud and Graham Rahal.
The leading pair quickly broke away from Sato and made it all about each other for the win. The Honda driver closed in on the back side of the course, but the Chevy man was quicker through the fast Turns 1 and 2, enabling him to edge away again and maintain just enough over the final countdown of the clock.
And the critical timing of that pit stop? Not quite as lucky as it seemed, noted Newgarden’s strategist, team boss Tim Cindric:
“We needed to pit on that lap or the next lap and typically, when those guys start putting on dry tires and it’s wet, there’s a caution at some point in time, so we tried to get in as early as we could,” he noted. “He did a great job holding him off, obviously.”
UP NEXT: Race 2 qualifying, 10:30 a.m. ET