It started late after a safety vehicle spilled oil on the 1.25-mile World Wide Technology Raceway, and was decided by race strategy rather than intense on-track passing, but Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden didn’t care as he turned in a winning performance at precisely the right time to keep his hopes of retaining the championship alive by claiming ownership of Round 2 of the WWTR doubleheader.
Everything Newgarden needed to happen fell his way on Sunday as championship leader Scott Dixon, winner of Saturday’s race, never factored on the way to finishing a distant fifth. Entering Sunday holding second in the championship standings, Newgarden clawed back some ground as his deficit to Dixon was reduced from an imposing 117 points to a more manageable 96.
Behind Newgarden, Arrow McLaren SP’s Pato O’Ward gave chase and had the margin down to less than a half-second in his No. 5 Chevy before the yellow flags waved to end the race under caution.
“This is all a pit stop win for me,” Newgarden said after scoring his second victory of the year. “My guys have been amazing in the pits. It was really fun racing Pato out of the pits; that was the race right there. This is all down to my team. They won the race. I didn’t win it.”
Like Newgarden, O’Ward, third in the standings, also drew down the gap to Dixon from 130 points to 119.
“We had a great weekend,” O’Ward said after placing third on Saturday. “Our objective was to come in and score two podiums and we did that. I would be great to score a win. We’re so close. We were super competitive. Were knocking on the door. We’re very close and we’re going to keep pushing. Our time will come.”
Penske’s Will Power was a frustrated third, having led convincingly until a problematic final pit stop turned his lead into a loss.
“We had a very good car,” he said. “I feel like we had the car to win. We had great stops, great car, the strategy didn’t work out in the end. We’ve had a lot of potential this year. Strange year.”
Thanks to a bold strategy play, the great surprise on Sunday went to Ed Carpenter Racing’s Rinus VeeKay, whose No. 21 Chevy was shot forward from an 18th-place start to the top five by being the first to pit and making extreme speed in clean air as the majority of the field lost time while running in packs. Promoted to the lead group, VeeKay earned a career-best fourth and led all rookies on the day. Pouncing on a slowed Colton Herta, VeeKay made contact with the No. 88 Andretti Autosport Honda while executing an outside pass between Turns 3 and 4 that left Herta fighting to avoid a crash and fuming after the race.
The final sprint to the checkered flag was paused when Takuma Sato got wide and brushed the Turn 2 wall with three laps to go in the 200-lap contest. Although O’Ward looked like he might have had something for Newgarden, the caution sealed the running order with Newgarden, O’Ward, Power, and VeeKay delivering an impressive 1-2-3-4 for Team Chevy. Dixon in fifth was the first home for Honda, with Herta and CGR teammate Felix Rosenqvist claiming a 5-6-7 for Honda Performance Development.
Outside of Sato’s light contact and the clash between VeeKay and Herta, WWTR Round 2 was dictated by each team’s race strategist.
Polesitter Sato owned the opening frame and tried to use the successful strategy from Saturday, one that shot the No. 30 Honda to the lead by stretching his fuel and leapfrogging his way to an eventual second-place finish, to gain a bigger advantage on the field.
The decision to open Sunday’s race with a long stint backfired immediately as he spent too many laps stuck behind slower cars who fought to keep from going a lap down. Those chasing Sato pitted well before the Rahal Letterman Lanigan entry, and as the No. 30 made its first call to pit lane in first, the speed produced by his rivals on fresh tires — and without traffic — meant Sato returned to the track in eighth.
Once Sato stopped and was shuffled back, the winner during the second stint was O’Ward, whose incredible efforts to gain time on his pit-in and pit-out laps promoted the Arrow McLaren SP driver to the lead. On the next pit stop sequence, and as the No. 5 Chevy took its turn at the head of the field, Power chased O’Ward down, brought the lead down to less than one second, stayed out one lap longer, and took the lead from the AMSP driver to start the third stanza.
The pit stop dramas continued at the final stop after Power led the entire stint and got caught behind a slow Ed Carpenter entering pit lane. The slight delay on the entry lane allowed Newgarden and O’Ward to get ahead of the No. 12 Chevy, and in an epic drag race to the pit exit line, the Penske driver edged O’Ward, who briefly fought on the outside of the exit lane before surrendering to Newgarden.
Herta used race strategy to run long and emerge in fourth, but the aforementioned charge and contact from VeeKay nearly pitched him into the wall. He recovered to finish sixth.
Run under hot and humid blue skies, the final IndyCar race of August also brought Tony Kanaan’s final scheduled race. It held great promise as the A.J. Foyt Racing driver rolled off in 19th and looked to make a charge forward. Fortune, however, wasn’t ready to smile on the Brazilian as he concluded the 23rd season in an illustrious career. If anything, the dissatisfaction from finishing where he started in 19th will only serve as added motivation to find the budget for a part-time return in 2021.
With increasing odds of Mid-Ohio’s doubleheader being added to the schedule for the weekend of September 11-13, teams and drivers will have a short break before the championship heads into the last five races of 2020.