Josef Newgarden said he needs three perfect races to have any chance to overtake Scott Dixon for the 2020 IndyCar championship, but now he only needs two after Friday’s masterpiece at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Starting second, Newgarden stalked Colton Herta until their final pit stops and then was able to pull away to an easy 14s victory over Alexander Rossi, and close the point gap to 40 with the second half of the Harvest Grand Prix set for Saturday.
“This car was a rocket ship, and I knew it was yesterday after qualifying,” said the two-time IndyCar champion, who led the final 18 laps to collect his third win of the season. “I’m so excited to be up on this platform. I wish I could have been up here in August with The Captain (Roger Penske). He’s done such an amazing job with this facility.”
It was one of the more entertaining road course races in recent history with over 200 on-track passes for position recorded, and the pivotal pass came on lap 60. Herta, who started third and had a dandy duel with pole-sitter Rinus Veekay in the early going, had taken control of things after his second pit stop when he went with sticker red tires. Even though he lost the lead to Newgarden in that first pit exchange, he regained the top spot on lap 24 with a nifty pass going into Turn 1.
By lap 45, the second-generation driver maintained a 3.0s advantage over the Team Penske driver and held onto the lead during the next round of stops. But he went with scuffed reds while Newgarden bolted on sticker reds, and that turned out to be the difference.
With his rear tires gone, Herta was doing everything he could to stay in front of Newgarden, but finally overcooked it going into Turn 1 on lap 60, and it was game, set and match.
“It was a total gift,” said Newgarden. “I was being patient, to be honest. I felt like we were in the catbird seat and knew what we had speed-wise on him, and it was a matter of getting to that pit cycle.”
They both stopped for a final time, and the 29-year-old Tennessee native emerged with an 8.0s lead that he managed to stretch all the way to his first checkered flag at IMS.
Rossi, whose bid to win the Indianapolis 500 was erased by a questionable penalty, received another one Friday, but it wasn’t nearly as damaging. He was forced to give back a spot to Dixon for putting two wheels over the white line, but recovered with a splendid charge to take second.
Veekay, who was out in front for a total of 15 laps, also put on an excellent late charge to score the first podium of his career for Ed Carpenter Racing.
Herta led 29 laps but had to settle for fourth, and Felix Rosenqvist finished fifth in the Ganassi Honda. Power, blunted by a long pit stop for a faulty wheel nut, did a nice job to get back to sixth and Graham Rahal overcame a quick spin to take seventh. Jack Harvey was eighth and Dixon limped home ninth after a brief, off-course excursion.