Newgarden holds off Grosjean and Palou to win in Long Beach

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Newgarden holds off Grosjean and Palou to win in Long Beach

IndyCar

Newgarden holds off Grosjean and Palou to win in Long Beach

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Josef Newgarden finally added a Long Beach victory to his career resume after claiming a hard-fought NTT IndyCar Series win on the famed Southern Californian street course on Sunday.

After spending the first stint trying to keep polesitter Colton Herta in sight, Newgarden jumped the Andretti Autosport car during the first round of stops — but both found themselves having been leapfrogged by Alex Palou.

That set him up for a middle stint still in second place, but this time chasing the reigning series champion. He stayed out two laps later than the Spaniard before making his second stop, and rejoined more or less side by side with the No. 10 Ganassi. Palou took a swing at passing him at Turn 5, which resulted in minor contact between the pair but no change in position. That his best shot, and when Newgarden got a better exit out of the hairpin at the end of the lap and built a small gap, the pair settled back into playing the long game.

The final chapter in the battle came just after a restart with 15 laps to go. Newgarden and Palou were still running first and second, but just behind them was Romain Grosjean, who was alone among the frontrunners in opting for the softer Firestones for his last stint. That call paid off almost immediately after the race went back to green when the Frenchman made relatively easy work of picking off Palou for second, and he immediately set upon hunting down Newgarden. That gap evaporated quickly, and Newgarden found himself weathering a string of attacks from the No. 28 Andretti Honda. A huge lunge from Grosjean at Turn 5 was rebuffed, and also torched all of the Grosjean’s remaining push-to-pass.

That finally gave Newgarden some breathing space, and also brought Palou back into play in the fight for second. Did anyone have enough left to make something happen on the last lap? We’ll never know for sure, because just seconds before the white flag came out, Takuma Sato pounded into the barrier and the race finished under yellows.

“This was a fight today,” said a jubilant Newgarden. “This is not an easy race to win. I was working my butt off with Grosjean at the end on the reds; I was just hoping I could hold him off. It was super-difficult. So proud of Team Penske. I’ve been trying to win a race here for 11 years, so I’m so proud to get it done.”

After again flirting with a first IndyCar win, Grojsean was reasonably satisfied to come away with his first podium as an Andretti driver.

“Very close,” he said. “But not close enough.”

Palou was similarly happy to finish where he started.

“We did a good strategy,” he said. “We went from third to first on strategy, and then we were so close (at the second stop). It was a good pitstop again, but I did the out lap a bit poorly, that’s how (Newgarden) came out ahead. The team did an amazing job. It was not our day, but we’ll try again at Barber.”

It might not have been his day but it was a heck of a lot better than Herta’s. The 2021 Long Beach winner dominated the opening stint: after just five laps, he’d already opened a gap of nearly 2.0s on Newgarden, and all the early signs pointed to an afternoon where everyone else would be racing for scraps. The first setback came in the form of a slow first stop, which left Herta radioing the team to ask how he’d managed to come out of the first round of stops in third.

That would prove to be his only stop of the day. Right before he was due to come in for his second, he overcooked it on the approach to Turn 9 and put the car into the fence. Race over.

“I just braked a little bit too late,” he said. “I got in there, locked the right front and that was it. Just a stupid mistake. We were definitely in that thing. We were running third and keeping up with Alex and Josef and it’s just unfortunate. I feel really bad. Just overdid it a little bit.”

His absence, along with a string of other early exits, helped pave the way for several drivers to salvage strong results from rough starts to the weekend. Will Power narrowly missed the Fast 6 in qualifying but was pleased to get the No. 12 Team Penske Chevy home in fourth, while Pato O’Ward was nowhere on Friday and Saturday, but fought his way to fifth.

“Today was very solid for us,” he said. “I know it’s not a win but we’ve had a very rough start to our year. All I wanted to do today was get a nice solid foundation, and we will build on momentum from today. We should be proud of what we did today. We went forward, not by a couple of positions but a handful. And we’re heading into Barber, one of my favorite places. There’s 14 races to go, today was a big step forward considering where we started the weekend. I had a great race car today. Unlucky we weren’t starting a bit further up front, but eyes forward — I think we’re going to be going some good things in the next few races.”

It was a similar story right behind him, where Scott Dixon turned a 16th-place starting position into a sixth-place finish, aided by a strategy built around stopping early and finding space.

“Starting with qualifying, we had a big mistake on the car,” he said. “We were super-aggressive on strategy. I think in that first sequence we jumped about 10 cars. Had to give up a little bit to save fuel, but I think a lot of people were surprised by the lap we pitted on.”

Along the way, he survived a friendly-fire incident when Ganassi teammate Marcus Ericsson — who was running in third and looking strong — hit the wall at the exit of Turn 4 just after a restart on lap 67 and spun directly into Dixon’s path. The New Zealander was unable to avoid contact, but escaped without damage.

Ericsson’s crash was in keeping with the theme of an afternoon where more than a third of the field was claimed by accidents. Among the more significant was Jimmie Johnson’s, given that he was already racing with a splint on his hand after crashing on Friday, and then crashed again on Saturday morning. On this occasion, he lost it on the way into Turn 5 and collected Coyne’s David Malukas on his way into the tires. It wasn’t immediately clear whether there was earlier contact between the pair that initiated the spin.

“I lost it so early, I’m not sure if there was contact behind or not,” said a bemused Johnson. “I was under the impression that I lost it on that rubber that’s stacking up on corner entry, but the crew thought otherwise. Either way, the rubber was unlike anything I have seen before. There was inches of rubber stacked up around the racetrack, and it was very interesting to work out where to place the car, and I think I was just a bit wide.”

Most of the other impacts were of the standard lockup, skid, bang variety, but Simon Pagenaud took a different approach when he took a broadside hit while fighting Sato at the fountain and ended up backwards in a flower bed.

Outside of the race-ending crashes, the other incident of consequence involved Scott McLaughlin, who was the only driver in the top 10 to start on the black tires. The idea was to hang on for dear life in the first stint and then pick others off when he had a tire advantage later in the race. He succeeded in the first part of the mission and was running in the same position as where he’d started when he made his first stop, but the plan went sideways during the second stint when he snagged the inside barrier at the hairpin and spun, losing 10 positions and burying himself in the pack for the rest of the afternoon.

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