With Josef Newgarden’s most unfortunate crash on Sunday, a crazy IndyCar season has become crazier. He won on Saturday and Pato O’Ward won on Sunday, but those achievements have been overshadowed by the injuries the 31-year-old incurred at the event.
The surging Team Penske driver went from being on the cusp of taking the lead in the championship to being a question mark for Saturday’s Indianapolis Grand Prix event. With his health as the only priority, the results of an appointment on Thursday with IndyCar’s medical team will determine whether this year’s most successful driver — winner of 33 percent of the races — will have a chance to continue fighting for his third title, or if he’ll need to miss the Indy GP and continue healing from what appear to be concussion-like symptoms.
Although the crash did not look spectacularly violent on the NBC broadcast, a sickening thud in his rearward impact was heard — above the din of 20-plus car racing at full chat – and it was clear the car struck the wall with immense power. What happened later with Newgarden’s collapse could not have been predicted at the time of the crash, but there was no question the driver of the No. 2 Chevy endured extreme forces in the cockpit upon making contact with the barrier.
And so we wait to learn of Newgarden’s progress after being released from the hospital Monday morning to convalesce at home in Tennessee. Santino Ferrucci, who was scheduled to be at the Speedway to compete in the NASCAR Xfinity race, is also waiting to see if he’ll drive the No. 2 Chevy if Newgarden isn’t cleared.
The 2017 and 2019 IndyCar champ has a few more titles to win before he retires, but we just don’t know if he’ll be able to add a third in 2022 if he’s sidelined this weekend. Entering Iowa holding fourth in the championship, he rose to second after the Iowa Race 1 victory and was ahead of leader Marcus Ericsson in the live standings when the crash occurred. He sits third, tied with Scott Dixon on points, but Newgarden gets the nod for the position due to his 4-1 win tally.
At 34 points behind Ericsson, the gap is far from insurmountable over the last five races. The situation would become more complicated, obviously, if he’s ruled out for the Indy GP as 54 points are on offer for the event. It would take unremarkable results for Ericsson, Penske teammate Will Power who holds second (-8 points), Dixon, and O’Ward in fifth (-36) to keep Newgarden from going into his home race at Nashville without a sizable deficit. But seeing how this season has been so unpredictable, missing Indy wouldn’t necessarily ruin Newgarden’s chances of staying in the title fight if he earns zero points on Saturday.
If Newgarden’s out and, by chance, Ericsson takes pole, leads a lap, leads the most laps, and wins — has a perfect 54-point day at the Speedway – the Penske driver would have four races to carve into an 88-point lead. I can’t say if all the title contenders could knock down that type of imposing margin, but there’s no question as to whether Newgarden and the No. 2 Chevy would be up for the challenge.
The last thing Ericsson, Power, and the rest of the championship hunters want is to have Newgarden ruled out due to injury. These aren’t the type of people to cheer for a rival’s misfortune, and they’ll say so if asked and mean what they say. Beating Newgarden in a fair and equal fight for the championship is what would give the title added meaning, and IndyCar’s collective paddock and fan base are rooting for his swift return.
ONE TO FORGET
If it weren’t for Romain Grosjean’s run to seventh on Saturday and ninth on Sunday, we’d be talking about one of Andretti Autosport’s roughest weekends of the year. And it wasn’t limited to the four team cars; Andretti Technologies client Meyer Shank Racing suffered its worst event to date since expanding to two entries.
Altogether, three of the four Andretti cars and the two MSR affiliates were laden with misery as they all missed out on the top 10 in Race 1 and again in Race 2. If Alexander Rossi was at a loss for words for the lack of speed, the angriest of all was Simon Pagenaud who somehow managed to earn 23rd in both races. Prior to Iowa, his worst finish was a 19th, so double P23s in a span of 24 hours was alarming for the oval-loving Frenchman. Helio Castroneves was the luckier one at MSR with a 16th and 21st…
And who would have predicted Grosjean, the guy with the least amount of oval experience in the Andretti camp, would lead the team home at both rounds? In hindsight, Grosjean was the perfect Andretti candidate to do well at Iowa.
Using smarts and self-preservation as a guide, he was like a soldier taking careful steps through a minefield. Others charged like mad, and it worked for them in some cases, but it sure didn’t for others who roasted their tires and paid the price. Full credit to Grosjean for leaving the extra aggression at the door and turning his first Iowa weekend into one of his most impressive performances of the year.
* It’s a short week so let’s keep this edition tight and look at a few short items before moving onto the second Indy GP of the year, starting with the stellar runs by most of Iowa’s rookies and newcomers. Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Christian Lundgaard was headed for an excellent Iowa debut after racing to 10th in Race 1, directly behind teammate and veteran Graham Rahal. Brake problems in Race 2 meant he was the first driver out of the race and, after being unable to stop his car on the marks in pit lane, this popped up on timing and scoring: PENALTY – Warning + Post Race Monetary Fine, Car 30 – Hitting Own Equipment (188.8.131.52).
* David Malukas should be proud after taking a 14th and eighth and sending a message that he won’t back down when challenged. Callum Ilott’s 12th and 11th was another demonstration of the rookie’s rapid grasp of oval racing, and at least for the Saturday portion of the event Kyle Kirkwood was able to record his best finish since April — a 10th at Long Beach — with 15th in Race 1. “It was an unfortunate situation for myself where it almost felt just like something let go and I went straight off into the wall,” Kirkwood said. “Here on entry, I just turned and there was nothing there. I’ll be scratching my head because we damaged that side of the car but yeah, it’s just unfortunate.”
* Strange to see oval beasts in Rahal, Castroneves and Rossi get lapped — one after the other – as Race 2 reached lap 35.
* Thanks to Rinus VeeKay’s fourth in Race 1, Ed Carpenter Racing had one positive to come from the weekend. Sadly, that’s where the sunshine met its end. The team owner/driver Carpenter never factored, crashing on Saturday and holding on for a 17th on Sunday after being penalized for receiving full service while the pits were closed. Conor Daly’s strong qualifying runs weren’t rewarded in the races as he went 19th and 16th as choices to pit early and go to fresher tires made for long days. And a penalty sunk VeeKay’s fortunes on Sunday as he was penalized for improper entry to the pits. “All three of our cars were in a tough spot today, we were better than the other two, but as a team, we want to be better,” Daly said.
* Dalton Kellett’s event ended on an unfortunate note as he hit a crew member on his final pit stop. The Foyt team was kind enough to share the following update on Monday: “Left rear tire changer and team trainer Chris McFadden, who was struck by Dalton Kellett’s car during the final round of pit stops, was released from the hospital last night. McFadden did not have any broken bones but he did have a deep laceration to his left thigh and significant bruising. McFadden stayed in a Des Moines area hotel last night. Fellow crewman Mark Stewart is bringing him back to Indianapolis today. McFadden’s return to action is undetermined at this time.”
* Nice rally by the Ganassi team to turn poor starting positions into solid rebounds in both races. Although the foursome weren’t contenders for wins, the entire quartet came home inside the top 11 on Saturday and the top 13 on Sunday with Palou as the outlier; the other three drivers locked down fourth to sixth.
* Talk about more heartbreak for RLL’s Jack Harvey, who wore the bright red colors of primary sponsor and Iowa event sponsor Hy-Vee. Qualifying gave great hope for Harvey as he secured starts of seventh and sixth; finishes of 18th and 20th were most unfortunate. “It’s disappointing that we didn’t do better for Hy-Vee this weekend after what I felt was a good qualifying,” he said. “I felt like the momentum was with us in practice and then qualifying but that was not the case in the races.”
* We’ll cover the amazing job done by the Iowa promoters and sponsors in a separate feature, so enjoy this quick turnaround between Iowa and Indy and whatever’s in store for IndyCar as it joins NASCAR for its big Brickyard event.