Josef Newgarden made it three World Wide Technology Raceway victories in a row in Saturday night’s NTT IndyCar Series race, but that was just the start of the story.
Fans endured a two-hour red flag after a rain shower passed through during the race, setting up a 42-lap sprint to the finish once the track had been dried, and their patience was rewarded with a thrilling final few laps that very nearly ended with Dale Coyne Racing rookie David Malukas claiming a first career win.
Newgarden had been second behind Team Penske teammate Scott McLaughlin at the restart, but claimed the lead immediately after the green with the help of a great run off Turn 2. At that point Malukas was fifth and reaping the benefits of an aggressive strategy from the Coyne team that put both of its cars in the mix at the finish, and newer rubber than the cars around him by virtue of having made a stop right before the rain started to fall. He made short work of early race leader Will Power to move into fourth and immediately began reeling in Pato O’Ward, eventually reliving the Mexican of third place on lap 243.
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That left him 17 laps to do something about the two Penske cars ahead of him, and while he was able to close up on McLaughlin, he wasn’t able to make a move stick – until the very last lap, when he went for the high line through Turn 2 and scooted through for second place and was right on Newgarden’s gearbox as they passed the checker.
“We ended up getting around O’Ward and got around a lapped car, and then I saw the cars in front and they were two Penskes, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, it’s two Penskes,’” he said. “I might have been able to get Josef if I’d tried the high line earlier, but that was like a win for me, a win for the team.”
McLaughlin, who’d controlled the middle part of the race and would have taken his first oval win if the weather hadn’t cleared, was the first to praise Malukas’s move.
“That’s racing,” he said. “Dave’s move on the last lap…credit to him. He’s a phenomenal young kid and he’s going to go far. He was coming and I was a little loose so I got a bad run off Turns 3 and 4, so I took the inside line, he took the outside and there was still grip there. Hell of a move. But good points for us.”
For Newgarden, the evening represented a fifth win of the season – beating his previous record of four – and the prospect of going into Portland just three points behind Power in the championship hunt.
“Scott drove me super-fair at the end there and we had a good fight,” Newgarden said. “It’s a big night for everybody at Team Penske. We just had to have a good (re)start. I knew Scott was going to be good and he had a good car, so I just tried to work the high lane. Got to give him credit, he easily could have won tonight.”
So could a few other people. Going into the race, everyone knew rain was coming but opinions – and in turn, strategies – were divided on exactly when. And when the first drops of rain brought out a red flag on lap 218 of 260, it was Newgarden and McLaughlin’s teams that had judged it best. The pair took advantage of the first caution of the evening to pit under yellows on lap 148, however Power stayed out.
“I thought the yellow would help us, but the team didn’t tell me the number we’d have to hit if we didn’t pit,” Power said. “If I’d known that number, I definitely would have pitted.”
The cost of staying out was plain to see: new tires and full-rich beats fuel saving every time. Power lost the lead to a thrilling move from Pato O’Ward at the restart but the real threat was a few spots behind, where Newgarden scythed through from fourth as though he was playing a video game in cheat mode and set about building a gap that blew out to 6.0s after 10 laps. McLaughlin pulled a similar act, and the pair quickly dropped the rest of the pack. Newgarden still had a 6.0s lead over McLaughlin at this point (and a 12s gap back to O’Ward), but McLaughlin steadily reeled him in over the rest of the stint. That paid off when the time for the next stop rolled around and Newgarden dived into the pits to find RLL rookie Christian Lundgaard already there. It’s impossible to know how much the Dane might have delayed him, but McLaughlin’s in-lap was 1.0s faster, and when the rejoined, he had taken a lead that held until Newgarden got him after the rain delay.
O’Ward settled for fourth ahead of Takuma Sato, who came out on top from a scrap with Power shortly after the restart. Ganassi kept all of its three title-contending drivers on the same strategy – right down to a quick stop for new tires right before the restart, since they were the last of the 10 drivers on the lead lap and had nothing to lose – and were rewarded with them all finishing in a clump, albeit a bit further back than they’d hoped with Marcus Ericsson seventh ahead of Scott Dixon and Alex Palou. Graham Rahal climbed from a 16th on the grid to complete the top 10.
Fears that a lot of the work to rubber in a second lane for the race were washed away by a brief but enthusiastic downpour earlier in the afternoon proved unfounded, and the high line was in play throughout the race. Romain Grosjean leaned hard on it in the opening laps as he worked to overcome the nine-place grid penalty that relegated him to the rear of the field for the start, and it was a similar story for Felix Rosenqvist, who started from the back after a spin in qualifying but climbed 13 spots in the first seven laps. Running high carried its risks though, as Jack Harvey learned when he went up the track to find a way around Ed Carpenter, ran out of road, and dinged the wall just hard enough to break a toe-link, sending him back to the pits for repairs, and bringing out the first caution of the day.
Fortunately he was able to rejoin, but it was a different story for Rinus Veekay, whose car developed an electrical problem that, among other things, wiped out his dash, forcing him to guess his speed as he entered the pits. He guessed wrong, earning a speeding penalty, and was later parked for the evening when the team determined that the problem was terminal. Mechanical glitches also slowed the progress of Ed Carpenter Racing teammate Conor Daly, while Callum Ilott’s progress stalled when he clipped a Juncos Hollinger crew member in the pits and earned a 30s stop and hold penalty. The other big thunderbolt was reserved for Alexander Rossi, whose No. 27 Andretti Autosport Honda ran out of fuel as it was approaching the pit box and then spent a couple of minutes ignoring the team’s attempts to restart it.
Next up, the IndyCar series heads to Portland International Raceway on Sep. 4 at 3 p.m. ET on NBC.