Josef Newgarden had a two-hour rain stoppage in which make a plan for the 42-lap sprint to the finish in Saturday night’s NTT IndyCar Series race at World Wide Technology Raceway, but the pass on Team Penske stablemate Scott McLaughlin for what proved to be the win just after the restart was completely improvised.
“That (move) wasn’t really planned,” said Newgarden. “I was just going. I don’t know where I’m going, I’m just going. He’s going to go as hard as he can to the corner, I’m going to go harder. It may work out, it may not.
“That’s sometimes my mentality. It seemed to work. But it wasn’t super-premeditated, the actual maneuver. It can good so many ways. If I get a big run on Scott, go inside of him, that’s one thing.
“If I go outside of him, that’s another thing. I didn’t have a big run on him. I’m just reacting. I’m going to bullet this first lap quicker than him, and I was ready to do that. Fortunately we were prepped and ready and it worked out.”
Newgarden had led earlier in the race, but lost just enough time behind another car at pit entry to allow McLaughlin the chance to pass him during the pitstop cycle. It was the second time this year that the pair have battled for the lead in the closing laps.
Back in March, McLaughlin was leading at Texas only to get tangled in traffic and allow Newgarden the opportunity to make a move at the final corner and out-drag him to the line. Saturday evening presented them the chance to go head-to-head without lapped cars being a factor, and even though the fight was settled quickly, Newgarden enjoyed it while it lasted.
“I thought Scott drove me with a tremendous amount of respect,” he said. “He raced me hard, he wasn’t giving me anything, but just gave me a lot of respect like you would expect from a teammate. I think he goes above and beyond sometimes.
“With Scott, it’s a little bittersweet because we have a great friendship. He’s a tremendous competitor. I rank Scott as one of the most elite drivers in the world, not just here but in the world. He’s top class. Very difficult to beat. We get along really great. He’s a tremendous teammate, hard worker. It’s not the easiest friendship to have, because we’re competing.
“At the end of the day he wanted to win the race, and I wanted to win the race. I was frustrated that we slipped behind him on the pit cycle. I felt like we had the position on him, and that frustrated me.
“Ultimately, we have a tremendous working relationship. Nights like this are good. At the end of the day if we’re battling together, things are going well. We want to see that pretty often. I think we will see that often.
“Scott is not going to go anywhere. He’s only going to get better. I hope we have more battles. They will be tough because I respect him a lot, consider him a friend, but he’s also a competitor.”
Newgarden had similar praise for rookie David Malukas, who surged from fifth to third after the restart, improved to second with a last-lap pass on McLaughlin, and was sizing up Newgarden when the checker waved. The Penske driver said afterwards that he had enough in his pocket to have been able to respond if the race had gone a few laps longer and Malukas began to threaten him for the lead, but emphasized his admiration for the 20-year-old’s performance.
“He was a little better on tires it sounds like,” Newgarden said. “I think McLaughlin went loose. I was not. I was sort of managing the gap. I was actually trying to help Scott. I didn’t want to stay too far away to bunch Scott up to David, so I was trying to push the pace a bit. But I still had some on hand.
“I think if David mounted like a real effort on me, I would have had more to push on him. But I don’t know. Ten more laps, maybe he gets me. It’s impossible to say. I think time worked out for us.
“I would give Malukas a lot of respect. He’s probably been one of the cleanest rookies I’ve ever seen. He’s been almost too respectful. It is true that if you’re too respectful you can get run over in this series. That’s how people race these days. You have to put your elbows out, you’ve got to fight people now. If you don’t, they’re going to fight you back and you’re going to end up passed or in the wall.
“He’s just been the most respectful driver I’ve seen out of a rookie in a long time. I think he’s starting to think, ‘How much can I push on people?’ He probably would have done that tonight. But I would have felt comfortable racing with him. I think he’s the best rookie I’ve seen in a long time to be racing respectfully.”
Newgarden’s win was his third in a row at WWTR and fourth overall, and the 25th of his career – a tally that brings him level with Gordon Johncock on the all-time list. It also brought him within three points of teammate Will Power in the championship fight with just two races to go.
“We’re just going to race like we always do,” he said. “It’s as simple as that. We race all year, we race hard. It’s not going to be the first time Will and I have raced together. We’ve had many, many races that have been in lockstep, one-two, pit strategy, the whole thing. We’ll just fight it out as normal.
“Clearly we don’t want to do something that jeopardizes the whole group, because it is bigger than us. At the end of the day, we’ve got three cars in the fight still. There’s nothing that matters more than putting a Team Penske car in victory lane.
“As much as I want that to be me – believe me I do, I will work to be that person – we also have to just make sure we remember that it’s about all of us and it’s about all the effort we put in. We have to make sure one car secures the championship. It’s just a balance. We’re just going to race like we always do. Hopefully it doesn’t turn ugly at some point.”