INDIANAPOLIS — Josef Newgarden knew that in order to get back into this NTT IndyCar Series championship and give himself a chance at hoisting his second straight Astor Cup championship trophy and third in four years, he had to be perfect.
Not only perfect too, he needed Scott Dixon to have some bad luck. Good luck with that.
Well, after Race 1 of 2 races here at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the Harvest Grand Prix twinbill, it went exactly to plan.
Newgarden, scored max points in getting one bonus point for a front row starting spot in qualifying on Thursday, another earned point for a lap led in Friday’s race, to go along with two more bonus points for leading the most laps (34) in the race itself. He also got the win in dominating fashion to earn 54 points in one race.
“I don’t think I can think about the race; I’m so excited to be up here on this platform,” Newgarden said. “Thank you to everyone that came out. We had a rocket ship. I knew we did yesterday in qualifying. I was so surprised by how quick the car was. It was a great fight today. It was strategy, it was close combat, it was everything you wanted in an INDYCAR race, and I had the quickest car.”
Scott Dixon had a rare race to where he went from his 12th starting spot to sixth by the end of the first pit sequence. But, he locked up his tires while battling Alexander Rossi for position and his tires quickly went away after. He’d remain between seventh to 10th the rest of the way and went form seventh to ninth with a rare off course moment in Turn 7 where he lost two spots and four points in the process.
Newgarden won, Dixon finishes ninth.
“I’m not really sure what happened,” Dixon said. “We just really struggled on the primary tires with the PNC Bank car today. We had a really bad start where Rahal just moved us out of the way. Once that got us out of line, we just started to fall back, and that really hurt. The other stint on blacks just really hurt us again for some reason. We must have lost 15-20 seconds. But that’s the way it goes some days, I guess. It was just really weird, and we need to get it figured out fast before Race 2 here tomorrow.”
It was the Team Penske drivers’ 17th career Indy Car victory, three of which coming this season. But, this one was bigger. This one was his first at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway albeit on the 2.439-mile road course. Still, it was his first top five here at that as he cut his points deficit from 72 points entering the weekend to 40 heading into the second race of the weekend on Saturday.
Over the last four races, he’s outscored Dixon by an eye opening 77 points. Newgarden has four top two finishes in his last five races on the season. Dixon, had six top two finishes in the first eight races of the season but none over the last four. He’s not led a single lap since his win at the World Wide Technology Raceway on Aug. 29 to where he led 340 prior.
The fight for the championship is on again.
While the hunt for the win was never in doubt over the final stint with Newgarden winning by 14.2940-seconds, the race behind him was as intense as we’ve ever seen here.
We had 247 on track passes in 85 laps of the caution free event. It was the second race in the last three run on the season to where we’ve went flag to flag without a yellow flying.
That’s why it was almost surprising to see so many on track battles throughout the race. Credit pit strategy to that.
Everyone pit the same three times, but the alternating strategies on when to run with the Firestone Primaries (Blacks) and Firestone Alternates (Reds) made this race intriguing. The other intriguing factor is that Newgarden used the Black tires on his final stint and saved a fresh set of Reds for Saturday. That could be a huge advantage in his arsenal.
Four of the top five drivers started the race on reds. Six drivers overall went with the Reds with the other 19 on Blacks. In a race to where the Reds should have been the preferred tire, it was closer to even which really shook things up.
Alexander Rossi went from fifth to fourth to third to second in the end to capture his first career podium on the IMS road course. He said on Thursday that this was the best his No. 27 Honda had ever felt here on the road course and he backed that up with his third straight podium on the season after coming home third and second respectively a few weeks ago in Mid-Ohio. Rossi, had one top five finish in the first nine races but has three straight now.
Rinus VeeKay started on the pole, his first career top qualifying effort at that, and led his first laps of the season as well in pacing the 25 car field for 15 laps on Thursday. He had intense on track battles with Colton Herta all race long with the duo fighting for the lead on several occasions. In the end, VeeKay got by Herta for the final podium spot, his first top three result of his young INDYCAR career.
Herta, settled for fourth in his No. 88 Honda for his second straight fourth place run here and his 12th top 10 in 14 races run this season. He told me just this morning that he was wanting to work harder and harder on taking fourth, fifth and sixth place finishes and turning them into podiums. He was close on Friday.
Felix Rosenqvist rounded out the top five in his No. 10 Honda.
Herta On Wrong End Of Tire Strategy
Colton Herta told me on Friday morning that he felt he was going to be more aggressive at the start of Friday’s Harvest Grand Prix with drivers behind him than in front. See, he was the only driver in the top five of the starting lineup electing to begin the race on the Firestone Black’s. With strategy going to be key in terms of the Reds being faster and lasting longer than normal too, the tire strategy would be flipped here in the cooler conditions to where you’d want to pit earlier when starting on the Black’s and be able to go the rest of the way on the Red’s.
That’s why he felt like if he could keep the guys behind him at bay, he could settle in and really be in a good spot for the rest of the 85 Lap race.
“For me, it’s going to be less aggressive because I’m starting on the black tires where everyone in front of me is on reds,” Herta said to me on Friday morning about today’s start. “I even think two guys behind me are on reds also. For me, it’s going to be trying to keep those guys behind me, then after the first 2 or 3 laps hopefully it balances out and I can drive normally at that point and not worry about them and just focus on my own race.”
It worked too. Herta went from third to second on the opening lap. He had a very intense battle with pole sitter Rinus VeeKay for the lead for a while, but VeeKay on Red tires pulled away with Herta settling in for second.
That was his race to lose at that point.
Herta, went with the Reds on the second stop while VeeKay would go to the Black’s. It didn’t take long for Herta to find the lead with the quicker tire. The problem from then on was, Herta was also trying to stretch a fuel number and his rear tires were going away.
Running the Red’s long because he pit early on the first stint on the Black’s hurt him. That allowed Josef Newgarden to close him and force Herta into a rare mistake in running in hot into Turn 1 while leading on Lap 59 and running through the corner. His rear tires were gone.
He’d come out second while running on scuffed Red Tires.
So, they decided to go conservative with the Black tires for the final stint and it was over. Everyone else up front was on Red’s and he went from second to fourth in the end.
It’s frustrating for him because he also said to me before the race that he wanted to turn those fourth, fifth and sixth place finishes he keeps scoring to podiums.
“I really need to turn these fourth and fifth place finishes that we’ve had so often this year and turn them into first, second or third and that will really make the championship,” Herta said. “I think if we can get a few wins next year, and stack those podiums, I think it can look really good going into next year. Just trying to get more podiums.”
He’s only had three of them in his career, all were wins. His main goal is to catch Newgarden for second in the championship but at this rate, he’s playing for third.
VeeKay A Future Star If Given The Opportunity
I asked Ed Carpenter on Indy 500 Media Day if he thought Rinus VeeKay reminded him a little bit of former ECR driver Josef Newgarden. Carpenter said that he did see some similarities but went on to say he felt VeeKay was actually faster at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway than Newgarden was already.
VeeKay, was the fastest teenager ever in Indy 500 history in qualifying with a four-lap average over 230 mph. He’s started stacking career achievements in the weeks after. VeeKay was sixth and fourth respectively a week later in the doubleheader weekend at the World Wide Technology Raceway. He was eighth and 11th in the last race weekend at Mid-Ohio.
This weekend, he earned his first career pole on Thursday and turned that into a solid third place run in Friday’s first of two races run this weekend on the 2.439-mile IMS road course. It was his first career podium.
The Dutch driver showed his promise. He showed his resolve. He showed that he can be a future star in this series. The problem is, he has no contract still for 2021.
“I have no contract yet,” VeeKay told me on Friday morning. “I hope I can make sure I have one as soon as possible. I haven’t really talked to him (Ed Carpenter). My management takes care of that to make sure I focus on the racing. Once that is done I can jump in on that.”
VeeKay said that the pole certainly helps his cause for 2021.
“I just want to drive INDYCAR next season full time,” VeeKay said. “Having a pole helps that. I think we’re doing all fine for next year and we’ll we on where we’ll drive and how it goes.”
The talent and speed is there. Someone will be wise and scoop him up with ECR doesn’t retain him.
Herta vs. Ferrucci Volume 2
INDYRIVALS. That used to be a slogan for the NTT IndyCar Series a couple of years ago. Now, we have a rivalry in the making. It’s between two of the rising stars in the series too.
In the last race of the season prior to this one on the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, Santino Ferrucci and Colton Herta shared the front row. The two didn’t last there long.
In the opening corner of the opening lap, Ferrucci went off course and forced his way back on. He collected his rookie teammate Alex Palou and second year driver Felix Rosenqvist as a result.
Well, it at least looked that way at first. Replay showed a different side.
Ferrucci, was aggressive on the start and I mean, why wouldn’t he? But, Herta pushed Ferrucci off course to begin with. He even admitted to doing so.
“He was on the outside, and I got halfway in front of him, so that was my corner at that point,” Herta said after his win that day. “I tried to leave him as much room as I could, and he just wanted to stick on the outside. So, I had to push him off.”
I wondered if Ferrucci was over the incident. I mean, there were rumors that he could end up at Andretti Autosport as Herta’s teammate in 2021. That notion, he shot down pretty quickly saying that he’s hopeful to be back in his No. 18 Honda with Dale Coyne Racing and that he’s pretty much set to be back instead. He thinks that they can do something big there.
So, in terms of Herta, is it a just move on situation and focus on Indy now?
“I’m not going to move on,” Ferrucci told me on Thursday morning from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “We’ll see what happens. I already talked to Pappas and to be honest, if you flipped the roles I would have done the same thing.
“On the other hand, if we ever get to a tangle here or any future races, he knows that he’s never getting any room.”
As luck may have it, in the middle of the race there Ferrucci was in front of Herta while Herta was leading and Ferrucci trying to stay on the lead lap. Imagine that.
Ferrucci, made it hard on Herta but he went off course in Turn 1 while trying to stay in front of him.
“Haha, what a wanker,” Herta said on his radio.
Herta also told me this morning that he doesn’t really care what Ferrucci says or feels about him. After Friday’s action, this is a true rivalry now.
Rossi Mad A Race Control
Alexander Rossi felt like he shouldn’t have been penalized for an improper pit exit on a mid race pit stop in the Indianapolis 500 here back in August. It took him from a top five spot to at the end of the lead lap. Rossi, pushed too hard and found the Turn 2 wall.
He was left fuming again on Friday at the same Indianapolis Motor Speedway. This time, it was on the road course. He was told to give Scott Dixon a position back for passing him off course. Rossi, strongly disagreed with that assessment and felt like it cost him from challenging Josef Newgarden for the win in the end.
He finished over 14 seconds back which he said the penalty hurt him.
Still, it was a runner-up again for Rossi for his third consecutive podium on the season including two of which being second place efforts’. He only had one top five finish in the previous nine races on the season. Now, he’s heating up.
That’s good news for Andretti and scary for the rest of the field. Rossi, had some bad luck to kickstart the 2020 season off with and everything is finally falling into place. He went from 18th to 11th now in the standings and is only one point behind his teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay from moving into the top 10.
That’s a lot of momentum for him to carry over to 2021 if he can continue this.
He said Thursday that this was the best car that he’s ever had here on the road course layout. He proved that in going from eighth to fifth in the first couple of laps at the start of the race and going from fifth to second in the final laps to score his 23rd career podium.
Future Of The Sport On Full Display
Josef Newgarden has not yet turned 30 still. He won’t do that until Dec. 22. He’s won two championships in the last three years and closing in on a third in the last four in making up 77 points on Scott Dixon in the last four races. He won Friday’s Harvest Grand Prix.
Alexander Rossi just turned 29 on Sept. 25. He’s won seven times in five seasons including the Indianapolis 500. He finished second.
Rinus VeeKay just turned 20 himself on Sept. 11. He earned his first career pole on Thursday, led his first career laps (15) on Friday and scored his first career podium as well.
Another 20 year old in Colton Herta earned his ninth top five of his career in finishing fourth. 28 year old Felix Rosenqvist rounded out the top five in fifth.
Two young veterans followed by a rookie and two second year drivers.
The youth movement is on full display in INDYCAR and it was never more evident on Friday afternoon. The future is bright as the series takes to the track for one more race on Saturday.
Part Time Veterans Struggle A Bit
James Hinchcliffe, Helio Castroneves and Sebastien Bourdais were added to rides for this weekend. That’s a stout three driver part time lineup. But, these wily old veterans found out that this series is still as difficult as ever and seat time trumps past history.
Hinchcliffe, finished the best among them in 14th but this was also his fourth start of the season too. Castroneves was making his second start and he came home 20th. Bourdais, was making his season debut and finished 21st.
Battle For The Final Leaders Circle Spot
We talk about the fight for the championship but the battle for the final leader circle spot is equally as important to everyone else. See, we’re in a pandemic and money is tight for everyone. Teams are counting on that bonus money from the leaders circle program. The thing is, we have 23 full time teams and only 22 of them get that money.
Someone is going to be in the red.
Entering this weekend, Marco Andretti’s ride, the 14 car at Foyt and the 20 car at ECR were all separated by just two points for that last spot. That’s why putting Bourdais in that 14 car early was smart by Foyt. It’s also why Hinchcliffe going into the 26 car who’s one spot ahead of Andretti entering the weekend and Casroneves filling in for rookie Oliver Askew was so underrated.
Following Race 1, Andretti slides out now. He started fifth and had a top 10 car but his engine blew on Lap 79. He’d finish last and went from +2 to -3. Bourdais only finished 21st though and is only three points to the good. Conor Daly was the biggest jumper for the 20 team in going from -1 to +11 in finishing 12th. Hinchcliffe put the 26 entry +24 while Charlie Kimball’s quietly strong 13th place finish gave them more of a cushion at +29.
Newgarden became the fourth straight driver to win from a top three starting spot here. It’s also the sixth straight time on the season that this feat has happened. It’s also been 27 of the last 29 races that a driver in the top 4 Rows has won the race too.
It was also Penske’s 20th win since the new car came out in 2018 with the “Big 3” winning 11 of the 12 races run this season.