Race win/championship on Newgarden’s mind for late restarts, why it was a much needed podium for all 3 drivers in St. Pete

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla — Colton Herta may have dominated Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Pete with leading all but three laps, but for the other two drivers on the podium this weekend, they joined Herta in scoring some much needed top three results.

That’s because the top two finishers on Sunday (Herta-Josef Newgarden) both were involved in that scary opening lap crash in last Sunday’s season opener at the Barber Motorsports Park. Newgarden would finish 23rd and Herta in 22nd. For both, they had championship aspirations this season and to already come out in a huge deficit to start the year off with, they couldn’t afford any more mulligans.

So, for Herta to earn his fourth career win and Newgarden to come away with his third straight St. Pete top two result, both were badly needed.

Herta moves from 22nd to fourth in the points and is only five back from the lead.

“It’s huge. We needed — I was talking to my engineer. Really coming into this weekend we knew we really needed to win,” said Herta. “We needed to hit the reset button. We needed a good points swing for us, not only for the — well, I guess mostly for the championship, but you have to think Texas is next week and we were dead last on the points, so we were going to have to qualify early and go out there early and probably not qualify super well. So I’m super happy to get the win, obviously because it’s a win, but it’ll put us up in the championship, and that’s going to make our lives that much easier in Texas and that much easier going forward for the rest of the season.”

Newgarden goes from 23rd, 46 points out, to 10th, 20 points back.

“It was important for us to get on the board,” Newgarden said. “I said we needed to do that last weekend. We didn’t accomplish that. But a good bounceback by the entire crew and the team, and to get some good points is really what we needed today, so we accomplished that.

“Now we can get our season off the ground, get going to Texas and feeling good about things. But pretty happy about what we put together.

“I think team Chevy did a really nice job doing their homework, and I think us as a group we put in a lot of effort this off-season and found some good pace. We were in the mix today without a doubt. We were in the fight, just came up a little bit short. But I think a lot of the work from all the people at Team Penske is paying off, and it’s good to get a podium finish for team Chevy and Hitachi.

“I was really pleased for Colton, for him to have a solid day. I think him and his crew were certainly deserving of the victory. They were very strong. Just a touch better than us I would say on the day today. They worked hard, and it was nice to get them get a bounceback event, too. They got caught up in the mess last week through no fault of their own. I felt pretty bad. It was just one of those things. It’s tough to have a bad weekend, and when you affect others it makes it double tough.

“Yeah, pleased for both of us, I guess, but we can get our season started now and feel pretty good about things, and was happy to have a nice little battle with Colton. I think we had a good little race there at the end. It’ll be fun to do that hopefully a couple more times this season.”

Newgarden said that he was thinking race win on the couple of late race restarts, but he was also thinking championship too in terms of don’t do anything stupid to take himself or Herta out either.

“Definitely both,” he said. “You know, it was kind of serendipitous that it was me and Colton there at the end. I definitely appreciated that personally that we were kind of bouncing back together here after last weekend’s difficulty. But I was pushing him. I mean, look, if he gave me an opportunity to win the race, I was going to take it, as we all should. It just wasn’t quite there.

“I really had gotten a second chance at it. If those cautions didn’t come out, I think Colton was going to kind of walk us. He was just better today. He had a little bit on us for sure. But with that fresh opportunity with the two cautions, I pushed as hard as I could directly after them. I mean, I was really looking for a clear, clear opening, and I was close. It was very close to being open there, but it just wasn’t quite enough.

“Yeah, I was looking for the win, but certainly tempering things trying to make sure we had a solid day.”

Then you have Simon Pagenaud. He wouldn’t confirm nor deny whether he’s got a contract in place for Team Penske next season, but if he doesn’t, then he’s watched all but himself and Brad Keselowski get their contracts solidified for them.

Pagenaud, is coming off of a disappointing season in 2020 and following a 12th place result last Sunday in Barber, it wasn’t a good start shaping up again. Then, he goes out and is fifth and sixth respectively in the two practice sessions this weekend and follows that up with a fourth place starting spot. Pagenaud, improved one spot in the race to get his 36th career podium on Sunday.

He’s now fifth in the standings, 13 points out, heading to a very good track for him at Texas.

“Overall great performance all weekend,” said the 2016 series champion. “Thanks to the whole team for working on the street course package as hard as it did with team Chevy, and overall great performance. I think very pleased with third place. It’s a really good hope for the championship knowing how good we’re going to be on oval.

“I think the street course package is very satisfying. I think we’ve made big improvements, especially since we were here last year. We had a good understanding what we needed from the car, and we found a really good package for my style. So very excited about street course racing.

“On the road course, yeah, we need to keep digging, keep finding some performance. Not fully happy there, and I think this is probably our weakness compared to how good we’re going to be on oval, which I think is going to be our most strength — our biggest strength this year. So that’s where we’re at.”

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