LONG BEACH, Calif — Josef Newgarden needed to be absolutely perfect on a picture perfect Sunday afternoon on the streets of Long Beach. For a clean cut driver competing for a team that strives for perfection, it wasn’t out of the realm of possibilities for a miracle to occur in Southern California this weekend.
The Team Penske driver had to lead the most laps as well as win the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach. On top of that, it still wouldn’t be enough. He also needed help too. The odds were stacked against him. Should he score the max points for the race (54), he needed Alex Palou to score seven points meaning finishing 23rd or worse.
That didn’t happen.
Newgarden, finished second in the race as well as the championship for his fourth top two finish in the final standings in five years with Team Penske. Palou, came home fourth to take home the title.
“The yellows, inopportune yellow for us,” he said of his day. “Timed pretty well for Colton. He was fast, made use of it. He was on the right tire at the right time. Once he got the lead, even us closing up with the yellow at the end, he had position on us when we weren’t fuel saving any more. I was basically able to hold position.
“Pretty good day overall, but disappointed to not convert the pole to a win. Just coming up short in this race, coming up short in the championship is definitely disappointing. I think for us overall, we got to be proud of our fight, be proud of the effort we put in all year with our partners in Hitachi and Team Chevy. We’ll come back next year.
“A lot of great competitors. Congrats to Alex, too. He did an amazing job all year with the championship, so he should be very proud with his group. We’ll congratulate them and come back next year and try to do one better.”
Newgarden, brought his No. 2 Chevrolet home in for his series leading 13th top 10 of the season. Unfortunately, the lack of consistent podiums is what proved to be the difference between Newgarden and a third season championship in the last five years.
Sunday in Long Beach was Newgarden’s sixth podium of the season. Palou had eight. There was also 10 top fives for Palou and eight for Newgarden. The thing is, Newgarden had more top 10’s (13) compared to Palou’s 12. He also led way more laps.
It’s just the fact that Palou was up front more than Newgarden as to why the feat was a tall one coming into this weekend’s race.
He won the pole on Saturday but said qualifying was a big reason as to why he was in the position that he was in this weekend.
“I wish we didn’t lose that the last couple weekends,” he said after posting his 15th career pole yesterday. “That would have been nice to have that mojo. It’s really what’s done our fate in for this weekend, is just not qualifying well. It’s nice to have that back.
“It’s been a hard couple of weeks. The last couple qualifyings have been demoralizing. To bounce back and show our form is very gratifying. Very pleased for our team and that’s what we saw.”
In the first 10 races of the season, he had nine top 10 qualifying efforts including three straight poles heading into the break. In the five races leading into this weekend, he was 12th or worse in qualifying in four of them.
That coupled with some key moments earlier in the season put him 38 points behind in the end. If you take Barber and Road America back, Newgarden may be the one hoisting the trophy on Sunday instead.
Newgarden, crashed on the opening lap at Barber. Palou won that day. He was on the wrong end of a caution in Belle Isle which cost his strategy after leading the first 67 laps of the 70 lap race. He had a mechanical failure while leading on the late restart with 2 to go in Road America. He had led 32 laps of 55 that day. Palou won that race too.
Take Barber, Road America and Belle Isle out, Newgarden likely wins this years title.
He still had a pair of wins and three runner-ups in races that did go his way.
While he’s still never won at Long Beach before, he does have seven top two finishes in his last 11 street course starts overall.
Newgarden’s finishes on street courses since the start of the 2019 season?
1st, 2nd, 1st, 19th, 4th, 1st, 2nd, 10th, 2nd, 10th and second respectively.
This sounds very similar to last year too.
See, in 2020, Scott Dixon won each of the first three races run and had a top two result in four of the first five overall. In fact, once Dixon won the Aug. 29 race at the World Wide Technology Raceway a year ago and it was his sixth top two in the opening eight races of the season. With a race on that same track a day later and six overall races left, he appeared to be untouchable.
Newgarden, found himself over 117 points down, going into Race 2 of the St. Louis race weekend last season. He stormed all the way back and nearly won the title.
How? How does one make up 117 points in six races?
Speed and talent is how and it left Newgarden wondering if he had started better, what if?
In a six race span to end the season, Newgarden had five top four finishes — four of those in the top two. Dixon, only had one podium and two top fives.
But, it was that string of races to start the year to what was the deciding factor in this. If cautions fell differently, Newgarden may have been the champion for 2020 after all.
It happened in the INDYCAR Grand Prix on July 4 a year ago. He had a podium caliber kind of car but the caution for Oliver Askew’s crash in the middle of a pit sequence wasn’t needed. He’d finish seventh as a result. It happened again in Race 1 at Iowa. He finished fifth. It happened in Race 1 at World Wide Technology Raceway too. He’d finish 12th.
In those three races, Scott Dixon came home first, second, first respectively. The points difference between just those two in those three combined races?
Newgarden entered the Harvest Grand Prix doubleheader last year with a 72 point gap.
That alone proves that the cautions have hurt him. Say Dixon and he both finish in the top five of those races, the gap would have been far less than 72. It’s more like 15 or less.
When cautions stayed out of Newgarden’s way, he was the better driver with the better car.
Still, he finishes third in the final standings as he has now finished first or second in points in 3 of his 5 years with Penske and third and fifth in the other two.
Newgarden, owes a lot of gratitude towards Sarah Fisher, Wink Harkman and Ed Carpenter to even be here in this series right now. See, in a day and age of racing to where the leashes grow shorter by the year and the value of a driver is more about what kind of paycheck he can bring rather than command, the fact that the Tennessee native is in the position that he’s in is due to the patience of those three members.
In 2012, Fisher and Hartman took a chance on this young kid coming off of an Indy Lights championship the season before. In 14 races, he had no top 10’s and finished 23rd in points. They’d bring him back still a year later and Newgarden showed then his promise. A runner-up in Baltimore, four top fives overall and seven top 10’s in 19 races run proved that the kid has the talent and speed to compete in this series. All he needed was a shot, time to learn and someone backing him.
They gave him that for a third year in 2014 and he had a similar season. A runner-up this time in Iowa, two top fives and seven top 10’s propelled him from 23rd to 14th to 13th in points in three seasons.
But, things changed between 2014 and 2015. Fisher, Hartman and Carpenter merged and they decided to keep Newgarden around. Four races into the 2015 season, Newgarden won. He’d win again that year in Toronto to end up scoring two wins, two runner-ups, five top fives and nine top 10’s in 16 races. He’d finish a career best seven in points.
When Fisher and Hartman stepped aside for 2016, Carpenter saw Newgarden’s talent and kept him around. At this point, everyone was wondering what this American could do with a team like Penske, Ganassi or Andretti. Newgarden, felt he owed it to come back to Carpenter for them taking their chance on him and it paid off again.
2016 came to a tune of another win, four total podiums, six top fives and 11 top 10’s. He qualified on the front row at Indy and finished fourth in points. His Iowa drive in which he dominated the race by nearly leading all 300 laps and doing so with a broken clavicle, caught Roger Penske’s attention and the rest was history.
For 2017, Newgarden was a Penske driver. Could he live up to what he did before?
Boy has he ever.
He won four races and the championship in his first season with Penske. He was champion again in 2019. He was second last year. Now, he came up just short for the title in what was his fifth season with Penske.
Does this exceed his expectations of what he expected when he joined this storied organization?
From 2012 though 2016, he competed in 83 races. He won three times, had 10 podiums, 17 top fives, 34 top 10’s and 679 laps led.
From 2017 through now with Penske, he’s competed in 80 races. He’s won 17 times, had 32 podiums, 45 top fives, 66 top 10’s and 2,215 laps led.
I’d say it paid off.