LONG BEACH, Calif — Andretti Autosport enters Sunday’s Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach (3 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network) as the odds on favorites. They’ve won each of the last three races on the scenic 1.968-mile street course to go along with not only taking the pole but having 3 cars in the top six of the starting lineup too.
However, if anyone is going to top them, it’s going to be Josef Newgarden.
Newgarden, was fourth quickest in practice on Friday and despite being only 17th in Saturday, he qualified his No. 2 Chevrolet on the front row in second. Last year’s pole sitter, turned a lap of 1:05.7550-seconds for his fourth straight Fast Six appearance in Long Beach.
“Yeah, felt pretty happy with second to be honest,” Newgarden said. “I always hope we can work some magic in the Fast 6, make the impossible happen. Today was going to be really difficult.
“Colton had definitely a better life on his tires going into the Fast 6. We had to use three laps apiece in Q1 and Q2 just to find our gaps, get our laps together. Unfortunately we didn’t have quite as good of a tire in the Fast 6.
“Regardless, if I think we were match to match, he probably had a couple 10ths on us. That’s what it looks like. The Andrettis in general look very strong across the board if you look at Grosjean and Rossi.
“I think we’re just missing a little something. So we’ll go searching for that tonight. I think we can find it, for sure, try to be better on full fuel.
“Relatively happy. I think Team Chevy is doing a good job for us. The Hitachi car is quick. Not quick enough to be P1. We’re in the ballgame.”
As far as what he can do differently from the opposite side of last year on the front row?
“Yeah, probably similar to last year: just trying to make the right decisions,” he said. “Not sure yet. I haven’t looked at it too much. We’ve been focused on qualifying up to this point. We haven’t dived into the race scenarios yet.
“Yeah, I think we have a good opportunity to either capitalize on mis-steps, mistakes, but ultimately just execute better on whatever scenario is going to be the best.
“Yeah, I feel good about it. Pole would be better, but we’re in the fight, which is good.”
It’s better now than it was last year in his runner-up effort.
It took Team Penske nine races before finally reaching victory lane during last year’s NTT INDYCAR Series season. The thing is, it’s not like they were too far off though. They had a car finish runner-up in each of the first four races, was fourth and third respectively as their top driver in Indy on the two courses, should have swept both events in Belle Isle, should have won in Road America, then did so in Mid-Ohio.
It’s all a matter of perspective.
“Honestly I thought it was so funny last year we kept getting. We were getting bombarded,” Penske driver Josef Newgarden said of last year’s start to the season. “The first eight races people were, like, ‘what’s wrong with you guys?’ How have you not had a win? It was just becoming comical because our performance was actually pretty good. We had good performances, and they just weren’t translating.
“We had an issue here, an issue there, and we could never really rattle off a complete victory. Because that went on for whatever it was. I think it was seven or eight events. Everyone just assumed that there was a really big issue within our team. There wasn’t.”
Now though, they’re off to a flying start and getting the results they should have a year ago. They’ve taken both poles, both race wins and 4 of the combined 6 podiums available to start 2022 off with.
Where does their morale sit heading to the streets of Long Beach this weekend?
“At the moment it’s very good,” Newgarden said. “We just have to focus on keeping it that way, but Scott is off to a great start. I can sense a lot more confidence in him this year.
“I think we’ve got him more comfortable with the car, and he has been doing just a stellar job. He was really doing a great job all last year. It was pretty easy to see from inside our racing team. Maybe not as much externally, but you could see how good he was going to be.
“I think he will be able to ride that momentum for a good time now. Will has had a really good start to the year too, and I think he is pretty pleased with it.
“Everyone is very encouraged. It’s early days. You can have two really good races and then all of a sudden everything can go bad. That’s just how quickly things can happen in INDYCAR, so we’re just trying to stay on the ground making sure that we’re just focusing on one race at a time, and hopefully we can keep up this effort.”
Penske has won five of the last 11 street course races but only has 1 win in the last 8 Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach events.
In saying that, it’s not like they’ve been far off either. Just last season, Newgarden finished runner-up.
Newgarden, has done about everything one can in INDYCAR. He’s won two championships and 21 races already. If his career ended today, he’s have a Hall of Fame type of performance to look back upon.
But, among those 21 wins, one could say it lacks a crown jewel.
Newgarden is winless in 10 Indy 500 tries and nine starts in Long Beach. Is this the year he can finally cross off at least one of those events?
What’s wild is, he’s been among the best drivers on street courses lately. He has three wins on them since 2019 which is tops in the series. He has eight top two results in his last 12 tries including his last two here on Long Beach. In fact, he has three podiums in his last four Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach starts. He’s just not even won this race.
Can he on Sunday?
“Yeah, I would love a trophy,” he told me of winning Long Beach. “I think it would be great. They’re all beautiful and special. I guess they’re like children. You don’t choose a favorite. They’re all special. I would love it. It would be great. Long Beach is an awesome place. I would love to win there.”
He’s coming off of a win in Texas and ready for a premiere victory. The thing is, out of his 26 career victories if you count Indy Lights (21 in IndyCar, 5 in Indy Lights), he’s only went back-to-back in terms of trips to victory lane just once when he won at Toronto and Mid-Ohio in back-to-back races during the 2017 season.
In saying that, winning two straight races is difficult in the series. Since the start of the 2014 season, we’ve only seen it happen nine times. Will Power did it in 2016 (Detroit 2, Road America) and 2018 (Indy sweep), Simon Pagenaud has done it twice in going three straight in 2016 (Long Beach, Barber, Indy road course) as well as an Indy sweep in 2019 with Scott Dixon going three straight in 2020 to start that season off with, Alexander Rossi in 2018 (Mid-Ohio, Pocono), Graham Rahal in 2017 (Belle Isle weekend sweep) and Colton Herta last year in the final two races.
That’s it. That’s the list. Can Newgarden join Power and Pagenaud as the only ones to do it twice in this span?
“I think you said it. Honestly, it’s the parity,” he told me. “I don’t know another racing championship in the world that has the parity that INDYCAR does. Obviously, I’m biased being a part of it, seeing how the paddock functions.
“When I first got into the series in 2012, that was not as present. It was getting better from the previous years, certainly from the ’01 to 2011 era. There was a jump forward right away when I started in 2012, but from that point all the way until now it’s just gotten tighter and tighter.
“The tolerances are really small as far as where you can find an edge performance-wise on your competitors. All the teams have raised the levels and their understanding of the car is pretty uniform across the board when you look at the series.
“So it’s just so difficult to get a tiny edge on the competition. Doesn’t matter what time you’re with, what driver you are. I think that’s the ultimate reason why it’s so hard to go week after week and you secure a win. I mean, any little thing can ruin your weekend now, or just a small hiccup can take victory away from you. It’s just incredibly difficult to rattle off wins.
“I think nowadays, the gold standard is kind of three or four wins. It’s still possible someone could win more races than that, but it’s just extremely difficult with how much parity there is.”
In the last 18 races run, we’ve seen 10 different winners. Newgarden is one of them. He’s eyeing a Long Beach win on Sunday.