LONG BEACH, Calif — Josef Newgarden said on Saturday that when he qualified his No. 2 Chevrolet on the front row that they were still a tad bit off in comparison to Andretti Autosport. Luckily for him, you still have to race. Not all races are won on speed. Sometimes it’s a combination of speed, skill and luck too.
Well, Andretti’s best bullet had a bad first pit stop sequence, then crashed. Their second best had a slow second stop. Their third best was right on Newgarden’s tail at the end but with him being on the Firestone alternates compared to Newgarden being on the primaries, was the difference.
Newgarden, topped Romain Grosjean for his 22nd career NTT INDYCAR Series race and second straight at that. The thing is, out of his 27 career victories now if you count Indy Lights (22 in IndyCar, 5 in Indy Lights), he’s only went back-to-back in terms of trips to victory lane just once prior to this string when he won at Toronto and Mid-Ohio in back-to-back races during the 2017 season.
Now, he’s done it again.
“I think you said it. Honestly, it’s the parity,” he told me when I asked him just this week on why it’s so difficult to go back-to-back. “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.”
This was also his first win at Long Beach too. After being 0-for-9 prior here and 0-for-10 in the Indy 500 too, he finally got his crown jewel.
“It’s a huge pleasure to finally be able to win around this place,” he said. “I’ve been coming here for 11 years. I remember my first race here in 2011 I was running in Indy Lights and I stuck the car in the fence with about two to go in Turn 8, and I just — I was leading and literally two to go, so I’ve never had a victory here, so it’s pretty special to finally get one. Yeah, just really, really pleased for the team, the 2 car.”
Now, he’s a Long Beach winner and takes over the points lead as a result.
Newgarden, beat Alex Palou on the final pit sequence as he exited pit lane just ahead of Palou on Lap 57. While the defending series champion was right on his gear box, Palou could never get by. Then, 13 laps later, Romain Grosjean passed Palou for second and set his sights on his first career Indy Car victory.
Grosjean, charged hard and was there and hoping to use his red tires as an advantage. He pit for reds on Lap 56 but with those falling off, his window of opportunity was smaller. Luckily for him, Jimmie Johnson and David Malukas got caught up in a crash in Turn 8 on Lap 75. That set up a five lap shootout for the win. Without any push to passes left, Newgarden pulled away before Takuma Sato brought out the race ending yellow with one lap left.
“I think he chewed his tires up a little bit too much leading into the last yellow,” Newgarden said of Grosjean. “The first yellow he had a definite tire advantage with the reds, but then he was out of Push-to-Pass and I was, too, to be quite honest. I think I had two seconds left leading into that last restart, so I didn’t really have any, either. But his tires were just not quite as good as the first restart, so I think I had a better opportunity to hold ground, whereas that first restart I was really vulnerable and fortunately we just hung on.”
“You know, you don’t have that much option when you’re on fresh tires or red versus black on a street course. You know it’s going to equalize itself after a while. As I said, the first one on Alex, and he defended really well on the inside, braked super late, and I think that one — if I could have pulled that one out, then I would have been fine to get Josef on the next lap. But I did not, so by the time I got to Josef I didn’t have much Push-to-Pass left and he had a really good straight-line speed, so it was just hard to get him.
“I think Josef had it. I was looking at Turn 11, the hairpin, making a last-lap lunge maybe if I was close enough, but I don’t think I was close enough on that lap and Josef was driving well and not making any mistakes. It’s not ideal to finish under yellow, but I don’t think the result would have been much different.”
Third place finisher, Palou, also said he had nothing for Newgarden on the final restart either.
“Yeah, you always want to finish on a green flag, but you kind of understand that it’s a street course and somebody touched the wall. Yeah, I didn’t have anything for them, so for me it didn’t really change much.”
Newgarden is just one step away from winning the PeopleReady Force for Good Challenge with his victory. The challenge offered by the industrial staffing giant is a bonus of $1 million to be awarded to the first NTT INDYCAR SERIES driver who can win on all three unique styles of tracks – street circuits, road courses and ovals – this season. The reward, if earned, will be divided, with $500,000 shared by the driver and his team and $500,000 presented to their chosen charity.
Newgarden already has won this season on an oval (Texas Motor Speedway) and a street circuit (Long Beach). His first opportunity for a road course victory comes at the next event, the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama presented by AmFirst on May 1 at Barber Motorsports Park, where he has three career INDYCAR SERIES victories (2015, 2017, 2018). PeopleReady is offering an additional $10,000 to the winner of every race this season, also to be split with their selected charity. Newgarden is splitting his award from today’s race with SeriousFun Childrens Network and Wags & Walks Nashville.
“It makes me feel like a real INDYCAR driver, to be honest with you,” he said. “I think that’s what makes our sport great. We talk about it a lot, but it’s the truth. The thing that sets INDYCAR apart is the diversity of the racing. We love having the best of the best from around the world and having to compete on all types of tracks and having to master all disciplines. If you can’t master all disciplines, then it’s so difficult to be successful in this sport.
“I just love that INDYCAR drivers have to be good at all those skill sets, so when we’re able to do that, it gives me a lot of satisfaction.”
Next up is that last track remaining. He’s a three-time winner at Barber too.
Here are my main takeaways.
Pit Sequences Shaped This Race
There were only 2 pit stops in Sunday’s race but both had significant moments. The first one was mega in fact. Colton Herta led the first 28 laps before hitting pit lane from the lead. He was almost untouchable to that point. Herta, broke the track record in qualifying on Saturday, was quickest in warmup on Sunday and led 43 of 85 laps in his win from 14th last year. So, with him pulling away, it appeared then to be his race to lose. The thing is, the pit stop is where he lost it.
Alex Palou pit on Lap 27. Josef Newgarden pit on Lap 30. Palou’s stop was 1.861-seconds quicker than Herta’s. He was also 1.029-seconds quicker getting onto pit road over Herta. That, plus Newgarden’s stop being 8.1-seconds compared to Herta’s at 9.3-seconds dropped Herta from first to third with Palou leap frogging both Herta and Newgarden.
Then, the next sequence saw another race altering sequence. Herta was pushing to come to pit road on Lap 56 but crashed. Palou, pit on Lap 55 with Newgarden two laps later. That allowed Newgarden to come ahead and never look back.
Penske’s Strong Start To The Year
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 won one pole and been on the front row in all three races run, won three races and 5 of the combined 9 podiums available to start 2022 off with.
One driver though says that this start is like theirs at Chip Ganassi Racing last year and that it will eventually come to an end.
“Yeah, they did an amazing job at the start of the year,” defending series champion Alex Palou said. “The same way we started really good the past year, they started really good this year I think with the three cars they have. Yeah, that’s going to change soon. I don’t know if next race or if two, three races, but that’s going to change, and we’re still there. Everybody is talking that they’ve won three races, but I think we are only 15 points away of them.
“We are always there. We are trying the best. We got already two podiums this season, so yeah, I’m feeling confident.
“I think this start of the season for us was tough. We didn’t get good results last year with these first three races, so yeah, I think we’re improving the results we got last year, and we’ll get back hopefully at Barber.
“We are now heading to some of the tracks that we know we can be a bit better, that we have better cars that I’m more confident. We tested at Barber, as well, two weeks ago. It felt amazing to be back there, and then we go to the month of May, which is the best month of the year, a part of April which is my birthday, also. So yeah, April is good. But I cannot wait for the month of May. I think it’s really special for everybody, all the drivers, all the crews, the fans, so yeah, hopefully we’re already carrying good momentum, but hopefully we can carry better momentum with Barber and Indy GP before the big one, the Indianapolis 500.”
Newgarden agrees though. He says they can’t get too far ahead of themselves yet.
‘You’ve got to be cautious,” he said. “It’s early. It’s three races in. It’s so hard to paint a complete picture. It’s easy to paint these small pictures and say, look, this is everything, but then the picture changes really quickly in a another couple races.
“I don’t want to get ahead of ourselves, but I feel really good about where it’s going.”
Newgarden also notes that this should be expected at a team like Team Penske. They should be on everyone’s radar.
“I don’t think we need any more respect. Everyone has been very kind to Team Penske. It’s obviously a storied team, has a lot of history, and Roger — I don’t think you can look at anyone better to have a career than Roger Penske and the way that he carries himself and represents the team. I don’t ever feel like we’re lacking the respect or that people are discounting us. I don’t think anyone ever really does.
“But you know, I think everyone holds us to a very high standard, and if we’re not excellent every single moment then there’s something wrong. I understand that.
“With this type of history at a place like Team Penske, you totally get it. That’s how highly successful franchises are viewed.”
Grosjean Masks Andretti’s Problems Again
Romain Grosjean remembers. His last trip to victory lane is ingrained in his head. It came in F2 and was 3,908 days ago. That drought nearly ended on Sunday in Long Beach. Grosjean, brought his No. 28 Honda home runner-up for his first podium with Andretti Autosport.
However, that strong run masked more Andretti problems on Sunday. I wrote a day prior that this race was Andretti’s to lose. They had won each of the last three Long Beach races and did so in dominating fashion.
Alexander Rossi led 71 of 85 laps in 2018. He backed that up with leading 80 of 85 laps and won by more than 20 seconds a year later. After a hiatus in 2020 due to COVID, they were back in victory lane last Fall here with Colton Herta leading 43 of 85 laps in his win from 14th.
This weekend, it was theirs. Herta, broke the track record and sat on the pole. He was 6th and 2nd respectively in the two practice sessions this weekend before topping the speed charts in warmup this morning.
Rossi, was 2nd and 4th in practice and qualified 5th. Grosjean, was quickest in practice on Saturday morning and was second before crashing in the Fast 6. That lost him his top two laps which forced him to start 6th.
Quickest in practice on Saturday morning, quickest on Sunday morning, 3 of 6 in the Fast Six and coming to a race they’ve won 3 straight.
The thing is, Grosjean was the only one who had a clean race. Rossi, was stuck behind Felix Rosenqvist early on and lost a ton of ground by being 8-seconds back on the first stint. Then his tires went away so they pit on Lap 26. He was now battling for spots around fifth instead of a podium. On his second stop, they had trouble on the right rear which dropped him a bit more to an 8th place run.
He failed to lead a single lap.
Herta, led the first 28 laps but a slower stop (9.3-seconds) and a slower in lap, put him back to third. Then, he was pushing hard to coming to pit road on Lap 56 and crashed. That left him 23rd.
Devlin DeFrancesco got into the wall early on and would finish 25th.
Not the weekend Andretti was hoping to have and they now sit 6th (Grosjean) -43, 11th (Herta) -59, 16th (Rossi) -78 and 22nd (DeFrancesco) -98 in points.
Texas saw Rossi and Grosjean have mechanical failures. DeFrancesco crashed. Herta, had a slow stop on pit road. For St. Pete, Rossi had a bad qualifying run after being quick in practice. Herta, had a bad first stop where they didn’t get the car full of fuel which forced him to have to save in the end. Rossi, had a bad pit call which dropped him to 20th in St. Pete.
They just can’t seem to get out of their own ways.
Prior to Sunday’s race, Rossi said this was a big race for both he and the team. With a good starting spot and historically a great track for them, each expected a strong result.
I don’t think 8th is what they had in mind.
See, Rossi is a free agent at seasons end as both he and the team are evaluating their futures together.
“Yeah, I think that’s completely true,” Rossi said on Saturday when asked if he and the team are both evaluating each other for the future. “That’s how it’s been since the start of the year. Obviously it hasn’t been the start that any of us have wanted for a myriad of reasons.
“Today was a good day. This weekend has been fine. Yeah, tomorrow is an important day for a lot of reasons, that not being the most important. We just need to get a good result and get the year going. That’s the main focus. Whatever else comes is life.”
He hasn’t won a race since Road America in 2019. He led 54 of 55 laps that day. In fact, that was the 10th race of that season. At that point, he had led in 7 of the 10 races to account for 182 laps led.
But, over the last 40 races during this winless streak, he’s led a total of 95 laps. He led 83 laps in 2020, two last year and 10 in St. Pete. That’s it.
Also during this 40 race drought, he has finished 17th or worse in 7 of his last 20 starts. He had 6 finishes of 17th or worse in his previous 47 races.
The prime of his INDYCAR career is being wasted and he’s not anywhere near to where he expected to be in his career path in terms of success yet.
The Andretti Autosport driver seemed to be on a quick path to a championship once he won his second career NTT IndyCar Series race in Watkins Glen during that 2017 season. From the Toronto race that season through the one at Road America in 2019, Rossi had six wins, 16 podiums and 22 top five finishes in a span of 33 races. But, over the last 40 races, he’s yet to win, has just 8 podiums and only 11 top fives.
He was second in the championship in 2018 and third in 2019. But, this dip started during the middle of that ’19 season which is why he didn’t hoist the Astor Cup championship trophy that season and why he’s hasn’t yet overall. He was 10th in the final standings last year.
For Herta, his goals of being a champion rest on turning top fives into podiums. So far, he’s 0-for-3 in 2022.
He had 10 top fives in his first 32 starts to his career. The problem was, he only had four podiums out of those 10.
Last season, Herta had seven top fives in his No. 26 Honda in 16 races run. Out of those seven, five of which were on the podium giving him more podiums in 16 races last season than in 32 starts prior.
Still, he needs to do so on a more consistent basis. Alex Palou had eight podiums. Josef Newgarden had six. They were 1-2 in the championship. Since 2016, all but one champion had a podium finish in 50% or more of their starts throughout a season. Josef Newgarden had a 41% podium rate in 2019. Other than that, everyone else has been around the 50% mark.
That’s what Herta is missing is turning those solid days into podiums. This was another one that got away.
Ganassi/Penske’s Title To Lose?
It’s early, but it’s shaping up to be Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing’s championship to lose. They have the entire top 5 in points at the moment and have combined to have taken 8 of the 9 podium spots. They swept the entire top 7 in the final finishing order in Texas and then took 3 of the top 4 in Long Beach including 4 of the top 6 overall.
Penske and Ganassi have also combined to win nine straight titles including 13 of the last 14 in general.
Since the start of the 2019 season, Penske has won 22 times. Ganassi is behind them at 13. Andretti is third, but they have just six trips to victory lane in that span. Ganassi has more than doubled Andretti which is a large gap now between second and third.
Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan Racing is fourth with three victories, so half of Andretti’s total which honestly may have Andretti in third all by themselves. But, if you go in the Aeroscreen era (2020-present) Andretti has four wins with Arrow McLaren SP with two. Penske has 13 and Ganassi 11.
Dixon/Pato Get Much Needed Top 5’s
Scott Dixon was fuming mad on Saturday. It’s not too often you see the “Ice Man” melting. This time he was. They made a mistake on his No. 9 Honda’s front wing and it cost him pace. He qualified 16th.
He knew he had a car capable of a top five and that’s exactly where he ended up. He was one spot shy in 6th. For a race where pit strategy was negated by no fluke yellows, Dixon drove from 16th to 6th on a street course.
They needed that.
“We’ve got to get our act together,” Dixon said.
Same for Pato O’Ward. He qualified 11th. Their season was already on the brink. You can tell the decision from McLaren to choose Colton Herta over him for an F1 opportunity this season left him stewing. He felt that was his and now it was taken out from under him.
That plus some mistakes all around this season left them 13th in points entering the race. Then, with Felix Rosenqvist qualifying in the Fast Six and him not, things weren’t looking up for the man that has made it to the final race with a shot at the championship for two straight years now.
On Sunday, he had a stellar drive up to 5th for his first top 10 of the season.
“You know, the funniest bit about this whole weekend was when I left this press conference yesterday after qualifying, there was some dude from the LA Times and he came up to me like right before I hit the stairs and he goes, Hey, Josef, Josef – it’s this dude – he goes, Josef, one question: At what point does Colton Herta check out tomorrow?” Newgarden said. “Like when is that. And I thought it was just such a bizarre question and I went to bed last night, and I go, you know what? I said, that kid is not checking out tomorrow. There’s no way. He’s just not going to do it after I heard this from this person. And he didn’t.
“We came here, we came here to fight. Alex Palou was super fast today. I thought he was a very deserving winner if it would have played out that way, and I thought we were quick today and we put up a good race. So I’m just really proud of our team.
“I thought they fought hard this weekend. Sometimes you might not be quite the quickest but if you fight really hard and you come with a good game plan you can get the job done, and I feel like that’s how we performed this weekend.”