MADISON, Ill — For a race that took a little while to get going, Saturday’s Bommarito Automotive Group 500 didn’t disappoint. Josef Newgarden won his third straight NTT INDYCAR Series race at the World Wide Technology Raceway but this one wasn’t as easy as the others.
“It was a great night,” said Newgarden. “Very big night. You got to win these races when you’re in position to do it. I wanted to close that one out really badly, really badly.
“I was elated. Elated that we were able to get back going and I had the opportunity on the restart. I’m thankful to my teammate. I thought Scott drove me with a tremendous amount of respect. He raced me hard, he wasn’t giving me anything, but just gave me a lot of respect like you would expect from a teammate. I think he goes above and beyond sometimes.
“Big night for us, PPG, Team Chevy. Can’t talk enough about Team Chevy. Had the engine to beat tonight, no doubt. We had great fuel mileage, reliability, power, all the things we always want. A big night for everybody on Team Penske. Very good for us in the championship fight.”
Newgarden started 3rd but slipped back early. Scott McLaughlin and Pato O’Ward would sneak by in the first couple of stints as Newgarden looked more like a 5th placed car than an eventual race winner.
So, Tim Cindric made the ultimate gamble and it paid off. Newgarden was sitting in 6th and with rain approaching had to do something different. Then Jack Harvey got into the wall and brought out the first caution of the race on Lap 145.
This was the changing point of the race.
At that point, this was Will Power’s really to lose. The pole sitter had led 118 of the 145 laps up until that point. He was good on tires and fuel as he had just hit pit lane for his 2nd stop on Lap 124. So why pit?
Takuma Sato needed to. Newgarden and Scott McLaughlin gambled and elected to join him. Sato didn’t get the call soon enough so stayed out and had to pit a lap later. McLaughlin and Newgarden each pit on Lap 148.
“I was pleasantly surprised and very, very satisfied with my car tonight,” said Newgarden. “I thought it was hooked up tremendously once we got about midway through the race. It was a bit processional in the first half. Literally every car just went to fuel save. Everyone wanted to try to make the three-stop work. I was surprised at how many people committed. Seemed like the whole field flipped to it. Wasn’t a lot happening then.
“As soon as that caution 150, 155, something like that, when it provided that opportunity to pit again, it changed things up, put people on different strategies. That made it really exciting.
“I thought that our car was able to maximize that strategy opportunity. So I’m real thankful to my team for picking that out. You can’t win this race without nailing calls like that, being good in the pits. There was a moment I thought it was slipping away from us, too. Ultimately they made the right calls and did it right and we were able to close it out.”
Power inherited the lead on Lap 149. McLaughlin and Newgarden would restart 6th and 7th. That didn’t last long. They’d end up a few laps later in the top 3. Newgarden made it there faster.
Meanwhile, O’Ward passed Power for the lead on the Lap 158 restart. 7 laps later, Newgarden forced his way past O’Ward for first. 5 laps after, his lead was 4.3902-seconds and growing.
O’Ward was being chased down by McLaughlin who had just moved into 3rd by Power. While that was occurring, Newgarden was pulling more and more away opening his lead to 6.9040-seconds by Lap 175.
McLaughlin got by O’Ward and trailed Newgarden by 6.8208-seconds on Lap 180. He was now coming. He closed that gap down to 2.8719-seconds by Lap 200 and down to 1.6372-seconds 5 laps later.
McLaughlin pulled the undercut by pitting on Lap 206. Newgarden pit one lap later on Lap 207. The undercut worked putting McLaughlin now as the leader.
Rain was inching even closer. David Malukas, Takuma Sato and Graham Rahal pit between Laps 211 and 212 handing the lead back to McLaughlin on Lap 213.
Then it started raining. Was it enough to end this race early? It luckily wasn’t.
Wed’ go red at 6:55 p.m. locally and refire the engines at 9:05 p.m. The race would get restarted on Lap 224 but McLaughlin’s lead was short lived. Newgarden stormed by in Turn 3 on the restart and mark the 11th and final lead change of the 248 lap race.
The Tennessee native led the final 35 laps en route to his 4th WWTR victory in 7 tries and 25th win of his career.
“I think it starts with having the best cars,” he said. “You can’t do this unless you have a dominant car. I’ve had that. Team Penske has more than delivered the best cars for me. It’s more than just, Hey, do you like the track? Why do you have success here?
“Look at the team I have. I have all the resources possible. I have the best of the best on pit lane, the best strategist, most of the time the fastest car in the field. It’s a pretty good recipe for putting wins together. We’ve been fortunate to do that at multiple tracks, we can say that about multiple areas.
“I do love this style of racing. If we could get more short ovals, my hand goes up every time we ask.”
Rookie David Malukas passed McLaughlin late to score his best career finish in 2nd. McLaughlin was 3rd in his No. 3 Dallara-Chevrolet for his 7th career podium while O’Ward and Takuma Sato rounded out the top 5.
Malukas Gaining Respect
David Malukas was getting high praise from his peers post race. Race winner Josef Newgarden called him one of the nicest drivers on the race track and arguably the best rookies he’s seen to come into this series in years. He felt Malukas was almost too nice at times but as the year has gone on, he’s starting to get his elbows out more and more.
“I would give Malukas a lot of respect,” Newgarden said. “He’s probably been one of the cleanest rookies I’ve ever seen. He’s been almost too respectful. They talk about that on the broadcast. It’s funny to watch back. Malukas, he puts his elbows out, Townsend keeps saying that. Poor David. He’s been doing a great job.
“It is true that if you’re too respectful you can get run over in this series. I said that in Nashville. I didn’t say it in joking fashion. That’s how people race these days. You have to put your elbows out, you got to fight people now. If you don’t, they’re going to fight you back and you’re going to end up passed or in the wall.
“He’s just been like the most respectful driver I’ve seen out of a rookie in a long time. I think he’s starting to, How much can I push on people? He probably would have done that tonight. But I would have felt comfortable racing with him. I think he’s the best rookie I’ve seen in a long time to be racing respectfully.”
Now, here Newgarden was going to have to stave off a fierce fight on Malukas at his home state track.
Malukas grew up near Chicago. Here we are in the shadows of the Gateway Arch but on the Illinois side. It’s a spot that’s been kind to the Lithanian-American as he swept both Indy Lights races here a year ago.
On Saturday night, the 20-year old driver was right there mixing it up with the Penske’s for a win late in Saturday night’s Bommarito Automotive Group 500. The elbows came out too.
They had to. You don’t get many of these opportunities and here Malukas was with a chance to shine under the lights of the World Wide Technology Raceway.
Malukas pit on Lap 211. The yellow would fall 3 laps later for rain. He sat in 5th place and on new tires. If we got back going, he knew that he had an opportunity to do something special. Once he knew that going back going was realistic, how much could he keep that thought process out of his head? How could he keep his nerves calm?
“Yeah, I wanted to get going so badly,” he told me. “You just sit and you dwell on it, you overthink, do different simulations in your head of how the start is going to go, what’s going to happen.
“At the same time I knew the longer we waited, the better our car was going to be. The cooler the temperatures, going off the information we had at practice. I knew the engineers were getting excited because they knew the situation as well. They’re giving me little tips. I could tell they were a little bit nervous.
“Okay, I kind of just need to get away from them. I could feel their nervousness coming off me. I wanted to go out and focus.
“Yeah, it was a lot longer than whatever the delay was. To me it just felt like it was a day. I just wanted to get back out.”
That’s where the elbows came up. It was time to go and make something of this opportunity. He had a fierce battle with Will Power but eventually passed him. Next up was Pato O’Ward. Each pit a handful of laps prior to Malukas so he had to strike early to make his tires be an advantage.
O’Ward put up a fight but Malukas kept his poise and eventually got by. Next ahead was Scott McLaughlin. Ahead of McLaughlin was Newgarden.
If Malukas was going to get a win, he was going to have to pass all 3 Penske’s to do so. He nearly did.
“Yeah, so Ross, my engineer, he said, You see the leaders, go get ’em. I saw them go through one and two. Oh, my God, they’re Penskes. I’m going behind Penskes right now. This is crazy,” Malukas admitted.
“To me, as a kid, I used to always watch. I just could only dream of it. Every time through practice, every time they passed me, I always let them by, Man…
“It’s definitely special to me. I was trying so hard to not get nervous. I mean, I was nervous, but I was trying so hard not to get overexcited and do something stupid. Yeah, it’s definitely intimidating when there’s two Penskes in front of you.”
Malukas put that aside and made the high line work and made way of McLaughlin with 2 to go. With only 1 lap left, he ran out of time to get Newgarden for the win.
“Yeah, so Pancho (Carter, his spotter) came on the radio. I was trying so hard. They know how to do this. Blocking my line and stuff. Man, this is so hard. But Pancho said, Try going wide in one and two, three and four.
“One and two didn’t work. They sweeped it. It felt really good.
“I just said, You know, two to go, let’s try it.
“It worked very well. I had that bit of clean air on the front right wing, I was able to get a run. Because the track was so much quicker with it being so much later, I hit the limiter in sixth gear. I couldn’t get a tow or suck on him. We had to go two-wide in one and two. Scary going wide there. Definitely getting some loose ends.
“Overall, so happy that we managed to go back out. We knew from practice yesterday the cooler the track got, the better our car ended up being compared to the others around us. We knew we had a good car going into it. Knew I had a chance.”
Still, a runner-up was phenomenal for the young driver and gives him something big to build off of for the future.
“Yeah, it means so much,” he said. “From the start of this season, started off rough, making a lot of rookie mistakes. But I kept on learning. I knew the car was getting so good, the team was doing such a good job to get the connection and chemistry on what we needed, what I wanted. It was going so well. I knew the car deserved a podium.
“It feels so good to finally get one with the three races left in the season. Yeah, I’m through the roof.”
3rd place finisher McLaughlin had nothing but praise for him too.
“Dave got a good run. I could see what he was doing,” McLaughlin said of Malukas. I couldn’t get out wide because of the confidence I had in the rear of the car.
“But he did a phenomenal job. He’s been doing an amazing job all year. First podium in INDYCAR is pretty hard to come by, especially on a short oval.”
McLaughlin Bummed With Podium
A year ago, Scott McLaughlin said that he would have been elated to finish on the podium in an NTT INDYCAR Series race. 12 months later, he’s bummed.
McLaughlin did the undercut to get the advantage over Team Penske teammate Josef Newgarden. He pit for the final time on Lap 206 from 2nd. That came after he steadily advanced through the field prior.
See, McLaughlin had a top 3 car all day but when Jack Harvey crashed on Lap 145, they elected to do something different. He and Newgarden pit on Lap 148 during that caution. It was a brilliant move. While they had just pit on Lap 124 (McLaughlin) and Lap 126 (Newgarden), this was a move that was going to really pay off or really backfire.
But with 11 cars on the lead lap, what did they have to lose still though too?
So they pit.
It paid off.
McLaughlin was passed quickly by Newgarden but he followed him up though. While Newgarden set sails, McLaughlin passed the same cars just a few laps later.
Newgarden led 2nd place Pato O’Ward by 6.9040-seconds on Lap 175. 5 laps later McLaughlin was into 2nd instead. He was coming. On Lap 180, McLaughlin trailed O’Ward by 6.8208-seconds. On Lap 190, it was down to 4.1009-seconds. 5 laps later, it wad down to 3.7103-seconds. 5 more laps later, it was under 3 seconds to a 2.8719-second gap. On Lap 205, McLaughlin cut the deficit down to 1.6372-seconds.
They’d pit one lap later.
Newgarden pit one lap after that. The undercut worked as McLaughlin was now ahead of Newgarden on strategy. After the few cars that were trying to stretch the fuel out pitted, McLaughlin was handed the lead on Lap 213. A caution came out one lap after for rain. Was this it?
It unfortunately for McLaughlin wasn’t. They’d end up going back green and he was passed on the restart by Newgarden. McLaughlin lost 2nd to David Malukas with 2 laps left and had to settle for 3rd in his No. 3 Dallara-Chevrolet.
“Yeah. I mean, I did what I thought. I went the high line against Josef, that didn’t work. I went low line against Dave thinking, He’s a rookie, he might not, he might not. Then he did. Oh, well, I was wrong. Went around the outside,” McLaughlin said.
“It was a solid move. It was awesome. That’s what oval racing is all about. I left him enough room, he left me enough room, we got through there two-by-two. It was a stellar pass. What we’re doing with building the lanes, making them really nice for oval racing is really cool.
“I’m absolutely disappointed. I felt like we were really solid there today in the daylight. Yeah, sort of lost it there at the end.”
That’s why he’s bummed. While he said he didn’t have a car capable of a win in comparison to Newgarden, he still wanted to win. Last year, he was just wanting a top 5. Now he’s wanting wins.
Ovals are remarkably a strong suit for him. Out of his now 9 top 5 finishes, 5 of which have come on ovals including 2 straight here. He finished 4th last year.
“Yeah, I think oval racing for me, it’s just special to be able to race in INDYCAR on an oval,” McLaughlin notes. “It’s part of the DNA of INDYCAR racing. Certainly hope there’s more ovals in the future. I think many others would agree with me.”
What’s disappointing even more for him is the fact that he’s now had 4 straight top 4 finishes but not making up as much ground as he would have liked. He entered the weekend 58 points back but leaves 54 out with 2 races remaining.
“Look, a win would have been really nice tonight. Ultimately top five would be fantastic right now,” he told me. “But we’re still in the fight, which is the main thing. Two races to go, who knows what will happen.
“Yeah, still feeling like we’re just going to attack these next two races with nothing to lose, have a bit of fun.”
McLaughlin does note though that while he is bummed that he didn’t win, he’s excited about the future in a sense that he’s finally starting to find himself here.
“Yeah. Starting to learn who I am now,” he quipped. “I’ve just had good teammates, got a good team, good cars, for me to be able to extract the speed and be really comfortable with it and learn quickly. I’m very thankful for that.
“Yeah, I think off-track life is a lot easier. I feel a lot more at home in the INDYCAR SERIES. Know a lot more faces. It doesn’t feel as unknown, even in the media, sponsorship land, even the Penske organization. It was a lot to take on last year. I’m very happy with where we’re at right now.”
Lap Leader Fails To Win Again…
Will Power dominated Saturday’s race. He led a race-high 128 of 260 laps. He unfortunately faded to 6th in the end. That left him frustrated as his points lead went from 6 over Scott Dixon to 3 over Josef Newgarden.
While he’s still well in control of the points lead for a third straight race, that gap is dwindling. Newgarden has won 5 times this season. Power has reached victory lane just once.
He’s 0-for-4 here when winning the pole but not winning the race. He’s 0-for-4 on the season when winning the pole and not winning the race too. Oddly enough, there’s not been a pole winner to reach victory lane here since Helio Castroneves did it in 2003. For Iowa, a similar track, the pole winner is now 1-for-17. On the season, the pole winner is also now 1-for-15.
So how did he lose?
Well by not pitting when Newgarden and Scott McLaughlin did. I get why he stayed out. He had just pit on Lap 124. Why pit on Lap 148, especially when you’re controlling the race?
That was the losing move for him and the winning one for Newgarden. Power pit for his final time on Lap 195. He ran that 2nd to last stint 69 laps and pit with 66 laps-to-go. He now had to stretch his fuel but end up behind Newgarden and McLaughlin while doing so.
With David Malukas and Takuma Sato on fresher tires, they got by which relegated Power down to a 6th place result.
Points Don’t Change Much
As wild as Saturday’s race was, the points really didn’t change all that much in terms of gaps. Will Power led Scott Dixon by 6 points entering. Josef Newgarden was 22 points behind but is now 3.
So essentially the gap from 1st to 2nd fell from 6 to 3. 3rd place was Marcus Ericsson who was 12 points back. He’s 4th now (-17). Dixon goes from 2nd to 3rd (-14).
Basically it went from 6,12,22 gaps between 2nd, 3rd and 4th to 3, 14 and 17.
Alex Palou remains 5th but lost 10 points going from 33 back to 43. McLaughlin went from 58 back to 54 now with Pato O’Ward being 58 back. He was 59 back entering. With 2 races remaining, it’s going to come down to the wire.
Race Better Here Under The Lights, That Helped Malukas, Hurt McLaughlin
The colors on the cars are more vibrant. The cars look faster. The weather is cooler. Everything about an INDYCAR race under the lights is just better on an oval. More so here in Gateway. The crowd was a prime example on why this is relevant.
Since the series started coming back here in 2017, the grandstands have been packed. Until Saturday. It was more of a sparse seating arrangement than I expected. Was it due to the rain in the forecast?
I’ll give some of it to that. But you can’t chalk it all up to that factor either. I think a 5 p.m. local Saturday afternoon start is the biggest reason.
While I like the fact to start early enough and to still get home at a great time, the fans have spoken that they didn’t necessarily like that either.
Then the race ramped up midway on as the skies darkened and the lights came on. It just seemed better….
For Malukas, his car came to life under the lights. For McLaughlin, his didn’t.
“I think our car was very good in the afternoon, late evening when the sun was still out,” said McLaughlin. “After the sun went away, lost my balance in that last stint. Didn’t have what Josef and David had. David was strong, coming at us really hard. Obviously me and Josef pulled away. I sort of knew I didn’t have much.
“Midway through the stint, started loose. Hard to get runs similar what I had in the daylight. Yeah, that second-to-last lap, I got a little bit loose off of three and four.”
- 5 out of the last 6 races at WWTR have seen the driver that led the most laps fail to win. In 2018, Scott Dixon led 145 laps but finished third. In 2019, Santino Ferrucci led 97 laps but finished fourth. In 2020, Pato O’Ward (94 laps in Race 1) and Takuma Sato (66 laps led in Race 2) finished third and ninth respectively. Now Power…
- Chevy has won 11 of the last 13 short oval races.
- Team Penske has won 9 of the 11 races for the Chevy camp including going 7-for-9 here.
- Starting Position Matters: We’ve seen 9 straight Gateway winners coming from a top five starting spot, 10 straight from the top 8 and 7 of the last 9 from the top three. At Iowa, the last 3 were won by a top 7 starter including 6 of the last 8 overall there.
- On the season, 12 of the 15 races were won by a top 7 starter including 7 of the last 8 at that. The only 3 not? The rain in Indy for the GMR Grand Prix and 2 street course races at Belle Isle and Nashville.
“Oh, man, so much,” Malukas said of his emotions. “Mainly just nervous because I haven’t done it in a while so I have no idea what to do. Driving past the start/finish line even, this is great, I was celebrating. Where do I go? What do I do?
“Thankfully McLaughlin, I just watched him, staring him down. Okay, I’m just going to copy him. Yeah, I did it. I think it went smoothly.
“They have the confetti, it’s a lot. Wow, a lot going on. I got grape juice. Newgarden let me spray the real stuff which actually makes more sense because I’m spraying it away from me, not towards me. I thought, Why didn’t they give me the real stuff? Maybe they give them the grape juice. But that’s not fun. I don’t know. Maybe I can just tell them I’ll close my mouth, I don’t know (smiling).”