SALINAS, Calif — Josef Newgarden knew he had a fast car and let an opportunity slip away from him on Saturday from Laguna Seca. The Team Penske driver spun in Turn 8 dropping him to a 25th place starting spot for Sunday’s NTT INDYCAR Series season finale.
“Yeah, obviously it’s not over yet, but it was an unfortunate session for us,” said the 2-time series champion. “Tough to make a mistake like that. I don’t know that we’ve — it’s been a long time since we’ve had one of those in qualifying, but it’s happened now, and obviously didn’t put us in a good position for tomorrow, but we’re going to make the most of it, like we always do, on the No. 2 car.
“It’s just a mistake. I turned in too early and I hit the curb. As soon as I hit the curb, I was all out of sorts. You can hit that second one in the bottom, but if you touch the first one it’s going to send the car in a mess.
“Kind of a simple error and a very sad error, so you know, we were done pretty early today.”
He’ll be joined in the back from another title contender in Scott Dixon. The 6-time series champion was also eliminated in the opening round of qualifying too. Dixon was on the outside looking in when the red flag flew for Newgarden. INDYCAR gave everyone another timed lap. Dixon was held up.
“Yeah, it’ll definitely be interesting. I think with my red run, kind of just the 14 (Kyle Kirkwood) never really went,” said Dixon. “I didn’t manage the gap that well, and when I started the lap, the fronts were just not ready to go, so that was definitely frustrating.
“I think had we had another lap or timed it a bit better, I think we would have been totally fine. It is what it is. We’re starting kind of in the middle there.”
However, it’s not like it’s over for him either. Strategy now comes into play and what better drivers to get the aid from a caution than one nicknamed the “Ice Man.”
“Strategy I think will be key tomorrow,” Dixon continued. “I think we’ve seen a lot of people go off track. Cautions could be coming maybe. Starts are always interesting here, and then also I think with tire deg, especially with the red tire, I think it’s definitely going to be a different race than what we saw last year.
“I think having started where we have a few times this year, you generally have more options. The leaders can kind of get locked in, and I know having been in that position before, you kind of — sometimes you’re a bit of a sitting duck.
“We’ll see how that plays. I think the tire thing is kind of a bit of an unknown, even though we’ve all run them and think we have a pretty good understanding. It may change a little bit.
“Yeah, I feel like the guys mid-pack and back kind of always have more options than the front rows.
“As Josef said, it’s never over until it’s over. We’ve seen that many a times this year, and we’ll do what we can, and if we can have a bit of luck go our way, it’ll be pretty helpful.”
Newgarden agrees. He notes that he’s been on the wrong end of that this year when he was starting up front. He’s seen it firsthand.
“I mean, I’ve had it happen more times than not this year where starting up front didn’t work out, at least not perfectly as you’d plan it. I would welcome it working from the back, for whatever reason. If something mysteriously happens and it’s like, wow, you actually wanted to start in the back? I would be very appreciative to have the other end of this argument.”
That has Will Power concerned despite having the pole.
“Actually it hasn’t historically been a very yellow race,” said Power on Friday. “It’s hard to say. Nothing has really changed. You would think it would be a normal race, but you never know in this game. It can be a lot of yellows, so we’ll just have to see.”
So in a race that could feature an ill timed caution, you know most of the title contenders will be on an opposite strategy as Power. Does it help them?
“Yeah, in this series, a problem like that can win you the race tomorrow because you have more tires,” Power said. “But you cannot — it kind of sucks because Firestone or the series doesn’t give us enough tires. But yeah, that can totally be the winning strategy. What happened? Yeah, I screwed up in qualifying. That’s how you won the race? Yeah, that’s how this thing rolls sometimes.
“It’s a great spot because he didn’t use his tires up, and he’s not that far back. So yeah. Tough. Tough, man. Tough race. It’s far, far, far from won, and I’m really aware of that.”