Josef Newgarden dominated Sunday’s PPG 375 early. After a chaotic start for which saw four lead changes in the opening 6 laps, the Tennessee native would lead every lap from Lap 6 through 108. It was then that he hit pit road for his second pit stop of the day. The lead cycled back to Newgarden on Lap 117.
The thing is, Newgarden knew that Pato O’Ward was his biggest nemesis to take the win in the second NTT INDYCAR SERIES race of the season. So, not only were they focusing on themselves, but they were monitoring O’Ward’s radio too so they knew what adjustments that the Mexican driver would be wanting in his No. 5 Dallara-Chevrolet and how Newgarden’s team could counter it.
However, that maneuver didn’t work.
The changes that were made to Newgarden’s car on his second stop hurt his No. 2 Dallara-Chevrolet. The changes that O’Ward’s team made, helped them.
On Lap 130, O’Ward passed Newgarden for the top spot. In the aftermath, he’d pull away.
“We were getting beat pretty significantly in the middle of the race,” Newgarden admitted. “I thought beginning of the race we had him, like, super covered. The car was good, track gripped up. I asked for some progressions on the setup. They were not right for the way the track was trending.
“I think Pato went the right way. He did the exact opposite of what I was doing. They were telling me what he was asking for. We were bad in the middle. He snuck back up on me. I had a big gap. He snuck up on me, was walking away.
On this stint, O’Ward extended his lead from .0717-seconds to 7.1638-seconds. In fact, in just 15 laps, his lead exceeded 4.5-seconds.
Lap 130: 5-O’Ward leads 2-Newgarden by 0.0717 of a seconds
Lap 135: 5-O’Ward leads 2-Newgarden by 1,0169 seconds.
Lap 140: 5-O’Ward leads 2-Newgarden by 1.7466 seconds.
Lap 145: 5-O’Ward leads 2-Newgarden by 4.5973 seconds.
Lap 150: 5-O’Ward leads 2-Newgarden by 5.7879 seconds. Only five cars are on the lead lap.
Lap 155: 5-O’Ward leads 2-Newgarden by 6.2414 seconds.
Lap 160: 5-O’Ward leads 2-Newgarden by 7.1638 seconds. Only the top two cars are on the lead lap.
This was O’Ward’s race now to lose. While there was at least one more pit stop coming, it would be massively difficult for Newgarden to make up that type of a gap on such a fast race car in front.
Then came the Lap 179 caution that altered the complexity of this race. It all changed when O’Ward’s teammate and pole sitter, Felix Rosenqvist, crashed in Turn 4 on Lap 179.
“He had such a lead at that point, it was going to be difficult. The caution 100% brought us back into it,” Newgarden said of the Lap 179 incident from Rosenqvist. “We got the car back to where it needed to be. When we were in position, we could get the job done.
“But we were not significantly better than him. I mean, he was just as good. He was definitely better in the middle. In the end he was just as good. It could have gone either way, in my opinion, between our cars.
“It was slipping away. It can happen that quickly. It was one stint that was really not good.
“I could see where Pato was strong. In a lot of ways I thought he was just right in step with us, even to start the race. When I would start to pull maybe a second on him, he could pretty much match us straight up. He was very good.
“He tuned in his race car into the correct direction. He just really took advantage of that particular segment of the race. For sure, I was really worried about did I just compromise the finish here. He’s gotten a big gap on us.
“But you got to stay positive. We fortunately had a yellow that bunched us back up and gave us an opportunity.”
With just two cars on the lead lap, they could easily pit and not lose any positions under yellow. That’s exactly what they’d do on Lap 182. The thing is, the other lapped cars still had a chance to pit and by taking the wave around, they’d now be on the lead lap and have fresher tires as well as more gas.
Newgarden’s strategist, Tim Cindric, outsmarted O’Ward’s by pitting with the 5 cars that took the wave around and also came down pit road. Now, Newgarden, Alex Palou, Romain Grosjean, Colton Herta, Scott Dixon and Scott McLaughlin had four fresh tires on Lap 188 and a full tank of fuel. David Malukas elected to get back on the lead lap but not pit.
So, you had O’Ward who pit on Lap 182 in first, Malukas who last pit on Lap 162 also on the lead lap vs. Newgarden, Palou, Grosjean, Herta, Dixon and McLaughlin who pit on Lap 188.
It went exactly like we thought,” said O’Ward. Palou,Newgarden and Herta were now in the mix for the win while O’Ward was fuel saving and hoping for help.
“Just the timing of the last yellow is what really killed us to be honest,” said O’Ward. All the other ones, you can’t judge when they fall or didn’t fall. If they did, it would probably be a very different story.”
O’Ward got lucky. Sting Ray Robb crashed in Turn 2 on Lap 210 and once again changed the course of how this race would get decided.
Now, O’Ward and Newgarden were each on the same strategy with the same amount of fuel left while driving four fresh Firestone tires until the end. It was a heavyweight clash to the finish.
Newgarden and O’Ward had an intense battle in the end which saw Newgarden narrowly clip O’Ward in the running order at the time the final caution flew for Romain Grosjean’s crash with one to go.
“I had the timing right,” said O’Ward. “The lap before we crossed the line, my nose was slightly in front of his. There was no way it was going to finish in single file. Yeah, racing gods had other plans.
“I knew I could have won.”