A race that began with several question marks ended with a familiar result. Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden used fresh tires to overhaul rookie Robert Wickens and win the Desert Diamond West Valley Casino Phoenix Grand Prix at ISM Raceway.
Newgarden’s win is the eighth of his career and his first at the 1.022-mile track. The 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series Champion last won at Gateway Motorsports Park in August.
The first race with the UAK18 (2018 Universal Aero kit) saw trouble start early for pole sitter Sebastien Bourdais. On the pace lap, he was slow to fire, but was able to get his car retired and rejoin the grid. The refire did not come without its own perils, though. The Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser Sullivan entry lost telemetry on the car.
Once the green flag flew, the race got off to a clean start, as the first 41 laps were run without caution. Bourdais took advantage, leading the first laps of the race.
The first caution flag of the night would fly on Lap 41, as Dale Coyne Racing’s Pietro FIttipaldi made contact with the Turn 4 wall. It would mark an early end to his debut race, finishing last in the 23-car field. On the ensuing pit stop, the issues continued for his teammate.
The French driver hit his left front tire changer on the ensuing pit stop and Team Penske’s Will Power would take over the lead. Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi also hit a crew member during his pit stop, relegating the two to 13th and 19th. Both drivers were given drive-through penalties for the issues.
Power took full advantage of the issues and held the top spot all the way through the next round of pit stops. During the ensuing pit stops, A.J. Foyt Racing rookie Matheus Leist lost the left-rear wheel and spun out on pit lane. The incident did not produce a yellow, but relegated Leist to 22nd after a drive-through penalty was assessed and he ultimately finished 21st.
Graham Rahal took over the lead for laps until his pit stop on Lap 128. James Hinchcliffe would take over the lead.
Hinchcliffe’s Schmidt Peterson Motorsports teammate Robert Wickens would build upon the strong showing in the St. Petersburg race, snagging the lead from his countryman on Lap 149 as Hinchcliffe struggled with the lapped car of Harding Racing’s Gabby Chaves.
A promising night for Power went south quickly, when on Lap 167 he drifted into the wall and damaged the right-rear on his car. The damaged would prove to be too much for Power, as he was pushed behind the wall and finished 22nd.
The final scheduled round of pit stops began with 73 laps remaining, as Wickens relinquished the lead to Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay. Five laps later, Hunter-Reay pitted and Pagenaud regained the lead after his prior issues.
Rahal would also take another turn at the front of the field three laps later. Rossi, who brushed the wall on Lap 139, would also recover from his early troubles, taking the lead on Lap 188 during the last set of pit stops. Bourdais would cycle through and come all the way back to the lead a lap later.
The St. Petersburg winner stretched his fuel until Lap 206, pitting and giving the lead to Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden. Newgarden’s pass made him the ninth different leader in the race, breaking the previous track record set in 2000.
With 21 laps to go, an impressive run for Ed Jones ended in frustrating fashion. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver crashed in Turn 4, bringing out the second caution of the night. The 2017 Sunoco Rookie of the Year had been running second before the crash.
The yellow presented the opportunity for a last pit stop. Newgarden ducked onto pit lane for fresh Firestone tires. Staying out under the yellow, the SPM duo of Wickens and Hinchcliffe stayed out to retake the lead, with Rossi also staying out.
Wickens held off Newgarden on the ensuing restart for four laps. Ultimately, the defending series champion made the most of his fresh tires, passing the rookie with four to go. Newgarden recorded the 12th and final lead change of pulled away to win by 2.9946 seconds over Wickens.
Rossi would complete an impressive evening by rounding out the podium, with Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon. and Hunter-Reay finishing fourth fifth.
With the win, Newgarden inherits the points lead as he looks to defend his championship from last season.
Image courtesy of INDYCAR Media.