By: Tanner Watkins
March 10, 2019 | 3:30 P.M.
While the practice sessions and time trials during this weekend’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg were chaotic and unpredictable, the 110-lap race on Sunday was a bit calmer as Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden won the NTT IndyCar Series season opener.
Newgarden, the 2017 series champion, led for much of the race’s second half when Team Penske strategist Tim Cindric pitted the No. 2 car for an additional stint on the Firestone alternate compound on Lap 56. Newgarden was one of three drivers to take a second round of laps on the red-sidewall tires provided by Firestone and he parlayed that move into his first win at St. Petersburg.
“We were literally talking about it right before the race, Tim and
During Newgarden’s post-race interview, the Tennessee native expanded on some banter that was shared over the radio in the race’s closing stages regarding lapped traffic.
“(It was) killing me,” said Newgarden. “It was definitely manufacturers playing good guys with each other, but it was really tough. I just didn’t want to see people in front of me; I wanted to keep running my laps. I knew I had the pace to keep in front of Scott (Dixon) but I was just worried about something going wrong.
“Everyone was kind enough,” Newgarden concluded, with a smile.
Sunday’s race started with two-time Super Bowl-winning NBC personality Tony Dungy giving the command to start engines, and the race start itself was just as clean as the former coach’s command.
All drivers made it safely through the first few corners, and in the opening laps it was Chip Ganassi Racing rookie Felix Rosenqvist putting on a show. He passed Newgarden early in the first green flag run and was working on Will Power for the race lead when disaster struck for Sebastien Bourdais.
The two-time defending race winner watched his Honda engine go up in flames on Lap 14, and a three-peat was not to be had on this day. Fearing a full-course caution period, Roger Penske called Power to pit lane to try and keep track position – a move that would put the No. 12 Chevy behind the 8 ball later on in the day.
When Bourdais engine let go, the veteran found an access road on the runoff area and kept the race from a full-course caution condition. The race remained green until another Honda engine – this time being Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay – let go and brought out the first yellow flag period.
By that point, nearly the entire field had already cycled through their first round of pit stops. It set the stage for a daring pass by Rosenqvist on the restart where the Swedish driver took the race lead from Power. That was on Lap 24, and just a few laps later, another yellow flag flew for the stopped cars of Ed Jones and Matheus Leist.
Jones clipped the inside retaining wall on corner entry to one of the street circuit’s turns, sending his No. 20 Ed Carpenter Racing/Scuderia Corsa Chevrolet straight into the outside concrete barrier. The hit was violent, and reportedly left the Dubai native with a minor hand injury that will require further evaluation before racing at Circuit of the Americas in two weeks.
For Leist, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Approaching the 90-degree right hand turn, the Brazilian driver couldn’t see the stopped machine of Jones until the last moment. Leist clipped the left rear of his No. 4 A.J. Foyt Racing machine on the wounded ECR car and that ended the second-year driver’s day.
As the air and track temperatures continued to rise, Rosenqvist held serve on the next restart and the race began to settle down. Power was comfortable just a second off of Rosenqvist while Newgarden ran third.
The race’s fate began to take shape as we reached the midpoint. While many of the leaders were pitting for another set of Firestone primary compound tires, Newgarden remained on-track and stretched his run as long as possible.
This decision allowed Newgarden to run clean laps without dealing with lapped traffic, and when he re-entered the field after pitting on Lap 58, the No. 2 car was still seconds ahead of Power, Rosenqvist
From that point on, the battle was behind Newgarden. Dixon fought to overtake Power and Rosenqvist faded to fourth by losing time during the ever-so-crucial green flag pit stops. Alexander Rossi bought real estate in the top five for much of the day, but made little noise and was admittedly a notch slower than the four suspects up front.
Even through the final round of pit stops, Newgarden maintained a healthy lead to Dixon. On Lap 80, Newgarden finally let go of his alternate red-sidewall Firestone tires in favor of the primary compound that he would finish the race on. The only remaining bit of excitement for the lead came when Newgarden and company approached lapped traffic over the final 20 laps.
Citing a bit of gamesmanship, Newgarden and his Team Penske crew members alluded to some collusion by the Honda drivers when Marco Andretti fought valiantly to stay on the lead lap ahead of Newgarden. This allowed Dixon to trim what used to be a nine-second gap to just under two seconds with 10 laps to go.
Eventually, Newgarden forced his way by Andretti and felt little pressure from Dixon en route to another Team Penske victory in St. Petersburg. Dixon came home with an exhausting runner-up finish after he reported the No. 9 car’s water bottle failed during the race, and Power rounded out the podium with a duly-tiring effort.
A headline entering Sunday’s race was the expectations placed on rookie drivers, and the young crop showed well. Before exiting the race due to a mechanical failure, Formula One convert Marcus Ericsson had worked his way into the top ten before being relegated to a 20th place finish with 56 laps completed.
The remaining rookie finishers did quite well, though, as Rosenqvist brought his No. 10 NTT Data Honda home fourth, Colton Herta was eighth for Harding-Steinbrenner Racing, Santino Ferrucci placed ninth for Dale Coyne Racing, and Ben Hanley registered a respectable 18th place finish for freshman team DragonSpeed.
When the dust had settled, the race featured four different leaders with eight lead changes over the two-hour affair. Honda was as strong as predicted, with seven of the top ten finishers carrying the Japanese insignia on their car. The only Chevrolet finishers in the top ten were Team Penske drivers: Newgarden as the winner, Power in third and Simon Pagenaud in sixth.
Other notables included Jack Harvey turning in a top-ten effort for Meyer Shank Racing, as well as James Hinchcliffe’s strong rebound from a tough Saturday in qualifying to finish sixth.
The NTT IndyCar Series will take next weekend off before returning to action March 22-24 for the inaugural IndyCar race from Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas. The race will be shown live on NBCSN and via the IndyCar Radio Network.
Until then, stay tuned to Open-Wheels as we continue to wrap-up a hectic opening weekend from St. Petersburg, Florida.
Header image by Joe Skibinski/INDYCAR.