By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
PORTLAND, Oregon — The nature of track room and practice laps didn’t reflect qualifying at Portland International Raceway, and defending Verizon IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden acknowledged it before and after the session.
Newgarden is among the 18 drivers who have never competed in an INDYCAR race at the 1.964-mile circuit, but among the more consistent top drivers on the leader board, ending up in third, sixth and ninth in the three practice sessions.
He backed up his consistency by making it to the Firestone Fast Six and will start alongside pole sitter Will Power Sunday.
“I thought we would be top-five. I felt that we had that speed, and so did Will for sure. I didn’t know if we would’ve had enough for the pole,” Newgarden after qualifying.
“We’ve been flirting with that top spot, but it’s difficult to read the time sheets with how many yellows and checkups we had. So I don’t think anyone was posting the best times in practice. We expected to be up there or close, at least challenge for it in the Fast Six.”
The 27-year-old felt that his car was more race prepared than it was to qualify, with preference of running the black Firestone tires instead of an unsuited setup.
“I think we had a better car in black tires, to be honest. It seemed like the red tires we weren’t tuned well enough for. This whole weekend, we’ve just probably built ourselves into a box of a better race car. I think our race car is going to be really good tomorrow. Just probably not as strong for qualifying on red compound tires.
“That was our big downfall. We just missed a tenth or two in the five, six, seven corners to Will. I think that’s where he had a little bit of speed on us, and that’s where we fell a little bit short. But 1-2 for the team, you can’t be disappointed. I think we have a good starting spot to make something happen.”
Newgarden said it has been fun figuring out Portland, but it has its nail biting moments as several drivers have had different adventures at Turns 1-2 and 10-12, resulting in several spins and crashes throughout the weekend.
“It’s been a great circuit to figure out, and you have to be quick to sort things out,” said Newgarden.
“I’ve been enjoying it’s fast and challenging. I’ve seen a lot of people make mistakes. I think that shows the difficulty of it.”
Newgarden elaborated about two parts of the circuit biting several competitors, even the few that had driven it previously, such as two-time Portland winner Sebastien Bourdais, who was quickest in the first and final session, where in the latter, he crashed in Turn 11.
On Friday’s second practice session, his Team Penske teammate Simon Pagenaud, along with Takuma Sato sustained front wing damage, but both were able to continue their session.
“It’s everywhere, but (Turn) 1 and T2, a lot of people have been locking up and going through the runoff,” said Newgarden.
“A lot of spins because of the bumps through the concrete section of T2.”
Notable drivers who have had issues in Turns 1-2 Saturday included Alexander Rossi, who went through the runoff, James Hinchcliffe, who hit the tire barriers, and a spin by Max Chilton.
“Probably Turns 10-12 is the most difficult. Very high commitment and high speed,” said Newgarden.
“Lot of commitment from the race cars, so that’s probably the worst spot and why we’ve seen most of the wrecks there.”
As a result of the difficulty nature of the circuit, Newgarden expected the lap times to be different and see different drivers perform well than they had in practice. Due in most part, the tight lanes, which has created lack of track room and made clear runs difficult all weekend.
“You’ll see the lap times jumble up. It’s been like that all weekend where I think people have been slow or been fast. It’s not always been representative just because there’s been so much checking up, and trying to get clear air,” said Newgarden.
“It’s a very small racetrack. People trying to get out of people’s way has been difficult. You can’t really blame anybody, it’s just a tight confines, so it’s hard to get out of the way. I think you’ll see the leader board jumble up a little bit.”
Unlike most road courses on the INDYCAR calendar, Portland has a unique distinction as its a flat road course compared to high elevations such as Mid-Ohio and Barber Motorsports Park.
When asking that question, Newgarden responded that car setups is the biggest change and car characteristics isn’t necessary.
“There’s setup differences for sure. We got to a place like Mid-Ohio or Barber Motorsports Park, the elevation plays into how you build a setup to the car,” said Newgarden.
“There’s more sensitivity and ride height change, and variation over crests or hills. That’s the big thing and those sort of characteristics that you need to setup and help support, you don’t need them on a flat track as much. That’s the big difference, but other than that, road course setups are similar. You don’t have the elevations, so we don’t have to do much to accommodate that.”
Being the penultimate round of the season, all the talk around the series has been the championship battle between Rossi, and points leader Scott Dixon, but there are three others in the hunt, including Newgarden, who sits fourth in the standings, but 78 points behind Dixon.
For him to stay alive in the championship, he needs to stay inside 105 points after the 105-lap contest Sunday.
Newgarden said his goal is to be on top of the leader board in both qualifying and on Sunday, but there’s no signs of changing their game plan.
“For us it’s business as usual. We try to qualify on the pole and win the race every weekend. That’s really all we can control and what we’re going to do. That’s kind of our mindset right now, business as usual,” said Newgarden.
Newgarden isn’t the only driver from Team Penske in the title chase, his teammate Will Power sits third, 10 points ahead of him, and 68 back from Dixon. While both are looking to dethrone the Dixon-Rossi domination, like last season, nothing has changed in terms of teamwork.
“We don’t change anything, we work together all the way to the end like last year,” said Newgarden.
“All of us at Team Penske are just trying to win races and poles. That’s within our control and that’s all we can do. We work together really well and it’s pretty much same deal as last year.”